Do you feel happy?
If your answer to that question is “yes but…,” I would like to invite you to consider some unconventional pathways to happiness. After all, among all the things we search for in this life, you could say that happiness is the one pursuit that is universal! In addition, scientific research clearly substantiates that happiness is linked to unimpeded well-being, peak performance, and professional success.
If you would like to experience more happiness, here are five practices based on secrets from the neuroscience of happy people that you can use:
- Question and redefine the important elements of your life.
Our beliefs, definitions, and values come from our familial, societal, and cultural history. These become our models of the world, and they affect our patterns of behavior and habits. For example, maybe we were raised with the belief that “to be successful in the corporate world you have to pay your dues and sacrifice your personal life.” That belief can lead to us working late evenings and weekends, which will eventually lead to complete imbalance between work and life. We can free ourselves from our history and create the future we want by carefully redefining the important terms in our life. For example, we could redefine success as “having a healthy work/life balance.” And what about our definition of happiness? Have you considered that the way we define happiness may determine whether or not we will be able to attain it? If we define happiness in an all or nothing way, for example, “I will be happy when I am a millionaire,” that sets us up for being unhappy until or if we reach that goal.
The practice: To identify definitions that inadvertently take you out of balance, a good practice is to dedicate time to observe and change beliefs that we have adopted from our environment that affect us in a negative way. Take a moment to create a list of your top three causes of stress. Then, in a second column, list the beliefs and values that are related to those elements being stressors. What terms do you need to redefine so that you can get closer to wholeness and balance? When I was a starving student in a Northern England university, I was one of the people who thought happiness was “having a million dollars.” Today I define happiness as “the ratio between expectation and outcome.” That way, I have an ongoing list of variables I can adjust to improve my sense of happiness, which lowers my level of stress.
- Quiet your mind.
Does mindfulness seem like a mystical practice that you are not sure you are capable of performing? What if we look at mindfulness in a way that takes the mysticism and mystery out of it? Mindfulness is simply the practice of directing our attention to the present moment. Although simple, this practice is the most robust and scientific evidence-based practice for health, productivity, and happiness. Several decades of studies show tremendous structural and functional benefits in the brains of fellow humans who have a regular mindfulness practice.
The practice: Find a small slot every day (5-10 minutes) to keep your attention only on your breath. When you notice your attention wandering off (to a negative interaction with your spouse, what you will cook for dinner, or anything else), simply notice it and bring your attention back to your breath. Little by little, you will be happy to realize that after all these years, much of your suffering was a byproduct of your thoughts and emotions. You can find my favorite guided meditation here to help you get started: https://myndzen.com/the-solution/quiet-your-mind/
- Nurture your body.
We have decades of data reflecting the incredible benefits of healthy foods and exercise on our cardiovascular health. But did you know that exercise has been proven to have another significant effect? It can make you happier! Exercise has been studied as a treatment for depression for the last thirty years, ever since Professor James Blumenthal (Dept. of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University) noticed the inadvertent benefit of exercise on reducing symptoms of depression. A more recent review (2013) by the non-profit Colchrane, a leader in gathering and sharing evidence-based medicine resources, concluded that exercise is as effective a treatment for depression as pharmaceutical treatments.
The practice: Take a few moments to plan out your week so you can slowly, but surely, add regular intervals of exercise into your busy schedule. Can you listen to a conference call, your favorite Podcast, or a TED talk while you are taking a walk instead of sitting at your desk? Although at first it may seem like a challenge to fit one more thing into your busy life, I can promise you that if you stick to it for at least three weeks, you can create a new habit for life. The positive impact on your mood of “feel good” chemicals (like glutamate and GABA) released in your brain through exercise will make you so happy you did!
- Turn toward what matters.
Whether we turn to neuroscience, psychology, or human experience, the evidence is clear that strong social connections are one of the most important predictors for longevity, health, and happiness! I hear sometimes that we “don’t have time for relationships” in our busy world. As it turns out, having strong relationships that act as a safety net makes us so much happier. Social connections not only flood our system with oxytocin, which reduces fear in our brain, but also create the solid core from which we can conquer the ups and downs of life with increased well-being.
The practice: Add taking the time EVERY DAY to connect with the important people in your life to your to-do list. Ask yourself what you appreciate about them and take the time to let them know. Maybe you can even put a love note in their briefcase.
- Cultivate the positive perspective.
Depression is the most common mental disorder in the world affecting more than 300 million people. Prominent scientists around the world have invested a significant amount of time and effort in understanding it. Today, with the insights we have gathered from the way depression affects the brain, we know exactly which parts of our brain we need to affect to build a happy brain that is resilient against depression and anxiety and we know how to do it. For example, we know positive thoughts can build the part of our brains that reduce depression and increase happiness. Best yet, we don’t have to be neuroscientists to benefit from this knowledge.
The practice: Whenever something happens to you that elicits negative emotions, acknowledge the validity of those feelings and redirect your attention to uncovering five positive elements of that experience. For example, if you were just laid off, recognize the legitimate concern about this event. Then focus your attention on how this unforeseen circumstance could perhaps provide you with a much-needed reset space to reconsider your next career move, or with time with your family, and so on and so forth.
FINAL THOUGHTS Beyond the euphoric emotions that we all associate with being happy, there are also many evidence-based benefits to our well-being when we are feeling happy. Being happier not only makes us more open, approachable, hopeful, and optimistic, but also increases our immune function and our ability to calm down in the midst of chaos.There has never been a better time to employ self-compassion and accountability toward nurturing the real sources of happiness in our life.
After all, scientific research has proven that the conventional things we historically go after, fail to make us happier. For example, a relatively recent Princeton University study by Nobel-prize winning economist, Angus Deaton, and psychologist, Daniel Kahneman showed that once one’s income level reaches $75,000 per year, no matter how much more we make, it makes no difference to our degree of happiness!
It appears that beyond the short bursts of primal happiness from having nice material possessions, enjoying a lovely meal, or making love, there is one type of happiness that is internal—one that we carry with us always regardless of the size of our bank account or the type of car we drive.
That kind of happiness hinges upon our ability to maintain a calm nervous system, even when experiences we are having are not pleasant.
Almost six decades of scientific data are illuminating significant clues on how to accomplish having a calm nervous system. We can free ourselves from past limiting beliefs that hold us hostage, redefine the important elements of our life, quiet our minds and nurture our bodies, connect with our loved ones, and focus on the positive, thereby harnessing our incredible nervous system for our health and well-being.
When we establish this sense of internal safety, we will be able to perceive the world and our life as a positive experience.
And that kind of happiness, my friend, is 100% within your control!