Why should you care about being happy at all? Well, according to Harvard professor Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage” shows how happier people are more productive, more accurate and benefit from more creativity and energy. Our brains become optimised for success in every aspect of our lives.
1: Attitude of Gratitude
Change the “have to’s” to the “get to’s” to realise how lucky you are. You have to wake up in the morning and go to work? No – you GET to wake up in the morning and go to work (think of the millions of people who would be desperate to get a job or have the skills and education that allows you to do what you do). Similarly, you have to go to the gym? No again – you GET to go to the gym, you have a beautifully functioning body that works and the luxury of working it out at a gym.
Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much research on gratitude and have shown its clear link to well-being and its benefits in relationships – whether it is taking time to write thank you notes or keeping a gratitude journal – those who felt gratitude periodically reminded themselves of how lucky they were and tested as “happier” and “felt better about their lives” than those who did not.
When I am feeling particularly down or low, I start making a mental note of the things that I am grateful for throughout the day e.g. the fact that my bed is so comfortable, the sun is shining, there is no traffic, my dress arrived back from the dry cleaning just in time for my meeting.. no matter how small it is, as the list piles up my mood starts to lighten. Harvard Research shows that by doing this regularly, you start to program your brain to scan for good things and filter out the bad.
A surprisingly high 90% of your long term happiness is not predicted by social status, money, health or anything external but rather on how your brain is programmed to process your external world. Your perception of your life depends on the lens through which you see it.
2: Stop to smell the Roses.. literally!
After I read Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I started looking at the world in a different way. It may sound cheesy but my walk to work through Regents Park became more than just a commute as I spent a moment each day marvelling about how incredible nature is. I find being in nature healing and calming anyway but this is much more than that. There was an article in the New York Times once about the famous violinist Joshua Bell who performed an impromptu anonymous concert in the New York subway – despite being a world famous musician who sells out concerts north of $150 a ticket, barely anyone paid attention to him that day. We are so caught up in our routine lives, goals and “to dos” that sometimes we forget to enjoy ourselves and see the beauty around us. Both living in the present and stopping to appreciate the perfection in each moment of our lives, here and now, is a key secret to being happy.
3: Take care of your body
We all know that exercising makes us happy – learn why (beyond just the release of endorphins) here and then get out there and do it! Exercise teaches your brain about discipline and studies show that regular exercise improves happiness and positivity in the long term, even if its just 20 minutes a day.
Beyond this, good nutrition can actual chemically alter your brain – e.g. to make neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine (aka happy hormones), you need nutrients like B12 and iron (from foods like salmon and spinach). According to “The Happiness Diet” by Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey, a modern day diet with an unhealthy focus on sugars and refined carbs makes us not only fat but depressed too, increasing chances of anxiety, mood swings and other emotional problems.
The East has been advocating its benefits for years and now, from US Marines to corporate executives at Google to Hedge Funds, meditation is becoming an increasingly popular tool to enhance mental performance. In 2005, a Harvard Medical School study showed that brain regions associated with attention, sensory awareness and emotional processing (the cortex) actually grew thicker in correlation with how much the subjects meditated. The Dalai Lama explains that “all human beings have an innate desire to overcome suffering; to find happiness. Training the mind to think differently, through meditation, is one important way to avoid suffering and be happy”.
5: Fake it till you make it with mood altering stimulants – no not drugs!
Since being happy is predominantly about your perception, it is easy to take control of your mind and mood by distracting yourself with something that makes you happy. When I am feeling low or stressed, I dig out a complimentary email from a client, pump up my favourite music or think of something that makes me happy. Simple influences like happy thoughts, memories, sunshine and other happy upbeat people can turn your mood around quickly and effectively. Ironically, even faking a smile can arouse genuine emotions of happiness – in 1990 “facial coding” expert Elkman showed that adopting a smile produced a change in brain activity that corresponded with a happier mood. Kraft and Pressman got similar results in a 2013 study where they forced their subjects to smile using chopsticks!