#happiness (How can I get some of that?!)

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#happiness is one of the most popular hashtags around. Makes sense right? Whoever doesn’t want happiness in their life say “I” (room goes silent now). But the question is…how do we get this thing called happiness? How do we summon this “greater power” throughout our days, weeks, months…lifetime? Let’s examine.

First of all, what is happiness? That’s a loaded question and there seems to be some variation in answers. So let’s start by looking at one happiness researcher’s definition. In her book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

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OK, so where does happiness really come from, and how does it mysteriously appear? Some have said that it arrives as a reaction to outside events, the events that bring us joy. While others discuss it as being an inside job (it is conjured up from within ourselves).

I believe that it is something that is summoned from within ourselves. Sure, it may seemingly feel like an outside event is the trigger, however the exact same outside event can mean different things to different people. It’s intentional activity that’s really important here; it’s how we choose to create or do an activity, and ultimately our response to it. Think about it – a simple thing could cause one person to be unhappy while another person could be joyous. The event is exactly the same. It’s our reaction to the event that can be so different.

In fact according to research, approximately 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by intentional activity. The 40% intentional activity is what we should focus on changing, and I will discuss some ways to do this shortly.

Now what about “joy”, how does this relate to happiness? We are all well aware of the moment-to-moment times of joy that seem to arrive like when we see a baby smile or a tail-wagging happy puppy. But have you seen the popular movie Inside Out where we learn from the character named Joy – that real happiness involves a suite of emotions including sadness, not just joy.

Yes, you read that correctly, sustained happiness will include times of sadness, believe it or not. Happiness is not simply a constant euphoric state of joy without negative emotions included along the way. Unhappy emotions like anger, fear, and sadness are quite normal, and at times, appropriate. If we continually set a high bar for happiness, we can become disappointed when we don’t meet that bar. An acceptance of some “negative” emotions is ok.

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So how can we use this information to have happiness continue with us along our journey called LIFE? How do we get and sustain happiness, which includes contentment, positive well-being, combined with a sense of meaningfulness?

This is a question many of us talk about and, I have have often wondered about this sometimes illusive state of happiness too. So let’s get to it…here are three important ways of conjuring up more happiness in our lives:

1.Practicing “pro-social” qualities like human connection, gratitude, and compassion, etc. Regularly practicing pro-social qualities can help us feel more connected to others and connecting to something higher outside of the self. Check out this fantastic 12 minute TEDtalk on an exciting 75 year Harvard study on living the good life. The #1 thing learned in this study is that good relationships keep you happier and healthier….period! The quality of your relationships really matter, not necessarily the quantity. Good relationships with family, friends, and community are what really matter. And besides general happiness in life, there are many other benefits as mentioned in the video.

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2. Mindfulness (and resulting awareness). Be present. In an article on Mindfulness , well-known mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn discusses how to cultivate mindfulness as follows: “although mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, that’s not the only way. It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum,” he says…“It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”

Here are a three key components of practicing mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn and others identify:
• Turn your mind to your breathing, really noticing it, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
• Notice what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
• Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.

Mindfulness is important in that it includes awareness. Consider self-awareness: we can’t be authentic without being ourselves. And we can’t be ourselves without really knowing ourselves. Therefore, being authentic all starts with self-awareness.

Consider being more aware of your reaction to words and actions, be it positive or negative. Try pausing for a second before reacting to anything, and generally pausing from time-to-time in your everyday life. This gives your prefrontal cortex time to access a more positive pathway (a higher road) to take in your reaction to anything, be it positive or negative. Consider Gandhi’s famous quote:

‘Happiness is when what you think, say and do are in harmony’

Personally, I have found meditation helps with taking pauses at opportune times, and for thinking things through with greater clarity and purpose. This doesn’t happen overnight, so give it a few weeks of honest effort before judging.

3. Flow. Famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly coined the term flow to describe a particular state of heightened consciousness. Flow can appear when we do certain activities throughout the day or week, ones that can increase our joyous moments.

These activities should be ones that you really enjoy, a favorite activity. Think about this for a moment. What are some things that have brought you joy over the years? Was it a sport or an activity? Visiting family or friends or animals perhaps? Achieving a goal? Reading? There are so many possibilities!

Other ways of referring to this state of Flow are “being in the zone” or times where you are involved in something so deeply that nothing else seems to matter and you may lose track of time. Researchers have shown that states of flow have a strong association to happiness.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Practice the above and I think that you will see a subtle difference over time. I am making positive strides in practicing these things – and really hope that you will try also. I would love to hear how it goes!

Stay tuned for Part II of this Happiness blog where I will discuss further happiness actions to include in your daily routine.

In joy and happiness,

Kevin

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