03 Aug Happiness is hot right now.
Happiness is hot right now. You can’t visit major blogs like The Huffington Post and MindBodyGreen without running into tips and tricks for harnessing well-being. A lot of those articles are intuitively true, but I always look at an article like that and think, ground this in some data! I can’t take it as seriously.
The first mistake that people make is equating happiness, the overarching quality of life, with the temporary enjoyment we feel in response to something pleasurable. Well, if happiness is equivalent to momentary enjoyment, then the logical conclusion is that happiness will emerge from stringing together a perpetual sequence of enjoyable moments. As one of my long-ago college classmates counseled a friend, “All that matters in life is sex and money.” Wrong. Happiness will not arise from striving to accumulate increasingly pleasurable and luxurious things, or striving to constantly feel and convey bubbly cheer and enthusiasm (to “be positive”).
When it comes to feelings and happiness, the trick, it seems, is: 1) to readily experience pleasure at the right times—e.g., to laugh when the joke is funny, savor the delicious food, bask in the warmth of affection, and capitalize on those feelings; 2) to acknowledge and express feelings that arise under more difficult circumstances, like anger, sadness, and fear, as they signal important information about what to do next; and then 3) to practice resiliance so we can recover from these states gracefully and learn from them.
When it comes to happiness we can be our generators of serotonin just by thinking, seeing, appreciating and embracing positive experiences that literally invade our lives like raindrops of a spring shower. The catch is we have to pay attention; we have to notice the rain, the temperature, how it makes us feel, and the smells that accompany the rain, the flurry of the people as they hide for shelter or run out into the street to kick in the puddles; embracing the full experience moment by moment. From a happiness standpoint, mindfulness can be considered both a launching pad and a catalyst. As a launching pad, mindfulness offers people a technique for noticing their existing habits of thinking and feeling, and exploring whether any of their beliefs, biases, or habits might be getting in the way of happiness.
Cultivating happiness takes work
Like learning to play a music instrument, boosting our overall happiness level is not something we can do in one sitting.
Research has found that gratitude can significantly increase your happiness, and protect you from stress, negativity, anxiety, and depression.
Developing a regular gratitude practice is one of the easiest ways to counter the brain’s negativity bias – the tendency to cling to the negative things in our environment.
Many people tell themselves, “If I work hard, I’ll be successful. If I’m successful, I’ll be happy.” But recent discoveries in psychology and neuroscience show that this formula is backward: Happiness fuels success, not the other way around. In fact, science has shown that, “The brain at positive is 31% more productive than at negative, neutral or stressed.” ~Shawn Achor, Harvard
What’s more, researchers have found that the type of work you do is key: engaging in meaningful activity is a big indicator of happiness. As Harvard happiness expert Tal Ben Shahar says, “Happiness lies at the intersection of pleasure and meaning.” In addition to seeking work imbued with a sense of purpose, scientists have discovered that people thrive in environments where their strengths are emphasized. If we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills, we experience a joyful state or what famous psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” The experience of flow in both professional and leisure activities leads to increased positive effect, performance, and commitment to long-term meaningful goals.
Mindfulness does not lead to happiness. It sometimes leads to greater experience of the very real pains we all have: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. What mindfulness does lead to, though, is bliss. But in order to feel it you have to know the difference between happiness and bliss.
Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to be in bliss, but we avoid those with the most potential because we think that the difficult experiences need to be removed first. We are closer to experiencing bliss during the difficult times because they challenge us to break from our attachment to happiness.
Mindfulness is not some exotic ritual; in essence, it helps us train our minds to focus on what matters in the moment and to resist distractions. There may be no mental skill more essential in this era of constant distraction.
The instructions are easy to follow; Jon Kabat-Zinn has taught the method to people around the world. You can even practice mindfulness while on a long drive or during your morning commute. What better way to start the day?