Happiness refers to a positive emotional state (meaning it is transient, although tends to stick around longer than other fleeting emotions and is not a fixed personality trait) encompassing feelings of joy, contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, passion, and similar. Research shows us that happiness is partly situational (~ 50%) and partly (~10 – 40%) genetic; so, while your disposition is fixed there is a whole lot of room for you to be able to improve your overall happiness. Consider this – the measurement of happiness takes into consideration three factors: presence of positive emotions, absence of negative emotions, and life satisfaction. This shows that there are three broad areas where change can be made to boost happiness.
One size does not fit all
Happiness is a subjective experience; what makes you happy may not translate to what makes others happy, and you are the best person to judge if you are happy or not. In saying that, research has shown that generally income (to about $95k per year), labor market status, physical health, social contentedness, loving family, and belonging to a religion or having moral values is important for overall happiness.
So broadly, happiness may be:
- a single man living alone with an active social life and a high salary
- a married female who is a stay-at-home mum to two healthy children, attends the gym regularly, and volunteers at a local animal rescue shelter
- a widow who is an active church member with a large loving family and a pet dog
- a recently fired social worker who has now got the time and energy to put into building a private practice which will give meaning to the occupational domain of life
- a divorced cancer patient who has a wide informal and formal support network
So as you can see, not every box needs to be ticked to have a happy life.
More momentary happiness may come from:
- finally finishing a project that you have dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to
- significant life events
- your birthday
- physical activity
- receiving recognition
- dinner with friends
Again, some of these may be your idea of hell whereas to others some or all of the above may bring a sense of pleasure and contentment.
The good news is that regardless of your life in general or what you are currently experiencing in the moment, you are able to train your brain to boost happiness levels.
What can you do?
Train your brain
Train your brain to focus more on the positives can be achieved with attending to positive factors or experiences, and giving them space in your mind rather than minimizing them or not even noticing them. Focus on something that you are grateful for, proud of yourself for, that makes you smile, and so forth. One exercise that you can do is search for one positive thing each day. It does not have to be a big deal but the more you can train your attention to positives the happier overall you will be. As well as attending to positives, when negatives things occur (and they will because lets be real) see if you can re-evaluate the initially framed negative occurrence to find the lesson.
Live in the moment
Living in the moment can help to increase happiness as generally depression stems from dwelling on the past and anxiety stems from worrying about the future. When you are in the present moment you are more likely to feel connected and content. While this may not be realistic all the time, when you are able to, try focusing on what is occurring at the given moment (using your senses) without attaching too many labels. If you find yourself being drawn to the past, check in with yourself that you are recalling accurately (are you maximizing a negative event or minimizing or dismissing any positive? Or are you over inflating how wonderful everything was causing you to think life isn’t going to be just as wonderful in the future?).
Your mental and physical health are one of the best predictors of happiness, but unfortunately one of the first things to get neglected during times of stress. Physical exercise and sleep are two of biggest factors that influence emotional states, happiness, stability of emotions, and functioning. Guidelines suggest that at a minimum you need to achieve 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity (e.g. swimming, jogging, playing tennis), and sleep for between 6.5 and 8 hours each night. If you have a mental health issue it is paramount that you understand warning signs of relapse and follow your treatment plan to maintain your stable mental state.
Nurturing your relationship with yourself and others by making the effort to stay connected, spend quality time with your friends and family, genuinely delight in their fortunes and successes, offer sincerity in compliments and admiration, and spend time with people that make you happy. With your relationship with yourself, you can practice positive self-talk, be compassionate and kind to yourself, play to your strengths, and honor your boundaries.
What can you ditch?
In addition to the above, training out of or being more considerate of certain patterns and beliefs can also help to increase happiness.
Comparing yourself to others can be unhelpful as in most cases you don’t actually know what’s going on for that person, you tend to over inflate their good qualities, or find yourself lacking. So perhaps consider ditching this or being more considerate of your thoughts and feelings, as well as the realities. Another consideration is that social comparison is natural and can be helpful and motivating. So try this: find someone you really admire and has qualities you want to strive for and think about making realistic changes to achieve your version.
It has to be perfect
Perfectionism is often debilitating and involves unrealistic expectations and goals. Wanting to do a good job is great, wanting to put your best foot forward is also great. But not at the expense of getting the job done, putting yourself out there, and being happy.
Materialism is when you attach happiness (or other factors such as self-worth) to external objects such as fancy cars or a mansion. And yes, you probably would have read the saying that goes something like ‘crying in a Mercedes is more comfortable than crying in a Great Wall’ however attaching happiness extrinsically means if circumstances change then you loose the material object as well as happiness. While striving for being able to have nice things of value is a healthy and normal goal, it becomes unhealthy if there is no balance or your happiness hinges on it.
Happiness is a subjective experience of positive emotions including contentment, peace, and joy with many factors influencing happiness overall and in the moment. It’s important to consider that what makes you happy may not necessarily be the same for others. It’s also important to note that you can increase your happiness levels by making some changes to your thoughts and behaviours