Happiness is a trending topic that has been gaining significant interest in the past dozen years which I took a personal interest in a couple of years ago. When I started exploring happiness I realized the number of books and articles on this topic is very extensive, but while there are many approaches and thoughts on the topic, most of them have core suggestions of improving happiness that are similar and supported by research.
I recently finished reading the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, who decided to improve her own happiness by doing a year-long project focused on doing a number of different things each month. After finishing the book, I decided to do my own happiness project based on many of her ideas, though I’m not sure yet whether I will shorten it up a bit as I’m already doing some of the things recommended for greater happiness. Just as my project will not be the same as Gretchen’s, I would expect anyone else who decides to do a happiness project will have variations as we are all different and what resonates with one person has absolutely no impact on someone else.
It would seem about an average of over 75% of people believe themselves to be fairly happy (this includes anyone from the fairly to very happy range) as opposed to about 25% that are unhappy or unsure of how they feel. But, I think that generally speaking and with certainty in my own case, I feel that there are things we can do to be even happier than we currently are. Personally, I think I’m a fairly happy person, but who doesn’t want to be happier.
Research shows that we all have a happiness “set point” which actually accounts for somewhere between 40 to 50% of our basic happiness. This accounts for why some people are just naturally cheerful. They don’t seem to have to work as hard at it, they are just happy because of their genetics. The opposite is true as well for those people who maybe tend to be a little grumpier, who may have a lower “set point”, so have to work harder to find their happy place.
I want to clarify, happiness/unhappiness is not the same as happiness/depression. Depression is a condition that merits its own separate category and depending on its severity may require medical intervention in the form of medication/therapy etc. Studies have shown people with mild to moderate depression may find some of the things I’m going to write about to be helpful and actually can have a significant positive effect on depression, especially exercise. But moderate to severe depression in particular are likely to need other interventions as well.
So, despite our genetic set point, that still leaves 50 to 60% of room for us to work with. A small percentage of that amount is determined by life circumstances which would include things like employment, gender, education, family circumstances, financial circumstances, health etc. But about 40% of our happiness factor is up to us and how we behave and the things we do, in other words things within our control. And that is the area I want to focus on in my own happiness project.
I had been thinking for some time that I wanted to do an article or series of articles on happiness, but it was on my recent vacation to Mexico that I decided the time was right. While at a lovely resort near Bucerias about 30 minutes from Puerto Vallarta, my husband and I had the opportunity to watch a gentleman who was the waiter at a couple of the resort restaurants we liked to frequent. We have been to this resort before and the thing that we both noticed was how happy this man seemed on every one of our visits. We both couldn’t help but reflect on how cheerful he was every day, despite what must include at least the occasional rude or demanding guest, long hours in the heat without the reward of large tips. We spoke to him one day and asked about his cheerful disposition and Manuel agreed that he is indeed very happy. He also mentioned that he has a two hour commute to and from work each day on the bus. Traditionally, most people in Mexico work a 6 day week and work about 10 hours per day, as he does. He has a family and despite the long hours away from them, the less than ideal work (from a North American perspective), and the usual challenges we all face he maintains a very happy disposition.
So my conclusion from this is that we don’t need lots of money or a great job or a perfect life to be happy. We can be happy in whatever circumstances life finds us. At its core, happiness is a choice.
Now, I’ve already said I’m generally pretty happy, but I admit I probably complain too much, criticize others too frequently, have a tendency to lecture, use “tone” when I speak at times and can be a bit negative occasionally as well. All of these things make me normal, but I could probably improve on each of them and some other things, and likely get a boost to my happiness. That is what I want my happiness project to be about. To look at the everyday things I can change, if only in small increments, that will make me happier and thus likely to make those around me happier as well.
So what are some things we can do to make us happier? There are a number of things that research has shown when done consistently make people happier. Among those:
-regular exercise (my favourite)
-cultivate optimism (don’t dwell on negative or painful things)
– practice acts of altruism and kindness (help others)
-nurture your sense of humour, laugh
-fake it till you make it, put a smile on your face even if it’s the last thing you want to do)
-spend time in nature
-a social network (nurture relationships-friends, family, marriage)
-spirituality (anything from communing with nature to a relationship with a higher being)
-learn how to deal with stress (positive coping strategies)
-pursue satisfying and meaningful goals
In a series of upcoming posts, I will focus on these suggestions in greater detail. In the meantime, think about your own happiness. Take time to reflect (in nature preferably), what you can do to improve your level of happiness. I firmly believe we were put on this earth by God to be happy. Even though each of our lives will have some significant challenges and difficulties, I think we can choose to be happy even in the most dire of circumstances, truly even in the worst of what life hands us, we can choose to be happy.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said, “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ He also said, “The last of human freedoms-the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”
To me this means, don’t just expect to “be happy”. Cultivate the activities that make for a meaningful and healthy life and you will indeed find happiness. And when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Just because things don’t always go the way you want or think they should go, you can still choose to be happy, you can choose your attitude. So let’s go make some lemonade!