Happiness Hints

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"There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way." Thich Nhat Hahn – Buddhist teacher

For the past couple of decades research on positive psychology has flourished. Many studies have shown that much of what we thought was true about happiness, isn't. For example, once basic needs are met, money has no impact on happiness. Warm weather makes you feel good but adds nothing to sustained happiness. Lottery winners do not stay happier for much longer than 3 months before they return to their pre-windfall level of happiness. Another person cannot make you happy for long. People who become paraplegic due to an accident return to their baseline level of happiness after six months. And, not until you have two major illnesses at the same time does happiness begin to decline.
    So, if happiness is not improved with blue skies, white sand beaches, health, vibrancy, the right partner, and even the lottery, what does bring more happiness?
    Tal Ben-Shahar (2009), a psychologist at Harvard University, discussed four ways to increase happiness: (1) Give ourselves permission to experience the full range of emotions. (2) Manage stress. (3) Meditate. (4) Focus on the positive.
    What does it mean to allow and accept the full range of emotions? All emotions flow through the same pipeline. If we obsess about negative emotions, rather than let them flow through us, we block the emotional pipeline and it interferes with happiness. For example, if your sister and her know-it-all husband are coming for Christmas, don't stay focused on why you dislike him. Acknowledge that your negative feeling is natural and let it flow through. That way, instead of allowing Mr. Idiot to make you feel miserable, you can relax and enjoy the holiday.
    Happiness is blocked by stress and the misery it brings. Richard Kadison, in his 2004 book, College of the Overwhelmed, says that, "since 1988, the likelihood of a college student suffering depression has doubled, thoughts of suicide have tripled, and sexual assaults have quadrupled." Similarly, a recent American Psychological Association survey found that one-third of the population live with extreme stress and 48 percent say it has increased over the past five years.
    Shahar's research claims we can fight this, and increase happiness, if we reduce multitasking and simplify our lives. For example, time with friends and family is a huge happiness producer. But suppose, while your relatives are visiting, you can't tear yourself away from your TV, smartphone, laptop, or ipad. You won't be happier and you may not get more done. In fact, a study in London found that when people check their email while trying to concentrate on something else, they lose the equivalent of ten IQ points—they got temporarily dumber!
    Meditation is the third way Shahar says we can increase happiness. It's simple. Do yoga, breathe deeply, mantra-meditate, or pray. He says all forms work as long as we adhere to the following: (1) Keep it one-pointed. Focus on only one thing: your breathing, mantra, or prayer. (2) Always breathe deeply—belly breathing—over and over. (3) There is not "good" or "bad" meditation; if you lose focus, just deliberately bring it back, and you'll get better.
    Research on the brains of meditators reveals that meditation, even without much expertise, soon activates the left frontal cortex where happiness resides. Practicing meditation on a regular basis, 15 or 20 minutes per day, has been shown to increase overall well-being. Thomas Crum, in his 2006 book, Three Deep Breaths, maintains, as the title suggests, that it is not that difficult. In any case, Shahar cites considerable research to support the view that meditation increases happiness.
    Finally, Shahar says we are happier when we focus on the positive. In particular, he stresses the benefit of expressing gratitude and being appreciative of the ordinary. For example, Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that, "those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis were more likely to exercise regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and be more optimistic about the upcoming week than were those who kept track of hassles or neutral life events."
    Take Shahar's advice. Open up your emotional pipeline, work out your stress, meditate, stay positive and grateful, and live well between your ears.

For more like this check out my book: Live Well Between Your Ears: 110 ways to think like a psychologist, why it matters, and the research to back it up. Click on the Buy Now button.  It will take you to Amazon where you can look inside to decide whether to buy it.