In the first part of this series I talked about some of the research that has been done showing that
- We have an innate tendency to maintain a certain level of happiness.
- The change in our level of happiness brought about by events in our lives usually lasts for a shorter period of time than we expect that they would last.
- Our happiness has little relationship to our socioeconomic status, sex, race, or educational level.
Two conclusions I drew from this research were
- Looking for happiness in outside events is a mistake, though it is where we are programmed to look for happiness by our culture.
- Our level of happiness can be changed.
So, how do we change our level of happiness? It doesn't matter whether you believe you were born with your genetics because of who you are, or who you are is determined in part by your genetics - history, experience, and modern research show that your thoughts and actions have as much to do with your emotional state as your neurobiology, if not more. As Abe Lincoln (who appears to have lived with major depression) said, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."
There are several activities that have been shown to raise your level of happiness. Almost everything on this site is devoted to just this point, but here are some specific actions you can take.
- Get enough sleep. I don't know about you, but I, and most people I know, don't function well intellectually, physically, or emotionally if we don't meet our personal sleep requirements.
- Exercise. I prefer yoga, but any form of exercise will do. Our bodies are not designed to sit and do nothing. We need exercise to function properly.
- Pay attention to your own life. Unless you are going to act, thinking about what happens on the other side of the world, or on the other side of your fence in your neighbor's life only harms you. A large part of stress is caused by focusing on things about which you cannot, or will not, take action. Why destroy yourself?
- Be thankful for what you have. Maintain a gratitude journal. This takes the focus of your thought from what you don't have, to what you do have, from what is wrong in your life, to what is right in it.
- Get outside of yourself. Relationships are one of the most important means of personal growth and personal fulfillment that we have, even if you have just one close relationship - child, spouse, friend, parent.
- Volunteer. One of the best definitions of love I've ever heard is the state in which someone else's well-being is as important to you as your own. Volunteering helps to develop this state, taking your attention from yourself.
- Make a conscious effort to maintain a optimistic attitude. While you are born with your biology, you decide what thoughts are welcome in your mind.
- Meditate. Meditate. Meditate. Yes, it's that important and that effective. Even 15 - 30 minutes a day has long-term effects on your baseline emotional state. In the sidebar here you'll see an entire category devoted to meditation. Be Still and Know details some of the physical, psychological, and spiritual effects of this practice.
- Use neurofeedback. Dr. Shue's site is devoted to this practice.
All of these activities have physical, emotional, and psychological effects. Many have been shown to affect brain chemistry in a positive way, and even to promote physical healing. If practiced regularly, they cannot help but increase your general level of happiness.
Most people tend to look at happiness as an emotional state, and there is no denying that happiness has an emotional component. There is, however, another component to happiness. The third and final part of this series will look at this different perspective.