For a long time, the field of psychology has focused mainly on providing relief from things that affect us negatively, addressing diagnoses like trauma, depression, and addiction. But a newer branch of psychology, called positive psychology, is interested in what makes us thrive, feel connected, fulfilled, and “in the zone.” In other words, what makes us happy? This is the science of happiness.
What is Happiness?
We might imagine consistent happiness as feeling really good, all the time. But the reality is that being in a prolonged state of extreme excitement and enthusiasm is actually stressful. Your body doesn’t really know the difference between narrowly escaping a car accident and winning the lottery. Either way, your nervous system is flooded with stress hormones, your heart beats faster, and your blood pressure goes up. Your body puts off important basic functions, such as healing and digestion, in favor of functions that would help you escape danger.
Just as people who experience chronic negative stress suffer from exhaustion, physical pain, digestive issues, brain fog, and other problems because their body never gets a chance to heal, walking around in a constant state of elation would also tax our system. Our brains and bodies have a built-in system to protect from this, called “hedonic adaptation.” It means that after a while, our brain tries to return to a relatively stable level of balance and happiness. The intensity, whether positive or negative, wears off, and our body shifts back to neutral to protect us from the effects of stress. However, prolonged periods of intensity or stress can have the tendency to create chronic issues to our mental and physical well-being.
So, while you wouldn’t want to spend your entire life in a state of excitement, you can transform those acute feelings of enthusiasm into calmer, more sustainable emotions like happiness, joy, peace and contentment. Research tells us that happiness is a combination of how satisfied you are with your life and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis.
How Does Happiness Benefit Us?
Happier people are not only happier, they are healthier! Happiness is correlated with living longer, eating better, stronger immunity, improved quality of sleep, faster healing, and lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Happier people are also good for their communities. They are creative problem solvers, and are more productive at their jobs. They tend to have deeper, more meaningful relationships. Happy people volunteer more, and are more likely to donate money or services. Our happiness benefits not only ourselves, but everyone around us.
Can We Control Our Happiness Level?
It appears that approximately 50% of our happiness level is genetically predetermined. The circumstances of our lives account for only another 10%. So the good news is, the remaining 40% can be controlled, through our thoughts and actions.
You may have heard the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” As Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains, “Repeated patterns of mental activity require repeated patterns of brain activity. Repeated patterns of brain activity change neural structure and function.” In this way, our thoughts create physical changes in our brain, which in turn creates changes in our thoughts. This is called self-directed neuroplasticity.
The key to using our mind to change our brain lies in mindfulness. You may have noticed that your brain tends to hang onto negative experiences, and give them more weight than positive ones. Our ancestors needed negative experiences to make a strong impression on the brain in order to survive. If you forgot that a saber-tooth tiger was dangerous, you weren’t going to last too long! But in our modern society, mindfulness is required to override the negativity bias of the brain, and invite more positivity into our thoughts.
How Do We Get Happier?
Take a few minutes each morning to write down a few things you are grateful for. Reach out to the people in your life and let them know you appreciate them. Gratitude practices are also shown to improve sleep quality. Who wouldn’t be happier with better sleep?
Savor Your Experiences
Remember that your brain is biased towards remembering negative experiences over positive ones. So when you are having a positive experience, savor the moments to lock them into your brain. Take time to pause, noticing what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Allow yourself to really be present and enjoy the moment. Amplify the experience by noticing where you feel it in your body. This resonating in the body not only allows the savoring of experiences, but also triggers the physiological healing response.
Find Deeper Meaning
Having a purpose or finding meaning in what we do is a strong source of happiness. You may find meaning through being a parent, or having a career or hobby that fulfills you. Giving back to your local, national or global community through volunteer or humanitarian work can bring deep meaning into your life. Or you may find it through spirituality or religion, or through accomplishing goals that are important to you. Relationships also make life more meaningful. Happy people tend to have deep connections with others, and spend substantial time with friends and family (virtually or in person).
Positive psychology doesn’t mean that we just “think positive,” and ignore the difficult and challenging situations in our lives and in the world. Having experienced adversity, and gained some distance and perspective, we can learn to better handle stress, increase our resilience, and have a more positive outlook on the future. In fact, people who have experienced adversity and allowed it to empower them are actually happier than those who have not.
Techniques for becoming happier are consistent, sustainable habits, not one-time events. Happiness is a skill, and we have the power to improve it in order to live fuller, more satisfying lives.
Photo by Jimmy Tompkins