Mental Health

Ways to Pursue True Happiness

If we walk into a bookstore, we will find most books in the self-help aisle focused on increasing our sense of happiness through one strategy or another.  Come to think of it, there are a wide variety of books created for the sole purpose of achieving happiness.  From financial success and weight loss to finding a soul mate and decorating like a pro, it’s all about becoming happy. How many of us believe if we just lost that last ten pounds we would be happy? What about dreams of becoming independently wealthy or winning the lottery as a route to finally find happiness?

Although there are many beliefs and expectations about happiness, research suggests some good news (and not so good news) for those in constant pursuit…

1. We Control 50-Percent of Our Happiness

The belief that happiness is a choice may be more myth than fact when we consider the research examining the genetic factors of happiness.  Psychologists from the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with researchers from Queensland Institute in Australia found that, on average, 50-percent of happiness comes from our actions and the rest is related to personality traits such as sociability, conscientiousness, and lack of anxiety and worry.

It is important to note that the 50-percent we can control is related to our social, cultural, and environmental conditions.  This means if our relationships and environment are negative, we may not be as happy as someone in a more supportive environment.  Needless to say, the old adage of “turning that frown upside down” may be easier said than done.

2. Relationships Are Key in Pursuing Happiness

We have all experienced that high we get after enjoying time with friends and family.  The feeling of connection with others is not just a feeling, but a physiological reaction to being with people we care about.  Interestingly, those with a sense of social connection with others experience less sadness, depression, loneliness, and low self-esteem than those that feel isolated.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where collecting friends on Facebook is commonplace while staying at home with our big screens and surround sound.  Volunteerism and group participation is a good way to get out of the house and socialize if we are living in a new town or have lost our social network.  No matter how one connects with others, there is a direct link between relationships and happiness.

3. Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness

To most of us, the thought of winning the lottery and paying off our debts while enjoying the financial freedom millions of dollars has to offer is pure joy.  Unfortunately, the literature suggests something a little different (and somewhat surprising).  Richard Layard, a professor of Economics at London School of Economics suggested that people are the happiest when their basic needs are met.  Once we are have our shelter, food, and other basic psychological and physiological needs taken care of, additional financial gains and the accumulation of stuff fails to increase our level of happiness.

The challenge is not getting influenced by the media messages that permeating our lives promising us we will find happiness if we buy their product.  From a new car and house to the expensive bag and name-brand rain boots, if we just buy this one thing, we will be happy. We now know this false belief of happiness will only lead to dissatisfaction, a sense of disconnection, and even depression in the long run.

4. Looking on the Bright Side Can Affect Mental Health

To some, the idea of thinking positively is embedded in their DNA; to challenge the notion is like saying there is no such thing as Santa Clause. Recently, there have been some challenges to the idea of making lemonade out of lemons. Negative emotions like sadness and anger serve a purpose as does the more positive emotions. If we work hard at covering them up with a smattering of positive thinking we may be missing out on the important information our emotions are sharing with us.  By ignoring our feelings long enough, we may begin to experience depression and other mental health concerns.

Happiness isn’t something we can force upon ourselves but something that results from understanding how we feel, and what we need.  By giving attention to the sadness, hurt, and other uncomfortable feelings, we will be more able (and likely) to feel the happiness and joy when it comes to us.

5. Lifestyle Factors Can Make a Big Happy Difference!

It should come as no surprise that making little changes to our lifestyle can reap some major benefits to our level of happiness.  As little as 30-minutes of activity (i.e. walking) a day can alleviate mild to moderate depression and elevate the mood and self-concepts of anyone (depressed or not).  Sleep is another factor that makes a big difference.  Getting enough sleep, on average 7- to 8-hours a night, will increase our recollection of positive memories versus the sleep deprived recollecting more negative experiences.

Spending time outside, for even 20-minutes in good weather has shown, not only to increase positive mood, but improve working memory.  In addition, volunteerism has also been shown to increase our level of happiness and quality of life.  Studies have shown it takes only two hours per week to feel the effects of helping others. No matter what we chose to focus on, there are many small changes we can make to our lifestyle that will have a positive effect on the 50-percent of happiness we have control over…and that’s nothing to frown about!

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