Health & Well­ness: The Pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness

It’s a uni­ver­sal, fun­da­men­tal truth: We all just want to be happy. And sci­en­tists say we’re much closer to it than we may think. Over­come these six com­mon bar­ri­ers to lighten up your heart and mind.

Martha Stewart Living - - Contents - TEXT BY KELLY DINARDO

Sci­ence-backed se­crets to feel­ing truly con­tent.

HAP­PI­NESS IS OUR HOLY GRAIL and our mea­sure of a life well lived— not to men­tion the topic of count­less books, TED Talks, and apps. But what ex­actly are we search­ing for? Sci­en­tists de­voted to an­swer­ing that quest ion de­fine happy peo­ple as those who have a pos­i­tive tem­per­a­ment, so­cial con­fi­dants, and the re­sources to make progress to­ward the goals they value. Put plainly, “it’s the joy we feel as we move to­ward our po­ten­tial,” says Michelle Gielan, the au­thor of Broad­cast ing Hap­pi­ness (BenBella Books, 2015) and founder of the In­sti­tute for Ap­plied Pos­i­tive Re­search, in Dal­las.

The good news is we’re gen­er­ally con­tent as a coun­try, but there’s room to grow. In the 2018 United Na­tions World Hap­pi­ness Re­port, which asked peo­ple in more than 150 coun­tries to as­sess their life on a scale of 1 to 10 (based on mark­ers like life ex­pectancy, GDP, and so­cial sup­port), Amer­i­cans rated their lives at a not­too-shabby 6.8. But that’s nearly a point be­hind the top three— Fin­land, Nor­way, and Den­mark— which rated theirs over 7.5. (PSA: No one, not even Nor­we­gians, can main­tain a 10; that would be ex­haust­ing!) Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, there are clear ob­sta­cles in our way of feel­ing deeper ful­fill­ment ev­ery day. Learn how to sur­mount them.

1 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: Our pri­mal brain

There’s a lit­tle thing called the neg­a­tiv­ity bias. Thou­sands of years ago, it gave hu­mans an ad­van­tage: We were ev­er­ready to dodge life-and-death dan­ger. Now it means we’re hard­wired to no­tice and store neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences more than pos­i­tive ones. A sin­gle crit­i­cal com­ment can knock the wind out of an oth­er­wise great day.

How to Clear It: Look for bright spots

Paus­ing for a minute to ap­pre­ci­ate some­thing sweet or beau­ti­ful helps us over­ride the neg­a­tiv­ity bias. To get in the habit, Gielan sug­gests tak­ing a photo each day of some­thing that makes you smile and laugh, or feel lucky and lov­ing: your sleep­ing child, an in­cred­i­ble meal, a pink sun­set, your fun­ni­est old friend. Then, at the end of the week, look at them again all to­gether. Do­ing so “trains your brain to watch for mo­ments to cap­ture,” Gielan writes in Broad­cast­ing

Hap­pi­ness. “It re­fo­cuses your at­ten­tion on the pos­i­tive, mean­ing­ful parts of the day, and shifts it away from stress and neg­a­tiv­ity.” Soon you won’t even need to snap pic­tures to feel that pleas­ant sen­sa­tion.

2 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: Go­ing it alone

Iso­lat­ing your­self is a sure­fire way to feel down. The hap­pi­est peo­ple have rich and sat­is­fy­ing re­la­tion­ships, ac­cord­ing to 2002 and 2018 stud­ies by Martin Selig­man, Ph.D., a pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia; and Ed Diener, Ph.D., a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia and the Univer­sity of Utah. While it’s a bit of a chick­e­nand-egg co­nun­drum (do joy­ful peo­ple nat­u­rally in­vite more mean­ing­ful bonds, or vice versa?), a strong so­cial net­work is a win-win.

How to Clear It: Reach out

That doesn’t mean you have to cram your cal­en­dar full. An easy start­ing point is to try open­ing con­ver­sa­tions with an op­ti­mistic com­ment, a tac­tic Gielan calls a “power lead.” Greet a co­worker with “I just lis­tened to a great pod­cast” in­stead of “I’m so tired,” or ask your kids, “What was the best part of your day?” rather than the rote “How was your day?” The shift is sub­tle but can fos­ter an im­me­di­ate pos­i­tive con­nec­tion.

3 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: Liv­ing in 2021

The ring. The raise. The last seven pounds. We can all fall into the trap of think­ing we’ll be happy the minute X, Y, or Z hap­pens. “The prob­lem is that this pushes hap­pi­ness into the fu­ture,” Gielan says. “When you fo­cus in the present in­stead, you get your brain to con­cen­trate on what is work­ing in your life.”

How to Clear It: Stay in the mo­ment

The idea of cen­ter­ing your­self is at the core of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, which has been shown to in­crease ac­tiv­ity in the left part of the frontal re­gion of the brain, the area re­spon­si­ble for pos­i­tive emo­tions like op­ti­mism. Ralph De La Rosa, a ther­a­pist and me­di­a­tion teacher, and au­thor of The Mon­key Is the Mes­sen­ger (Shamb­hala, 2018), sug­gests wak­ing up with a “5-3-1-1” prac­tice. While still in bed, take five big, deep breaths. Think of three things you’re grate­ful for. Smile one real smile, and set one in­ten­tion for your day. Habits like this pay big div­i­dends. Not only can be­ing more present give you a sun­nier out­look, Gielan says, it also may help im­prove your en­ergy level and your per­for­mance at work; it’s even been shown to up stu­dents’ test scores. The other bonus might be the world’s bestkept ca­reer se­cret: When you zero in on the good hap­pen­ing now, Gielan notes, you’re more likely to ex­cel.

4 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: The so­cial- me­dia vor­tex

ÒCom­pare and de­spair” is no joke. It’s easy to look up from a long scroll think­ing that ev­ery­one’s life is a party but yours. We don’t need ex­perts to tell us this habit is erod­ing our self-es­teem, though a 2014 study pub­lished in Psy­chol­ogy of Pop­u­lar Me­dia Cul­ture proved just that. Newer re­search has pin­pointed just how de­struc­tive it can be. A 2017 study pub­lished in Jour­nal of Af­fec­tive Dis­or­ders found that the more time 18-to-22-year-olds spent on so­cial me­dia, the more likely they were to have symp­toms of anx­i­ety.

How to Clear It: Power down, al­ready

Set aside time daily to dis­con­nect. Start with small in­cre­ments; even 10 min­utes counts. Then work up to be­ing phone-free for the first half-hour of the morn­ing, at meals, and dur­ing the last hour be­fore bed, since both your phone’s light­ing and its ir­re­sistible pull de­tract from qual­ity sleep—a must-have for com­bat­ing anx­i­ety and stress.

5 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: In­com­ing wor­ries

Speak­ing of st ress, Amer­i­cans re­port feel­ing more fried than ever. In Jan­uary 2017, the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion found a sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in st ress lev­els for the first time in its an­nual sur­vey’s 10-year his­tory. A 2018 fol­low-up found that we’re as anx­ious about the fu­ture of our coun­try (63 per­cent) as we are about ev­er­greens like money (62 per­cent) and work (61 per­cent).

How to Clear It: Back up and breathe

Still haven’t put down your phone? Step away: It’s one big rea­son we’re all hopped up on head­lines. Then think of tan­gi­ble ways to dif­fuse what’s vex­ing you, whether it’s hav­ing a heart-to-heart with your mom or us­ing an app to mon­i­tor your sp end­ing. If you’re st ill reel­ing, take a deep breath. Re­search shows that when our ex­hale is even a few counts longer than our in­hale, the va­gus nerve, which runs from the brain down through the neck to the di­aphragm and ab­domen, tells our ner­vous sys­tem to chill out. Our heart rate drops, our blood pres­sure low­ers, the blood ves­sels re­lax, and the whole body phys­i­cally calms down. In­hale slowly through your nose, then ex­hale with a soft haaaaaaa sound, un­til your lungs feel com­pletely empty. (Re­peat this 10 times, with a three-sec­ond pause be­tween breaths, for an even more sat­is­fy­ing re­lease.)

6 Hap­pi­ness Hur­dle: Spin­ning our wheels

We all feel st uck some­times—in an un­ful­fill­ing job, a drain­ing re­la­tion­ship, or just a “meh” state of mind. It turns out that means we might be st riv­ing for the wrong things. Peo­ple who shoot for per­sonal plea­sures (aka ex­trin­sic goals), such as fame and wealth, are demon­stra­bly less happy than those who seek per­sonal growth, re­la­tion­ships, and com­mu­nity (in­trin­sic goals), per a 2009 Univer­sity of Rochester st udy. Re­searchers asked grad­u­at­ing col­lege st udents about their as­pi­ra­tions, and fol­lowed up two years later. Those who pur­sued ex­trin­sic goals re­ported greater anx­i­ety and poorer phys­i­cal health de­spite their ac­com­plish­ments, while the group with in­trin­sic ones cited greater well-be­ing and self-es­teem as well as fewer phys­i­cal signs of stress.

How to Clear It: Find a pur­pose

Make that plu­ral: pur­poses. Think of what drives you in var­i­ous ar­eas of your life—your per­sonal, fam­ily, work, and com­mu­nity roles. “We have com­plex lives,” says Vic­tor J. Strecher, Ph.D., a health-be­hav­ior and health-ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan School of Pub­lic Health, and the au­thor of Life on Pur­pose (HarperOne, 2016). “We don’t care about just one thing.” A mul­ti­pur­pose mind-set helps us pri­or­i­tize and find bal­ance, he says. When we catch our­selves glued to our email and ig­nor­ing our fam­ily, we can think, Is this re­ally serv­ing my pur­pose here? Then we can turn back to things that do—the st uff that truly makes us feel happy. Kelly DiNardo is the coau­thor of Liv­ing the Su­tras: A Guide to Yoga Wis­dom Be­yond the Mat (Shamb­hala, 2018).

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