Lets imagine I gave all of you five million dollars. Thinking about having five million dollars is a pretty exciting thought. I know when I think about it I start spending the money in my head (in fact I can spend quite a lot of time thinking about what I’d do with five million dollars). Just the thought of it makes me happy and happiness is something we all search for. Yet it often seems to be the most elusive of emotions. How do we become happy and how do we sustain happiness?
If you had to think about the best and the worst things that could happen to you, you might think receiving five millions dollars would be up with one of the best and becoming a paraplegic one of the worst but in fact studies have shown that after the short term experience of gaining or losing happiness within a year people return to their base level of happiness. It doesn’t take long for our brains to adjust to a new level of circumstances because the more we’re exposed to something the more the impact diminishes. The circumstances become the new norm. That is how people can cope with what seem from the outside to be unbearable conditions. As Stephen Hawkings said “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was twenty one. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
We are all born with a base level of happiness. It is genetically determined, sort of act of genetic fate. This discovery was made by studies done on twins. Identical twins have the same levels of happiness despite educational, socio economic circumstances, martial status or religious beliefs where as the non identical twins don’t. Instinctively I think we understand this base level. We all know of people who are eternally optimistic and those who are endlessly pessimistic.
Does this mean that our happiness is predetermined ? That there’s nothing we can do to change our base level ? Yes and no. We can’t change our base level but apparently it is determines only 50% of our happiness. Life circumstances account for another 10% which leaves 40% that we can do something about and the list of what we can do to improve our happiness is actually pretty long.
Firstly we can cultivate gratitude, in other words count your blessings. This can be done in many ways, from writing all the good things that have happened during the day in a journal, thanking people who have helped you or to just taking some time in a day to notice the positive things in your life. It makes a real difference to how you feel about things when you look at the positive aspects of a situation compared to only seeing the negative. Gratitude studies say that you can raise your happiness by 25% by practising thankfulness. It can also help you to change into more of an optimist. If you make a conscious effort to find the good things in your life and to remind yourself of your successes then you are more likely to feel positive about the future.
You can boost your happiness by practising acts of kindness. An experiment was done where one set of people were given $20 to spend on themselves and another set of people were told to spend the money on someone else. The people who spent on others reported gaining more happiness. The happiness was greater the more the money actually helped the person it was given to. For example if you gave money to a homeless person rather than buying a gift for a friend who doesn’t really need it. Acts of kindness have other added benefits. They help you feel connected to people and you may get a positive response in return.
Working towards a goal increases happiness. It’s the period of working towards something rather than achieving it that creates the most happiness. One because it can put you in a state of flow. Flow is when you get so engaged in a task that you don’t realise time is passing. The activity needs to be challenging but not too challenging, just enough to feel you are pushing yourself to a capacity you can cope with. Being in this state can be exhilarating and at the least intensely satisfying. The second reason working towards a goal can create happiness is because as humans we like to have a feeling of striving, improving ourselves. It gives us a sense of meaning and purpose.
Surrounding ourselves with people to love brings us happiness. Humans are so successful because of their ability to cooperate and connection with each other. Social ties provide us with support and make us feel needed. In fact it’s well known that not having close relationships can be as dangerous to your health as smoking or obesity. The happiest people have more and a better quality of relationships.
One part to having better relationships is to forgive wrongs. Forgiveness is the natural antidote to suffering. If we hold on to resentments and wish for revenge we cannot be happy. Happy people don’t hold onto grudges, they let them go. I know it’s often hard to forgive people but if you think about letting go of the resentment for you own sake then I think it can become a little easier. Plus it is important not only to forgive other people but also ourselves. The practise of kindness is often most needed with ourselves.
Then of course there are the things we know we should do, even if we don’t always do them. Look after ourselves, eat well, exercise. Exercise can have same effect on the mind as an anti depressant. We can use stress reducing techniques such as meditation and we can make a conscious effort to smile more. Just smiling can improve happiness. In the past there was a therapy used for depression where doctors would get the patient to hold a pencil sideways between their teeth. Doing this makes the corners of the mouth turn up, tricking the brain into thinking it’s smiling and thereby getting it to release serotonin which is known as our happy hormone.
That leaves us with what I think is one of the most important steps to happiness. Make a conscious choice to be happy. We are nothing if not conscious beings and we have the choice to decide how we want our life to be. As Abraham Lincoln said “ Folks are usually as happy as they make their minds up to be"