“The most important thing is to enjoy your life—to be happy—it’s all that matters.” ― Audrey Hepburn
This is Part 1 of the 2-Part series on how to make small but meaningful shifts to be happy now.
Have you been made to believe that happiness is something that can be attained only after you are highly successful and have achieved several other things in life?
Do you believe that true happiness is hard to find and difficult to experience?
Do you feel like it is increasingly difficult and challenging to connect to the natural wellspring of deep and lasting joy and happiness?
Here are a few actionable ideas that might help:
1. Change your Perspective of Happiness: Switch the Formula
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ― His Holiness The XIVth Dalai Lama
Do you believe that getting something, being somewhere or doing something leads to happiness? If that is your dominant paradigm, happiness might be elusive. You may find some happiness after the aforementioned things come to a fulfillment. But usually what happens is that we just end up setting the bar higher.
Have you ever desired something very badly and then having attained it, your joy and happiness vanished or it was short lived?
According to positive psychology researcher Shawn Achor, Author of The Happiness Advantage, there is a formula of happiness that we are taught very early on. The formula is that if we work hard enough and strive very diligently to become successful, then we will have a dream life and be happy.
“The only problem is that this formula is broken. If success causes happiness, then every employee who gets a promotion, every student who receives an acceptance letter, everyone who has accomplished a goal of any kind should be happy. But with every victory, our goalposts of success keep getting pushed further and further out, so that happiness gets pushed over the horizon.”
Research from the field of positive psychology and neuroscience has been more conclusively pointing to the myth that happiness follows success. Research has shown that Happiness comes before success.
Being optimistic and happy fuel the engine that drives success and achievement and give you a huge advantage and edge that Achor calls “The Happiness Advantage.”
This is a small but immensely powerful shift and makes you looking for happiness in the here and now and not as a result of something in the future!
Instead of “do something, have or achieve success and be happy,” change it to “be happy now, do actions from that perspective and have success.”
If your idea of happiness is that it follows success, you may have it backwards.
Become aware of this myth that we have been made to believe.
Change the formula to: Happiness comes first, and then success follows.
Change “do, have and be” to “be, do and have.”
2. Drop Away the Stress
“I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.” ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience
Do you have an idea of life that being stressed out makes you more productive and improves the quality of your life by getting things accomplished?
The problem with being stressed out over things is that there have been many studies done that associate stress with counter productive health and psychological states.
Stress floods the body with “fight or flight” response hormones and chemicals. While that might have been an advantage when we had to run away from the dangers in the past, it is no longer an advantage to flood our systems with these chemicals when there is no real threat or danger.
Stress significantly reduces the quality of your life and your happiness index. According to happiness and positive psychology research by Professor Martin Seligman, Happiness depends on a set point range or what we inherit, the circumstances of our life and the factors under our voluntary control.
Choosing to not stress out about things excessively falls under the category of factors under our voluntary control.
How can we not stress out as much? Become aware of it, sit with it and choose to gently let it go. Replace stress with other relaxing activities.
Become aware of the ninja stress in your life.
Choose to release the stress by not engaging with the incessant worry.
Move around, shake your hands, breathe deeply or anything else that releases your stress.
Increase the incidence of relaxation and soothing and calming experiences.
3. Understand Your Sphere of Influence and Your Realm of Control
“People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ― Abraham Lincoln
Each of us has a sphere of influence and act within our realm of control. The events and circumstances within the realm of control and influence are the ones that we can make a difference on.
Outside the realm of control is the realm upon which we have no direct control. For example, we have no direct and immediate control on the weather and the global economy.
By choosing to get upset and stay bothered by the realm over which we have no direct control upon is a sure and easy way to become unhappy in the current moment.
Take a few moments today to understand which events are within your realm of control and which events lie beyond.
Take a small action step in the realm of your own control to influence things that you can have a small but meaningful impact on.
Take action on Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
If you think the world economy is troublesome and shaky, attempt to take steps in making your finances even more solid and help uplift some people around you in their thinking and financial health.
4. How Important are Sleep and Rest to Your Happiness, Productivity and Creativity?
It turns out that they are very important!
One of the first things that suffers when you are in overwhelm or panic mode is the quality of rest and sleep that you receive. Unfortunately this is a counter-productive feedback cycle. The more you stress and become overwhelmed, the less inclined you are to deeply sleep and rest and this creates more overwhelm and anxiety.
According to research studies, sleep and rest are highly correlated with cardiovascular health and general well being.
Arianna Huffington in her TED talk advises us to get more sleep to unlock our hidden potential, be more productive and happy.
Research done in sleep researcher Sara Mednick’s lab has shown that taking a nap for an hour prevents the performance decline throughout the day that is present even in well-rested people. In contrast, motivational techniques and just resting with eyes closed did not seem to have any positive benefits.
In another study by Mednick’s group, People who took a nap increased their creativity by an astonishing 40% when compared to the non-nap control.
I believe that being well rested and even taking a nap if possible keeps us alert and our performance high and motivated, thus increasing our moment-to-moment happiness. If we have to push through the day and battle exhaustion, we will be less inclined to feel happiness.
Assess the quality of your sleep.
Is there a correlation in your life between happiness and contentment levels, performance, creativity and the quality and amount of sleep that you are getting?
Taking naps increases performance on a daily basis thus having the possibility of a happier outcome.
5. Meaningful Social Connections
“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people,” and “Happiness equals love—full stop.” George E. Vaillant, M.D.
Do you have great and meaningful social connections or are you isolating yourself on the basis of ideas and beliefs that you have. You may be hesitant to seek help or assistance but when you are open to the idea of having a strong community and great connections, you will benefit enormously.
At any moment in time, do you feel deeply connected to people or do you feel like you have to do everything alone and that your friends are having all the fun without you?
One of the longest psychological studies, The Harvard Men Study followed 268 men for 72 years to gain insight into what factors are important for happiness. Dr. George Vaillant, the brilliant psychologist who has directed this study for 4 decades in his own words as shared to The Atlantic:
“The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”
According to Dr. Vaillant’s conclusions, our relationships with other people are really important and they matter more than any single other thing in order to flourish and be happy.
As an example, the Rosetan people of Roseto, Pennsylvania were among the healthiest people with approximately half the heart attack rate of neighboring communities.
After extensive research analysis from 1955 to 1962, it was determined that the Rosetan community that comprised of Italian American immigrants, had exceptionally strong family and community ties.
From an article titled, The mystery of the Rosetan People, Dr. Rock Positano says: “In short, the Rosetans were nourished by people.”
Rosetans expressed themselves through a social life that gave the family a very important role. Stress and being alone did not seem the norm in Roseto and each family consisted of several generations living together.
It was not that the Rosetans had a particularly healthy diet or did any less hard labor. Rosetans did not seem to internalize stress and did not feel alone or beaten down by problems.
Unfortunately, as the strong family ties and the gradual interdependence paved the way to more individuality and less family and community ties, the Rosetan heart disease rate skyrocketed back to the national average.
Nourish your relationships and your network and belong to a community.
Connect with people and seek assistance instead of trying to do it all yourself.
Offer your assistance to others who are in need of support and help.
Remember the small but powerful message: Happiness is love!
6. How Do You Feel on a Moment-to-Moment Basis?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt, This is My Story
Do you give yourself the permission to feel great on a moment-to-moment basis? If everything that transpires on the outside is able to transform our internal thoughts and feelings, we may have a problem.
Since life is not predictable and some people will go out of their way to make you feel bad, taking charge of your internal weather is your domain and your choice.
I am not asking you to have a perpetual grin on your face and not be receptive, avoid or not be empathetic to others. I am not even saying that you should avoid negative feelings because they can be valuable teachers.
On the contrary, I am asking you to not linger with the negative feelings associated with difficult people and circumstances.
After you have heard them out, decide to move on to more empowering thoughts and feelings. The truth is that no one can make us feel inferior without our explicit permission. But we might be habituated to feeling bad that it becomes an automatic reaction.
Uncouple yourself with an event that has happened on the outside and prolonged thoughts of powerlessness and bad feelings.
Catch yourself brooding over something and consciously decide to give yourself a break and do a simple action that puts you in a better mood.
Neuroscientist and Professor Antonio Demasio describes the difference between emotions and feelings in his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. According to Demasio, emotions are physical reactions that happen in our bodies to what we perceive and experience, thus releasing hormones and chemicals.
As the thinking brain senses the chemical change in the body, it experiences and labels the physical reaction as something that we call feeling.
I believe that suppressing these feelings that come up as a result of the emotional reaction is a cause of a lot of problems. Instead of suppressing, it is a better idea to allow them to surface, acknowledge them and then allow them to dissipate by understanding their impermanence.
It is possible that before long, a few snowflakes of reactionary thoughts cascade into a snowball of thoughts and negative feelings and thus establishing and feeding into an already disempowered emotional state.
Become aware of the patterns and cycles of thoughts, feelings and emotional states that you might be prone to and decide to let them go.
A famous Zen story is a good example of what we are discussing. Two monks are about to cross a river with a swift current and come across a woman who asks for help to get across. Without hesitation, the older monk lifts the woman on to his shoulders and carries her across the river and sets her down on the other side.
After thanking the monk, the woman leaves and the monks resume their journey. However, The younger monk is upset and begins brooding. After he can contain himself no more, he blurts out that it was not proper for a monk to hold and carry a woman and it defied their monastic vows.
The older monk calmly listens and then replies: “I set the woman down at the river bank a while before, but it seems that you are still carrying her.”
Feel great and empowered as much as possible.
Understand that emotional reactions happen as a result of what we perceive. The thinking brain then labels the reaction as a feeling.
Become aware of the snowball effect of thoughts, feelings and brooding.
Instead of suppressing negative feelings, hear them out, acknowledge them, if possible learn from the event and then choose to let them go by acknowledging their impermanence.
Choose something that makes you feel better and brings you back to your happy center.
Now over to you! What makes you happy on a daily basis? Please comment below and let me know how you find your center of joy and happiness on an ongoing basis.