Every minute of every day we are making decisions that influence our mood and behavior.
It may be hard to believe but simply changing our behavior could give us control over about 40-50% of our happiness! Evidence shows that happy people are more likely to have stronger immune systems, live longer, have higher incomes, have more social connections and be more creative!
You don’t have to be an extrovert and you don’t have to be a natural optimist: Most of it just comes down to working on being happy. Dr. Sonya Lyubomirski, a professor of psychology at the University of California states in her new book, “The How of Happiness… a scientific approach to getting the life you want,” that 50% of our happiness is explained by genetics and about another 10% by our life experiences. This leaves at least 40% that we can control through behavioral change. She has been studying happiness and working in the field of positive psychology for over 20 years and has discovered that there are certain traits that happy people tend to possess. For example, they tend to look on the bright side of life rather than focusing on the negatives. They show gratitude, are more generous and helpful, and tend to share their time with those in need. Happy people also generally work on staying physically fit and will often be involved in exercise programs or regular sports. The fast-paced society in which we live means that stress has become a major player in the development of sickness and disease. Happy people, it seems, have learned techniques that allow them to stay strong when confronted with the pressures of day to day living.
Remember, at least 40% of our mood and happiness is within our control. This means that happy people are not simply born optimistic, but that they have been taught skills and strategies for happiness within their family and social circles and/or have adapted and developed such skills during their life.
Here are some top tips for happiness:
1) Exercise – This really cannot be stressed enough. We know from hundreds of studies that exercise boosts the mood, primarily through its effects on the neurotransmitter serotonin. This is the same chemical that the type of antidepressants known as SSRIs work on. People that are suffering from clinical depression are often found to have depleted or low levels of serotonin in their brain. Besides stimulating this natural brain chemical, physical activity also helps release muscle tension and allows the brain to become distracted and de-stress on a number of levels. Boosted by exercise, neurotransmitters such as serotonin act as natural feel good chemicals, leaving you feeling more in control of your body, your life and your mood.
2) Being grateful – Boosting happiness through gratitude may come in many guises, whether it’s through spending time reflecting and writing down things for which you are grateful, thinking about the blessings in your life rather than focusing on what is wrong, or saying something thankful to a coworker, a family member or even to a stranger. We can be grateful for many things, including little things like the baby sleeping through the night, or more profound things such as finding out that you are cancer-free. Giving a smile and telling someone why you appreciate them or what they have done is a win-win. You will be viewed in a more positive light and they will then behave more positively towards you. If you take a step back from yourself you can start to appreciate that being grateful makes you feel happier.
3) Forgiving wrongs – This can be one of the hardest things to do for yourself but being unable to forgive is the cause of a great deal of unhappiness, bitterness and pent up anger and hurt. In many cases, holding onto these feelings can make people physically ill. By connecting with others and having empathy for those with greater misfortunes you can, however, promote self-happiness. It is important to realize forgiveness is actually a process that you do for yourself – it is not for the sole benefit of the person who has offended or wronged you. There are a number of strategies that can help you work towards becoming more forgiving and happier. Try writing a letter as a catharsis, a purge of pent up emotions, but don’t mail the letter for it is the act of writing that actually creates a positive change in your mindset. It can also help to talk to a professional in behavioral psychology to get assistance to help you move through the process of forgiveness and reach a happier place.
4) Pretending you’re happy – The well-known singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen once said “Act the way you would like to be and soon you will be the way you act.” Anyone who has tried this knows that it can truly work! If we make an effort to smile, be friendly, and act enthusiastically even when we don’t feel happy it can actually create a change both internally, through brain chemistry, and in our environment so that we end up feeling happier. Try it! See how many people smile back at you and how happy that can make you feel in turn.
5) Avoid negatives – This doesn’t just mean avoiding bad news but negative people too. One major cause of unhappiness is simply watching the late night news, where there are countless tales of tragedies and disasters and only rarely happy stories. This not only sets you up for a bad night’s sleep but promotes more negative and depressing thoughts.
There are also, unfortunately, people that tend to view life from a generally negative perspective. Ideally, of course, you could entirely eliminate social interaction with such negative people but this is not practical. You will always be exposed to negative people, be it in your work or family life so it is important to try to limit the amount of time that you spend with these types of people and, thereby, limit the effect that their negative behavior and energy can have on your own happiness. The sad irony is that negative people will often feel better and happier after they have discussed their negativism with those around them, so keep looking on the bright side and don’t let them drag you down.