We all know happiness is good, but what does it mean to be happy? Here are some surprising things that don’t correlate to happiness, according to the UN’s recent Global Report on Happiness: nice, sunny weather; low taxes; even increased personal wealth (after a point). The known sources of happiness, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, are not quite so intuitive. About 50% of our happiness is set by our genes, 10% by life circumstances beyond our control, and 40% by our own actions. The dubiousness of such exact numbers aside, this means that your own attitude and actions can have a great effect on your happiness.
The true nature of happiness is up for debate, but many of us would say that it’s much more than fleeting pleasures of new clothes, delicious food, or even the excitement of a new relationship or the high after a great run. Lasting happiness–which I like to think of as peace rather than euphoria–is a state of well being, or a gentle appreciation for self and others. In other words, it’s not a reaction, but an attitude. You can’t control your genetic predisposition or many life circumstances, but you can steer yourself toward genuine happiness by practicing gratitude.
1. Write it down: Keeping a gratitude journal and writing in it everyday helps you keep a positive attitude. To start, either buy a pretty eco-friendly journal or make your own: our own Mary Hood of Grenadine and Gold makes her own beautiful Coptic stitch notebooks, shown above. (You can learn more here). Then, take just a few minutes every night to jot down what you’re grateful for. (Here’s mine for today: “I’m grateful that as long as I have Zeus (my cat), I’ll always have a napping partner.”) If you’d rather have something more on-the-go, download a gratitude app like Thankfulfor, which also lets you do public gratitude offerings, just like on the back of a Luna bar. (Yes, I read those).
2. Look at old photos: Studies show that looking at old photos promotes a sense of wellbeing by recalling happy memories. When you’re finding it hard to feel grateful for anything, take a few minutes to browse your favorite photos on your computer or in old albums. As you remember the great times shared with family and friends, or moments of your proudest accomplishments, you’ll be able to breathe easier–and also feel more thankful.
3. Think about what might have been: According to Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the key to practicing gratitude is to remember the bad times. Dr. Emmons posits that our minds think in counterfactuals, or comparisons of how things are and how things might have been. So next time you are stressing out about your job, remember how grateful you felt when you finally received the offer after months of job search. It can even be a more general exercise, such as recalling the most emotionally trying moments of your life, how you overcame that difficulty, and how you grew from the experience.
4. Take care of yourself: You might have the best intentions to be grateful but it will be hard to implement if you’re tired, groggy, and stressed. If that sounds familiar, make it a priority to take care of yourself. Do things that you like to do, whether it’s going to yoga class, seeing a new exhibit at the museum, getting a massage, or curling up with a good book and a glass of wine. If you’re often the patient listener, make sure you have a shoulder to lean on, too. Being kind to yourself makes you more kind toward others–and helps you feel more positive and grateful.
5. Think about other people: Have you thought about others lately? (This sounds like the opposite of number 4, but it’s totally possible to be deeply self-absorbed and still neglect taking care of oneself properly.) Our self-interest is not only natural, it also allows us to survive. But with the demands of our modern life, it’s easy to get caught up in our personal woes and to never turn our thoughts outside toward loved ones, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone else in the world who deserves your sympathy. Only thinking about yourself leads not to happiness, but to discontent and dissatisfaction–whereas thinking about others in sympathetic way leads to the feeling of gratitude. For instance, praying for a friend who is going through a rough patch helps you think positively about your own circumstances. And reflecting on the suffering around the world turns our own complaints much smaller by comparison. Whether or not you are religious or spiritual, make a habit of offering your goodwill to those who are in need–and make each offering an opportunity to practice gratitude, as well.
Also in Balance: On Being Gentle
Photo: Mary Hood; 123rf