Defining Happiness

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How do you define your happiness? It’s an important definition to think about if you consider that it is one of the most highly rated ‘wants’ in life. You might be thinking that you don’t need to define it. You know when you’re feeling happy, and you know the things that make you happy. Done. But happiness is not just that feeling of joy that you get when you eat a delicious meal with friends, finally get the job you wanted or marry the love of your life. Those are wonderful moments that should be appreciated and celebrated, however, they do not equate to a lasting overall happiness in your daily life. Some days the dream job is stressful and frustrating. The love of your life is human and therefore imperfect. And that delicious meal? It’s turned into many more delicious meals and therefore a battle with the scale. 

So then, what does it take to experience happiness?

It is helpful to think about the things in your life that reduce your happiness in order to zoom in on what happiness is for you. When do you feel down or anxious? Many of our negative emotions stem from wrestling with the unknown, lacking passion in our lives and limiting the effort we put into our relationships.  

Happiness is Acceptance

If you were sure that an interview or a date was going to go brilliantly, would you still be anxious? Probably not. Instead you would live in a blissful state knowing that everything was going to work out in the end! But what if you were able to do that from the get go? Instead of anxiously awaiting the outcome, what if you were able to choose acceptance? Start by accepting that those future events might not go 100% the way you would have liked, and then accepting any results that may come. Happiness is in knowing that you can accept the variation of results and that you will be more than fine with it once it happens. 

Acceptance is one of the most simple ways to be happy, and yet one of the hardest to practice. Uncertainty is a natural part of life, and the better we are able to accept it, the happier we will be. Academy Award winner, Shirley MacLain, says it best, "To be happy, you have to be willing to be compliant with not knowing." If we can accept the fact that we must practice patience, that there are only so many things in this life we have control over, and that sometimes we may never find the answers we are looking for, then we will find our happiness grows exponentially. 

Happiness is Pursuing Passions

Another trigger for unhappiness is a lack of passion in your life. Of course, having a job that fulfills your passion is ideal. But if you have yet to find your path to your optimal career, you can fulfill your passions with hobbies, personal projects, or learning new skills. Research shows that if you are not actively engaged with a passion you choose for yourself, you might end up living an unfulfilling life. Do you play the guitar? Do you run marathons? Do you parent with passion? What do you do that ignites a fire in your soul? Without a passion in your life, you will feel stagnation. The ancient Greeks defined happiness as “the joy that we feel when we’re striving after our potential." We were not built to lead empty and purposeless lives. Each and every one of us is capable of finding and pursuing a passion. You do not need to be the best at this passion, and it doesn’t need to be something you do every single day. You can even change your passion every other month if you want to! As long as you are working on honing a craft, practicing a skill or exploring new hobbies, then you are taking the time to better yourself and deepen the meaning in your life. 

Happiness is Seeking Connections

Another fundamental element that gives us purpose and therefore happiness is human connection. We are hard-wired to seek out connection with others. The happiness that comes from sharing moments with other people is immeasurable. As humans we need to maintain loving and supportive relationships in order to feel fulfilled. Eleanor Roosevelt said: "Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others." When we give to others, whether it is our love, our help, or simply an honest connection, we create an ongoing pattern of unity. A pattern that will continue to push us forward on our happiness journey. 

So how can we define happiness?
Happiness is harnessing the power of acceptance, passion, and connection.   

This is one definition of happiness, what is yours? 

Your Brain’s In Love This Valentine’s Day

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When the calendar turns to the month of February we generally think two things. One, Valentine’s Day, and two, is this a leap year?! Although both may cross your mind, your brain is probably already filling up with images of hearts, chocolates, and maybe even fun gifts from your loved ones. That’s because the holiday of love is overpowering other calendar events, just as the emotion itself overpowers other emotions.

Love is often an emotion we describe as indescribable, probably because when we’re in it we’re too high to describe it! Well, not exactly, but when we are in love our brain releases similar euphoria-inducing chemicals that it does when smoking things like cocaine! A study by professor Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University called “The Neuroimaging of Love” showed chemicals such as vasopressin, adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine being released in 12 areas of the brain that work simultaneously when we are falling in love.

These are strong and addictive human-made chemicals. Oxytocin for example, commonly referred to as the love hormone, is often released during orgasm and strengthens intimacy, trust, and healthy relationships. Dopamine then adds to the effect by stimulating our pleasure center and activating our reward circuit, making us want love again and again.

And, in fact, research has shown that couples who are falling in love show very high levels of both oxytocin and dopamine. So, I guess Robert Palmer was scientifically correct when he sang, “You’re gonna have to face it you’re addicted to love!

But the emotion of love isn’t exclusively linked to romantic or family relationships. Yes, we love our partner and our family, but we can also love a lot of other things/people. If love can be at least somewhat boiled down to the release of chemicals in our brain, then when those chemicals are released due to positive experiences, we may also be feeling the emotion of love.

Positive psychologist Barbara M. Fredrickson likes to call this “positivity resonance”. In her book Love 2.0 she explains that, “Love 1.0 [is] the emotion you feel for your “soul mate” or kids or family; ...etc….[but] Love 2.0 is ubiquitous. It’s that ‘micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.’” For example that feeling you get when you’re belting the lyrics at your favorite artists’ concert with a complete stranger… that’s love too.

            So spread the love this February, and have a euphoric Valentine’s Day!

New Year’s Resolutions: Why They’re So Hard to Keep & How to Keep Them!

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It’s two weeks in since you’ve made your New Year's resolution(s), and the temptations to break your promises are starting to get the best of you. You begin telling yourself things like, “Well it’s only one piece of cake” or, “I’ll just exercise on the weekend when I’m not so tired after work”, and slowly but surely you’re falling into the same patterns as last year.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, NOT THIS YEAR! When you start to hear those tiny voices in your head, you’re catering to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the “elephant”, or part of your brain whose response is automatic, emotional, and irrational. This is the part that thrives off of short-term satisfaction (like eating the whole chocolate bar at once). The other part of your brain is the “rider”, or the “rider of the elephant” if you will, whose response is controlled, analytical, and rational. This is the part that thrives off of calculating one’s actions (like contemplating how much sugar or dairy is in that chocolate bar before eating it).

The idea is that because the elephant is much larger and dominant, the rider often has a hard time steering it in one’s desired direction. So the “rider” may conclude that it’s better to have only a small piece of the chocolate while at the same time the elephant is stepping on the rider shouting; “Eat it all!” This makes it incredibly hard to change our behaviors when we want to. So how do we make the switch? How do we get the rider and elephant to work together?

Jonathan Haidt gives us three simple steps to begin changing our behavior which we will apply here to our New Year’s Resolution(s):

The first is giving direction to the rider, or knowledge of how to get to your destination. Whether it’s losing weight, getting that promotion, or making new friends, you’ve got to have the right tools. This means doing your research to conclude which tools fit best to your personal goals, having support, setting intermittent goals for yourself, all which will aid in sticking to a long term plan. Important to note that the plan should be one you wrote/typed out! Not just planned in your head.

The second is motivating the elephant, or tapping into your emotional side. This means reward yourself (but don’t splurge) when you achieve your intermittent goals! Go out with your friends or buy yourself a little something special, something meaningful. When we achieve intermittent goals, or small wins, we trigger positive emotions and are thus motivating the elephant to continue in this fashion! Acknowledge the importance of small wins by celebrating them aligns the elephant with its rider.

Last but not least is shaping the path, or allowing the rider and the elephant to progress. This means doing your best to remove or avoid any roadblocks. In other words, to shorten the distance to achieving your resolution(s), you have to remove the unnecessary and stick to your plan. As with the food example, remove any temptations from your kitchen, or if greater productivity you are after this year, set some distinct, predetermined allowed time to be on a  ‘social media break’.  So get rid of those distractions & stick to your schedule!

Yes, this is all much easier said than done, but now that you’re aware of the psychology behind it and given some tools to help you, you’re many steps closer to achieving your New Year’s Resolution(s)!  

Happy Holidays

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      Holidays, no matter how much stress may accompany them, still end up being most people’s favorite time of the year. It’s no secret that this happiness is largely due to time off from the monotony of work, but it’s also in part to quality family time, presents, and celebrations. The irony is that sometimes we get so caught up in perfectly planning for all these things that we forget to thoroughly enjoy them.

Here are two simple concepts and suggestions to focus on during this holiday season in order to make it a truly happy one:

1. Giving -- Giving to others has been scientifically proven, time and time again, to improve one’s personal happiness. I would push you to think of gifts outside of the box, literally, and place more value in experiences over products. Maybe this holiday season it’s time to show those closest to you some love by making dinner reservations, or buying those concert tickets they’ve always wanted. Maybe it’s also time to take it a step further and donate warm clothes or volunteer at a shelter. When we give to our loved ones and to our community, we experience their happiness, and we get happiness in return.

2. Savoring -- Savoring individual moments are key to really enjoying the holiday festivities. Whether it’s simply sitting around the fireplace with your family, or going out to a big holiday party, it’s important to soak it in. This means slowing things down a bit, and absorbing things like the infamous smell of your favorite hot cocoa, or the beautifully decorated and lit up city streets and homes. Research shows that when we mindfully engage and pay attention to what we’re doing, we enjoy it much more. So remember to absorb, appreciate, and really savor great holiday moments.

All in all, If we are able to both give something meaningful and savor great moments during the holidays, we will enjoy our experiences much more, and thus of course, increase our happiness.                                 

                                                    HAPPY Holidays Everyone!

 

 

 


 

Happiness is Contagious

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 The assumption I will make is that most of us, at some point, have hung around someone who appeared to be sick and became concerned with catching their sickness. Indeed it’s true that you might catch whichever cold they carry, but have you ever considered how contagious moods are as well? Researchers found that through a process called ‘social contagion’ moods can spread from one person to the next. So in essence moods are contagious. No doubt most of us have experienced how others’ bad moods can affect us negatively, but what about positive emotions, can they be contagious?

Recent researcher from Harvard University’s Nicholas Christakis suggests that happiness, like the flu, can spread from person to person. When close people to us, in terms of relationships, or even physical proximity become happier, we do too. For example, when a person who lives within a mile of a good friend becomes happier, the probability that this person's good friend will also become happier increases by 15%. An even more striking finding in this study suggests that the effect can go beyond direct links and reach a third degree of separation: When a friend of a friend becomes happier, we become happier, even when we don't know that third person directly!

Interestingly, the concept of ‘social contagion” also explains why the old notion of trying to become happier by comparing yourself to the less fortunate (i.e. those who have more troubled relationships, less money, worse health, etc…) does not often work. You see if we compare ourselves to those who suffer more, and thus have more negative moods, we expose ourselves to the negative moods as well. So, if we accept that moods are contagious, then comparing oneself to the less fortunate can actually affect you more negatively than uplift your spirits. The key takeaway is that if we surround ourselves with happier people, it’s not only good for our well-being, it will make us happier, them happier, and those who are close to them happier! Just another small reminder why your mom was right when she told you to ”choose your friends carefully”.

A Few Facts About Positive Psychology, and Why You Should Care!

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Positive Psychology, in a nutshell, is the science of optimal human functioning!

Up until the emergence of positive psychology (PP), the field of psychology focused its interventions and research merely on helping with the painful issues people suffer. For example, it honed in on lifting depression and bad mood. But PP argues that eradicating bad mood does not guarantee a person feelings of joy, contentment, accomplishment, or happiness.

Thus, positive psychology research focuses on theories such as flourishing, optimism, well-being, strengths, and happiness. This provides methods one can use to build a life worth living, one that is happier and more meaningful. In addition, one of the goals of PP is to find out what builds positive institutions and organizations in order to create better human experiences and thus support professional growth.

So, positive psychologists often ask an additional very important question: What is right, rather than what is wrong, with people? While this does not mean that we ignore weaknesses or problems, it does mean that we think there is at least as much utility and gain in focusing on strengths rather than on weaknesses.

This focus on the positive really took off with Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of PP, though the term positive psychology was coined and addressed years ago by Dr. Abraham Maslow. Dr. Seligman’s original framework for PP can be broken down into 3 pillars:

  1. Positive experience – to include one’s positive emotions and subjective well-being.
     
  2. Positive traits – focusing on one’s character strengths and virtues.
     
  3. Positive institutions – the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship.  

Dr. Seligman, along with many other positive psychologists, has strived to make the PP movement’s research rigorous and evidence-based in its endeavors to identify interventions that promote mental health, talents and quality of life.

By now, I hope you can see that this field is founded on the assumption that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives. They wish to optimize their best selves, and to augment their days with love, work and play. This fundamental philosophical view is a prerequisite for all positive psychology interventions.

PP is full of promise to progress the positive evolution of our humanity and shed light on the daily behaviors that will help us achieve the good life. Seems to me that’s a field that should be acknowledged, studied and utilized!

Wouldn’t you agree?!