03 Sep Happiness: Now Available on Aisle 5
Happiness: Now Available on Aisle 5
Ashleigh Gabriel, LCSW
I hear it a lot from clients, “I just want to be happy.” The only problem with that desire is it often tends to be too black and white. First, we have to figure out what does happiness even mean to you, what would “being happy” look like in your life, and are your expectations of those things realistic? We all want happiness, sure, but unfortunately it just isn’t something you can go get from the doctor or over the counter at the grocery store.
Happiness isn’t an all or nothing situation. Many times I see people who are just wanting the absence of sadness or other negative emotions. Happiness isn’t something that just happens to you either. People will describe the people they identify as “happy” as lucky, but more often than not, that “happy” person has worked hard to cultivate that happiness in their life. Happiness also isn’t constant. Even the happiest people in the world still have ups and downs, still have bad days, and still struggle to maintain that.
With all that talk of what happiness, “isn’t”, I’m sure you are wondering now, “Well what IS it?!” Check out this diagram below from the book The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky. After many studies they averaged out 3 main areas that contribute to your overall happiness. You will notice that it’s broken into 2 halves: what you cannot control and what you CAN control. The truth is, thanks to our genetics, for all of us we do have a default setting to either be a “glass half full” or a “glass half empty” kind of person. You may think back in your own family and start noticing patterns of behavior with your siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. Understanding what your baseline is can be really helpful going into looking at what you do have control over.
What we do have control over when it comes to our happiness, are life circumstances and our internal state of mind, or intentional actions, as Lyubomirsky calls it in her book. The important thing to take note of is that life circumstances only accounts for 10% of our happiness. I know, I know, you may be thinking, “but I really, really hate my job and that makes me unhappy!” For sure! I’m not discounting your work woes. That small percentage is not to say those things have NO effect, but that in the grand scheme of our lives, it is in fact much smaller than we realize. The reason it feelslike it has that bigger impact is because of that other 40%: your internal state of mind or intentional actions. Meaning you are spending a good chunk of that 40% focused on your life circumstances and thus making it feel all encompassing.
Now, the million-dollar question: how do I change that?
Dr. Richard Davidson, with the Greater Good Science Center, explains happiness or “well-being” as a skill. Yes, happiness is a skill! Which means that you can learn it much like you would learn anything else. He offers four main components to well-being as a skill:
Resilience is the idea of “bouncing back” after facing adversity. Often it’s believed that some people either have resilience or they don’t and you can’t change it, when in fact you can. Although, Dr. Davidson does mention that unlike the other areas of well-being, resilience takes longer to build. One way to begin building resilience is through mindfulness practice. Dr. Richardson’s site offers a simple mindfulness meditation that can be a perfect place to start.
This component is all about focusing on the positive and the good in the world and people around us. The Greater Good Science Center has done studies to show the effectiveness of simple meditations of rewiring the brain’s circuits to change one’s outlook. By practicing their Loving Kindness Meditation or their Compassion Meditation, you can make fairly quick work of altering your outlook in life.
The third component of happiness or well-being as a skill is attention. In a study done by some social psychologists at Harvard University showed that basically, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Researchers found that in American, most adults spend an average of nearly HALF of their waking time not paying attention to their day-to-day on goings. Think about all the times you’ve driven somewhere on “autopilot”, only to arrive and not be entirely sure how you made it there in one piece. How many meals have you eaten in front of a screen? How much time do you spend catering to distractions on your smart phone? When we can start paying better attention to the things we do, even the mundane things, it can make a drastic difference in our well-being and happiness.
When I talk about generosity or gratitude in my practice, I sometimes receive groans or eye rolls in response; however, as cheesy as this stuff may seem the research backs it up. Small acts of kindness are not just good for others but they are good for us too. Dr. Richardson says, “When we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something [new]… What we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing a quality that was there from the onset.” When we feel down it’s hard to take care of ourselves and do things for us, so try something different: do something for someone else. You might be surprised what a difference it will make.
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