Happiness is a crucial part of our wellbeing, rooted in our nature as a fundamental link to mind-body health. While researchers in positive psychology have recently come under fire for over-focusing on the pursuit of happiness, others argue that positive affect provides a whole host of benefits. Although we may not know the exact answer to unlocking the secrets to a lifetime of happiness, there are some things we know for sure.
First, make happiness a priority. Authentic happiness is built on so much more than fleeting emotions; it’s based upon a consistent mindset that focuses on optimism, joy, gratitude and deep satisfaction. Those who believe that we can choose to be happy and make it a priority, feel a greater sense of connection, trust, openness to new experiences. They can tolerate critical feedback more easily, are pro-social and see life in an open-minded way. If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will: positive mood, optimism and a sense of humor are all strong protective factors when it comes to mind-body health, making them well worth working at.
According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, our brains have an in-built bias for negativity, which puts us on high alert for the bad in life. As he describes it, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” One way to counteract this tendency is to take notice of the small positives in everyday moments. Just think; the secret to strengthening that positivity muscle could be as simple as paying attention, turning up your curiosity dial and tuning in to small wonders.
Next, meditate on the positive. Findings show that those who regularly practice meditating on thoughts of kindness and compassion enjoy a surge in positive emotion, feel fewer symptoms of depression and are more satisfied with life overall. Researchers argue that positive emotions are a mechanism for positive change, which serves to outpace the hedonic treadmill, the theory that perceived well-being has an unwavering set point. Kindness meditation involves five steps: focusing your attention on compassion for yourself; your family; acquaintances; someone you’re in conflict with; and then all humans. Practice every day, and you’ll likely notice improvements in how you feel about yourself and even about our entire human race.
There’s a quote by Robert Holden, author of Happiness Now! that I love. He tells us, “The real gift of gratitude is that the more grateful you are, the more present you become.” Expressing gratitude is a well-proven route to feeling happier, more resilient and physically healthier. Martin Seligman, a leading researcher in the field, gives us the formula: write down three things each day that went well and note the cause of the positive results. Those who did the same every night for one week were happier and less depressed for the entire following month. Just imagine the effects if we were to commit to gratitude for a lifetime.
What if I told you the secret to happiness isn’t about improving your life, but rather improving the lives of others? Research shows it’s good to be good; performing acts of kindness and altruism leads not only to better mood; it’s linked to a longer and healthier life. And in the challenges of our time, altruism may be the vital thread to lead us towards a more personally and globally sustainable future.
Finally, the happiest among us know their relationships matter and make them a priority. Close personal ties and the capacity for caring relationships is a strong predictor of life satisfaction (especially for men). And while it doesn’t seem to matter how many of them there are, self-disclosure is key. The more open you are, the more likely you are to feel that your life is deeply satisfying.
It’s deceptively simple, but rewiring our neurobiology to live a deeply satisfying and happy life is as simple as drawing our own attention to the handful of small, good things that happen on a moment-to-moment basis. In these small changes we make radical shifts.