There’s something about being human that makes us less happy than we ought to be. I grew up on A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and knew a lot of the poems by heart when I was little. One little poem has bounced around in my head all these years:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Research has shown that the benefits of an optimistic outlook include flexible thinking, creativity, longevity, and better health. What better way to solve the problems of the world, then, than to cultivate happiness in ourselves?
According to Dr. Lamees Khorshid, about 40% of our happiness comes from our genetic preset, our predisposition towards being sunny or gloomy. That means over half can be influenced by “happiness habits.”
Happiness and Mindfulness
- Cultivate positive emotions and work on countering the natural negativity bias (a survival trait when it was important to remember the lion attack). Rewire your brain through practice:
- Choose to see problems as challenges and opportunities. This will increase your sense of control.
- Reverse the tendency to blame others when they make mistakes – we tend to blame the environment when we mess up, but think other people cut us off in traffic on purpose. Let it go.
- Change the channel – choose to forget negative things after they happen.
- Think happy thoughts.
- Practice gratitude.
- Make a list of what you’re grateful for. Keep going past the obvious first few things.
- Pick one of the people you’re grateful for and write a paragraph about why. Read it to them. It will be good for both of you.
- Engage in life. Plan your time so you include the things that give you pleasure.
- Figure out the things that take you to a flow state where you lose track of time, and plan your day to include those things.
- Identify your time thieves and the things that replenish you. Schedule time for the things that nourish you. Things that give you short-term happiness, like watching tv, can detract from your long-term happiness.
- Get adequate sleep. Without it, it’s harder to regulate your emotions. You function better and your memory’s better when you have good sleep. A lot of people have trouble sleeping. If you do:
- Create a sleep climate about an hour before. Dim the lights, do relaxing things. Don’t eat for 2-3 hours before bed, don’t exercise for 4-5 hours before, and avoid stimulants after 2 p.m.
- Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends.
- Don’t have a tv, phone, etc. in the bedroom. Keep the lights off.
- If you’ve been trying to get to sleep (or get back to sleep) for 30 minutes, get up and go do something boring. If you still can’t sleep, do it again. Don’t just lie there and worry about how you ought to be sleeping.
- Naps reverse your sleep drive. If you have insomnia, skip the naps.
- Movement and music. If you can only do one thing to improve your mental well-being, make it exercise. A brisk 10-minute walk is better for mild to moderate anxiety and depression than medication. If you have to choose between 30 minutes of sleep and 30 minutes of exercise, you’ll get more benefits from exercise.
- Don’t schedule exercise for your most tired time of day.
- Morning workouts give you a stress buffer that lasts through the day, and your schedule’s less likely to be interrupted by things that come up during the day – but if you aren’t a morning person, you won’t stick with it.
- Make it a routine, not dependent on whether you feel like it. You still get the benefits of doing it even if you don’t want to.
- Nutrition. A low glycemic diet is best for your mood; it keeps your blood sugar on an even keel. Frequent small meals are better than a couple of large ones. Avoid sugar, which lights up a part of your brain that makes you want more and more – this is even true of sugar you don’t taste that’s been added to non-sweet foods.
- Manage stress. Identify your stress triggers so you can avoid them or prepare for them. Having a baseline level of energy and physical health (sleep, exercise, nutrition) will help. Use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and rely on your social supports and relationships. If your stress comes from all the unfinished tasks on your to-do list, start with the one thing on the list that will make the greatest difference today.
- Practice mindfulness. We recycle 95% of the same thoughts every day. Mindfulness keeps us in the here and now. Use meditation, which will improve your ability to process emotions and be less reactive.
- Non-judging awareness: notice your wandering thought, name it, and then come back to the here and now.
- Beginner’s mind: don’t expect a life-changing epiphany every time you sit.
- Take care of relationships. Other people can be a major source of both happiness and stress.
- The 4 horsemen of broken relationships are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This applies to friends and coworkers just as much as it does to couples and families.
- Check out the Seattle Love Lab for tons of information on this topic.
- If you have gridlock problems that you can never fix – like your and your uncle’s opposite views on politics – it’s actually healthier not to talk about them.
- Practice the art of the start: the way you introduce a topic predicts how the discussion will end.
- Support the other person’s goals, hopes, and dreams. Ask their opinion. Look for moments of connection.
- Learn the other person’s “love language” – what makes them feel loved. It could be gifts, acts of service (doing things for them), physical touch, words of affirmation, or quality time spent together. This works both ways: you can give the other person what they need, and you can also recognize the ways they’re trying to show you their feelings.
- Find your purpose. Not having a purpose or mission is as bad for your health as smoking. When you’re doing things that align with your values, you’re happier. Figure out your own top values, and set goals that align with them. Dr. John Izzo studied end-of-life reflections and identified being true to yourself and following your heart and dreams as two important factors in a well-lived life.
- Simplify. Forgive and let go, don’t make social comparisons, and spend on experiences instead of things.
- Adopt a growth mindset. I wrote a bit about this a few weeks ago when I talked about Mike Robbins’ class. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
- Use humor and laughter! Learn to appreciate the ironies in life. Bring funny stuff into your life – photos, videos, comics, comedy shows, that coffee mug showing nervous little dogs preparing for their day by making espresso. Laughter is contagious. It induces a relaxation response and it benefits the immune system.
In Dr. Lamees Khorshid‘s book, I Want to Be Happy, which provides a 21-day plan for forming happy habits. Her class at my office inspired this post.
In Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s books, like Wherever You Go, There You Are, to learn more about mindfulness and meditation, and to find video guides.
In Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project (and on her website & podcasts).
On Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree (he writes about this topic often!):
- This is How to Find Happiness: 6 Proven Secrets from Research
- New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy
- Happy Thoughts: Here Are The Things Proven To Make You Happier
- The 8 Things the Happiest People Do Every Day
- How to Find Happiness: 3 Secrets From Research
- How to Be Happy: 5 Secrets Backed By Research
- The One Word Key to Happiness
- 4 Rituals to Keep You Happy All the Time
- The 5 Daily Rituals That Will Keep You Happy