Psychology and science show us how
Happiness isn’t just something that happens to us—we can make it happen. How to do this has become the subject of psychology and science. Find out about the many things (some simple, some surprising) you can do to stay positive.
“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
—Dalai Lama XIV
We all want to be happy, don’t we? This is a great resolution to make for 2016. But it’s not just a matter of switching on the happiness button and hoping it happens. How to be happy? These tips will set you on a course for happiness.
I am happy to report that most days, I am ... happy. I made the decision to be happy more than a year ago when I was informed that my breast cancer had returned and metastasized into my lung and bones. Not knowing how long I had left, I wasn’t going to spend that time depressed, as I did after my first diagnosis. This time, I was determined to enjoy every moment.
My decision to start my mornings by dancing around the kitchen to Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy,” while revelling in the aroma of the insanely priced coffee beans I’d just ground, is not unusual. According to a 2013 study, people who have dealt with adversity in the past often report a heightened capacity for savouring the moment. The study authors conclude that “the worst experiences in life may come with an eventual upside, by promoting life’s small pleasures.”
Getting happy, of course, is not just a priority for someone who’s been through a traumatic event—serious personal illness, death of a family member, divorce, et cetera. It’s on everyone’s mind. Books are continually written about happiness. It’s studied at universities. The University of California, Berkeley even offers a free online course called “The Science of Happiness,” which has been taken by more than 200,000 people since it launched in September 2014.
The first areas I researched in my journey to be happy were practical ones. In addition to my oral chemotherapy regimen, I ensured I was eating a balanced whole foods diet, getting adequate exercise, and sleeping well. I also added a good multivitamin.
Then I began actively practising meditation and mindfulness, as well as savouring positive experiences and gratitude—not taking anything for granted. I’ve spent more quality time with positive friends and family, who have been tremendously helpful and supportive. I’ve bonded closer than ever with my 32-year-old son, Leif.
Two very intrinsic changes have taken place on this personal happiness quest. Once an avid collector of art and jewellery, I ended up selling or giving away most of these items. I enjoy the spareness of my minimal décor and appreciate a wooden bangle more than I ever did a gold one. I have also developed a strong sense of self-compassion and no longer try to be everyone’s hero.
I recently received the very best news of all. When the results of my last CT scan were revealed, they showed signs that I was going into remission. I’m sure the chemo helps, but I’m also sure my positive habits and state of mind are contributing.
Here are some effective ways to develop well-being, according to science. Some are simple; some are surprising.
This step involves having the intention and desire to be happy. It could mean taking advantage of opportunities to be happy, changing beliefs and values, managing emotions or relationships, or being around people who increase your probability of happiness. Choose to make happiness a priority and adopt strategies to achieve it.
Regularly eat a good breakfast, with plenty of fibre and nutrients, some lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grain carbohydrates. Some researchers believe this leads to improved mood, more energy throughout the day, and greater feelings of calmness.
Try to eat a balanced variety of healthy foods, such as those found in the Mediterranean diet—fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fish. These foods contain nutrients linked to preventing depression, such as folate, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Keep healthy carbohydrates in your diet, including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Carbohydrates boost our levels of tryptophan and, with the help of B vitamins, help our brains to synthesize serotonin, which is a mood regulator. Fish and foods containing vitamin D are also thought to increase brain serotonin levels.
If you decide to take these or other supplements, it is important to confer with your heath care practitioner regarding doses and potential interactions with other medications.
Vitamin D increases serotonin in the brain. The ideal dose can vary based on individual differences, such as where you live, sun exposure, time of year, and skin type. University of Toronto researchers noticed that people with depression, especially seasonal affective disorder (SAD), improved as their vitamin D levels increased over a normal year.
Selenium supplements may improve poorer moods, according to some studies. You can also up your selenium levels by eating foods such as seafood, nuts and seeds, lean meat, whole grains, and beans.
B vitamins work together to influence mood. They are necessary for cell metabolism and central nervous system maintenance and help stabilize nerve cell membranes. Consider a B-complex vitamin or multivitamin.
Omega-3 fatty acids are sometimes recommended for mood problems. They are found in cold-water fish; in certain oils such as flaxseed, walnut, and olive; and as a supplement.
St. John’s wort is a yellow-flowered plant that’s widely prescribed in Germany as a mood enhancer. Research suggests it’s most beneficial for mild to moderate depression, rather than severe cases. St. John’s wort should be used with caution, as it has the potential for serious interactions with some prescription drugs.
SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) is another widely studied mood enhancer that’s commonly used in Europe. An analysis of 28 studies showed that SAMe produced significant improvement in depression when compared to a placebo. Not found in food, SAMe is derived from an amino acid and can be taken as a supplement.
Most people know that regular exercise improves mood. From a physiological perspective, it releases feel-good brain chemicals such as neurotransmitters, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. Exercise also regulates immune system chemicals that worsen depression. Plus, calming effects may occur when body temperature rises during exercise.
Exercise can also improve your confidence and make you feel better about your appearance. You’ll also take your mind off worries and potentially have more social interaction. You don’t need to participate in a formal exercise program to receive benefits. Engage in any activity that contracts muscles and expends energy. This can include work, household chores, or leisure activities.
Endeavour to get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Otherwise, you are more likely to become irritable and angry, and you may deal less easily with stress. Sleep-deprived people are also less likely to look after themselves by eating healthy, exercising, and enjoying leisure activities. Impaired sleep can affect your mood and put you at risk for depression.
In your quest for how to be happy, your emotional well-being and health will be enhanced by the calm, peace, and balance that come when you meditate. Even when your session ends, the benefits carry forward throughout your day. You can gain new perspective on situations, increase self-awareness, learn to be in the present moment, and improve your well-being. There are many meditation techniques to try, from guided meditation to mindfulness meditation. You can practise wherever you are for as little as five minutes.
We’ve all heard the advice to be in the present moment. The idea is to be aware of the fleeting nature of a momentary experience without resorting to judgment. This can deflect automatic negative self-evaluation and help promote self-compassion.
Make a daily list of things you are grateful for. This will shift you away from unhappy emotions and turn you to a more positive state of mind. Gratitude means appreciating not only the help of others, but also the positive aspects of life, including the small pleasures.
It’s one thing to decide to forgive and respond kindly toward someone who has wronged you. It’s something else to replace the negative, unforgiving emotions with positive emotions. Researchers suggest that emotional forgiveness (as opposed to decisional forgiveness) produces more beneficial psychological and physiological changes.
Bolster your spirits by cultivating close relationships with people who care about you. An Australian study found that people over 70 who had a strong network of friends lived longer than those who didn’t.
Although happy people tend to spend less time alone than unhappy people, they also engage in less small talk and more substantial conversation. Meaningful rapport may enhance connectedness between people, increasing a sense of mutual gratification.
Performing acts of kindness will increase your happiness. Plus, the happier you become, the more likely you will be to perform kind acts. In one 2006 study, people’s subjective happiness increased simply by counting their acts of kindness for a week.
Savour the good times to get more enjoyment out of life. Consider keeping a journal and recording positive events, no matter how small, and your favourable reaction to them.
A Cornell University study found that people were more content when they purchased an experience rather than a possession. Objects deteriorate, while experiences create timeless memories. Sharing a dinner or a class also has a social aspect to it that can make you happy.
Take it easy on yourself for a more positive state of mind. Researcher Kristin Neff points out that when you have self-compassion, you are kind and understanding with yourself rather than judgmental. You realize that you are human, and all humans are imperfect.
It’s as easy as a walk in the park. In a 2007 study, British researchers found that taking a stroll in the country reduced depression in 71 percent of the subjects. As little as five minutes in a natural setting can improve mood, self-esteem, and motivation. It’s well known that sunlight can aid depression, especially SAD.
Research shows that about half your happiness is the result of a genetic set point. However, if you put some effort into it, you can do things to become happier. Roughly 40 percent of your happiness is determined by positive day-to-day behaviours and activities. Life circumstances, such as income and marital status, account for the remaining 10 percent.
Many of us believe in earning happiness according to traditional thinking—waiting until the big event arrives, like getting married or landing the big-paying job. In fact, that’s only a small percentage of it. Because eventually, the novelty of that earned happiness wears off. You have to do things to keep it fresh, such as practising gratitude.
Herbs to help you relax Valerian, created from dried roots, is often used to alleviate anxiety and aid sleep. Lavender, used in aromatherapy, essential oils, and teas, may enhance relaxation and relieve anxiety and depression.