Habits for Happiness
Everyone wants to be happy. It's the mecca of emotions. The title of misspelt films. But WTF is it?
Philosophers have been arguing about it for centuries. Wikipedia has had 6,000 edits on the topic. It seems that happiness is dynamic and personal and desirable but no one is quite clear on exactly how to describe it.
I like these definitions:
"Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy."
"Happiness is an emotional or affective state* that is characterised by feelings of enjoyment, pleasure, and satisfaction."
*Affective states are longer lasting mood states which are not caused by a single stimulus but are the results of an accumulation of experiences.
Whether you see it as a short-term emotion or long-term affective state, it seems that happiness is not a permanent position. You don't reach it and then have it forever. This is worth consideration. If you are striving for an indefinitely unchanging mood, you're aiming to fail. Moods change. People change. Happiness isn't eternal, sorry.
This post is titled Habits of Happiness and I hate to disappoint. Yes, you should be realistic about the nature of happiness. But that doesn't mean you can't look for ways to feel happy more often.
Good habits can support sustained happiness. I've outlined 15 below, which I personally ascribe to and which studies support:
Love the small things
Life is full of major ups and downs, so take the time to cherish the minutiae of your day. If sustained happiness is an accumulation of positive experiences, you need to A) be on the look out for such experiences and B) start viewing really mundane occurrences as the small miracles they are.
These are some small things that I get excited about:
When I make the exact right amount of smoothie for the glass I've pulled out
When I find a park straight away at shoppingtown
When my puppy dogs bounce up to me and chase me around
When I see kindness between strangers
A while back, I drove past a small crash on the freeway. It was bumper to bumper, so I was crawling past. Standing beside the incident were two men. One had caused the crash. The other had been hit. The latter put a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. It's alright. I'm not mad. These things happen. It was BEAUTIFUL. I felt good about the world all morning. And I still feel happy when I think about it.
Wake up grateful
Focusing on what you have, rather than what you lack, has to be one of the fundamentals to feeling good about life. If you are not sure where to start, realise this: You are a tiny miracle. The odds of your existence are 1 in 102,685,000.
One of my favourite quotes, blu-tacked to my wall is, "I think we're all a bunch of lucky stardust, in the right place at the right time, winners of a cosmic lottery" which comes from a blogged experiment called 40 Days of Dating. We are damn lucky to be alive. And if you're reading this, you're also lucky to have internet and a laptop and many many other things.
My friend used to hate his birthday. He wouldn't look forward to it and he'd be grumpy all day. I rejected this attitude. Sure, I want youthful skin and perky breasts forever. But ageing happens. Instead of dwelling on the side effects of living longer, I think we should celebrate that we are living at all. Preferably with cake.
Some of the things I am grateful for:
I can breathe easy (especially grateful for this after a cold).
I have a loving family, supportive colleagues and friends that will pick me up in the middle of the night.
I have a body that lets me move and dance and work and play.
I have access to some of the best water in the world. And I can make it sparkling.
While I can definitely work on having more, I don't want to get swept up in the eternal pursuit. I have everything I need to be happy right now.
Act for others
A really great motto I like to try and live by is: "What good will I do today?"
Will you smile at a stranger? Give a passerby a compliment? Hold the door for a co-worker? Will you give a friend a baked good?
Good comes in all sizes - you might give an elderly man a lift back to his house or you might help push a broken-down car in the middle of the road. Maybe you'll say 'bless you' over the toilet cubicle to a mysterious sneezer or maybe you'll accompany someone to hospital after they accidentally impale their hand on a receipt holder.
It takes time and energy to do these things - to chase down a dog that's gotten loose on the road or to turn a neighbour's gas stove off. But you're contributing to a happier, more harmonious world and studies show you will be happier for it.
You know what the good thing to do is. Now do it.
Sometimes when you're not feeling great, the instinct is to kind of stew in your sadness. Stay in your trackies. Curl up in a ball. Avoid the shower. Definitely don't exercise.
When I force myself to shower, brush my hair and put on some lip balm, I resemble my happier self. Sometimes you've got to trick yourself. Smile at yourself in the mirror. Fake laugh. Adopt a power pose. Physically embodying the happy individual you want to be can sometimes be half the journey to getting there.
It's proven over and over - exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy and happy people just don't shoot their husbands. But seriously. Good blood flow = positive vibes. Take the stairs up the train station. Meet a friend for a walk, not a coffee. Join a fitness class or sports club. Run around the oval with Sam, Tilly and me. We rarely bite.
This one cannot be overstated. Ariana Huffington wrote an entire book about it. And I still suck at it all the time. But at least I know that when I am a little moody or miserable, it's because I haven't gotten a solid 8. Also, I am pretty sure 8 hours is my absolute minimum sleep requirement. I never feel like I've over-slept. I THRIVE on 10. Adequate, quality sleep is essential for happiness. Sleep helps regulate your mood, so when you encounter trying situations, you can deal.
I'm not talking about those fad diets where you only eat meat for three weeks (been there, done that). I mean eating nutritious foods that nourish your body. I love love love chocolate so I'm always working to cut down on my refined sugar intake. But I do make a habit of adding nutrient dense food into my meals to try and boost my vitamin intake.
Easy ways to do this include:
Spinach in your smoothie (it goes green but doesn't affect the flavour)
Grated zucchini in your porridge
Grated carrot/pumpkin in a pasta sauce
Wilted spinach with eggs on toast (I love spinach)
Omega 3s are really important for a healthy mind. You can read more about them in my Stress Reliever post. More and more research is also finding strong links between a healthy gut and proper mood regulation.
Start by adding one healthy ingredient to your breakfast. Blueberries to your porridge. Avocado to your toast. Etcetera.
Interact with others
Some people are shit. They probably need to read this post and work on their happiness. I'm sorry if one of them got to you today. But majority of the people in the world are a lot like you. They want love and acceptance. Financial security. Zero calorie chocolate (can't just be me).
They are out there, waiting.
Chat to the person who makes your coffee. Who stands next to you in the Salvos. Chat to the lady who does your nails (if you get a full response you are a conversational genius). Chat to the receptionist at your dentist, the guy behind the counter at the petrol station. Just chat, chat, chat. It doesn't need to be deep and meaningful. It's acknowledgement of another person's existence and their acknowledgment of you. It's sharing an experience ("Jeez it's cold out there" "I know, I nearly got frostbite"). It's realising that you are not alone, not even a little bit. Yes I know I am a walking, breathing bumper sticker.
Build your resilience
One of my best friend's Mum has two quotes on her wall. One of them is: "Don't take it personally".
What if it IS personal?
Like I was PERSONALLY targeted?
This is how. And it is really really hard. So if you have already reached a state of zen, I commend you. Realise that when someone is unkind, harsh or straight up mean, their words and actions come from a really sad place. They are projecting their own bad feelings on to you. Spreading the darkness.
That expression 'they're just jealous' is common because it's so frequently true. Look at a situation broadly so you can recognise that it is really is them, not you.
When you do encounter negative people, feel sorry for them and then extricate yourself. Crying is good, feeling saddened is normal. But bounce back. Get up again tomorrow. Examine people's behaviour and see it for it what it really is.
Be kind to yourself
Do you say nice things to yourself? I don't mean out loud, although that's totally fine too. I'm talking about good self-talk. If you don't already have a positive inner monologue, then actively work on it.
Try reminding yourself every day of three things that make you excellent. Tie them to your behaviour, not your appearance. Looks fade; personality is forever.
I am a kind person
My stick figure drawings are breath-taking
People can confide in me because I am a good listener
I tell funny jokes
I can whistle the whole alphabet
Obviously none of these are my personal attributes because I cannot whistle to save myself. But you get the idea. Three things. Every day.
Feeling like you're a part of something and that you have support around you is essential to secure, content living. The best way to gain a community is to join a group or club. As with podcasts, there is something for everyone. Sewing? Surfing? Improv? Sorted.
Joining a club gives you a place to go without the obligation of having to go there. It gives you like-minded people. And maybe Thai cooking skills. If you aren't part of a group of some description, join one now.
It's only when your certainty-uncertainty balance is out of whack that you realise how important it is. You need some assurance about the future, which you get from a stable job, social plans and the relationships around you. But when you have too much certainty, life feels laid out. Why bother living it? You know how this story will go.
To keep the balance, be occasionally spontaneous. Book a holiday. Get off the train a stop early. Meet your friend for coffee in a new cafe. Change things up every once in a while to keep yourself guessing. You need to know it will all work out but you should discover the how in your day to day living.
Get in touch with the physical elements that bring you joy. Ingrid Fetell Lee, writer and designer, summed these up in a Ted Talk called 'Where joy hides and how to find it'. While she framed joy in terms of design - how it can be injected into workplaces, elderly care facilities and schools - all of her examples can be applied elsewhere.
Roundness. Abundance. Multiplicity. Pops of bright colour. "The physical world can be a resource to us in creating happier, healthier lives," Fetell Lee says, "They remind us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world."
Of course, reconfiguring all of the spaces you inhabit is a bit of a gargantuan (maybe even impossible) task. So here are some practical thoughts on how you can inject joy into areas: Hang up a painting in your home. Use coloured pens in the office. Wear a bright green outfit.
Aimlessness breeds discontent. Lots of studies show that having specific goals fosters well-being. Picture your ideal life. What needs to happen between here and there? Break down dreams into small, actionable steps so they are achievable and you can enjoy the progress.
Goals give you purpose and direction. Plus the immense satisfaction when you achieve what you set out to do. I like the SMART acronym for goal-setting.
Your goals should be:
S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - Achievable
R - Relevant
T - Time-bound
Accept not every day will be a happy one
Some days are just blah. Some weeks even. Know that better times are around the corner. Practice good self care until you suddenly realise: That numbness has passed. Something just made you laugh unexpectedly. You're ok.
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In a study conducted over 80+ years, they found the single greatest determinant of happiness was meaningful relationships. Solid connection doesn't happen over night, though. I wanted this post to be about small actions you could take every day.
I think one way you can bring more happiness into your life is to ask yourself, 'when am I at my happiest?' Is it when you are outdoors? Baking? Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling? Think about what makes you feel excited about life. Do more of that.
Here's an old video to get you started.
Wishing you all the happy days.
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Continue the good times with: