“Remember, being happy doesn’t mean you have it all. It simply means you’re thankful for all you have.” ~Unknown
I remember sitting on the New York City subway, tears streaming down my face, armed with valium and lithium along with other antidepressants that my psych had just prescribed.
I was desperate, in that cave I had come to know as depression. Dark, hopeless, fearful depression. The cold metal seat of the subway made me feel raw and exposed. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t stop crying. I was panicked that I would be like this forever.
That was an example of one time in my life. Yeah, I got over it. And there were other episodes of this beast. I gradually became sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I remember the day. I had been in depression again, and from what seemed like nowhere I started to feel the light of gratitude. I was actually feeling grateful! And it felt so very good! I knew I could start to think and feel differently.
Then and there I finally vowed to find out how to bring happiness into my life on a consistent basis. Sure, there would be the hard times, but my goal became to live my life in the most positive way I could. I discovered that happiness is an inside job and a process. There is a science to being happier. And I’m here to tell you, it can be done.
Maybe you’ve never been that down. I hope not. But if you’re feeling low or blue, there is help for you.
So let’s look at the science of happiness.
Sonia Lyubormirsky and colleagues have discovered that we can actually raise our happiness levels. According to their research, 50 percent of our happiness is genetic, hardwired, we are born with a happiness set point. This might explain why your sister is always happy, while you struggle to make it through a day at times. Unfortunately, this set point cannot be changed.
The next thing to consider: 10 percent of our happiness is due to life circumstances—our gender, our age, where we grew up, our occupation, significant events in our lives, whether we are married or single, etc.
For instance, you might think that having more money or having that new car would make you happier, but it only would make you happier up to a point. Then the effect of “hedonic adaptation” takes over. That is the tendency we all have to get used to what we have, causing our happiness levels to go back to the way they were before we got that “new thing.”
If you’re worried about survival, then having enough money would be critical. But studies show that the rich aren’t any happier than the rest of us. In fact, it’s been reported that they claim they have more headaches and worries. Again, happiness is an inside job.
Now the good news: 40 percent of our happiness is left for intentional activity. This is where we have choice. We can change and manage our state of mind. This 40 percent is where we have control over our happiness levels. We may not be able to change our set point, but we can change our happiness levels! It’s up to us.
There are many things we can do as intentional habits. We can practice acts of kindness, learn to forgive, connect with others, take care of our bodies (through both physical activity and meditation)—and these are just a few.
One of the best places to start is with a daily gratitude practice. Write down three things that make you grateful daily. Choose different things each day. Write down why they make you grateful. The why is very important.
Studies done in corporations like Google have shown this practice increases positivity levels. Make this a daily intentional practice. It may seem corny at first but, hey, science has shown that it works. Guaranteed to change your mindset.
There is a whole science to happiness, and it consists of daily, (what I like to call), “happiness hygiene habits.” You do these things like you brush your teeth. They keep your happiness levels higher. You choose what works best for you and you make it a daily practice.
For instance, Harvard Health Publishing has reported that moving your body, be it exercising, walking, dancing, or practicing yoga, has in most cases been as effective as an antidepressant. Low intensity exercise sustained over time spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes us feel better.
Back when I was so down, I had an insight and realized that if I wanted to have better days I was going to have to do for myself. I was going to have to understand what helps me change my mindset from negative to positive.
Happiness isn’t something you go after and then once you get it, you have it for good. It’s an ongoing process of daily maintenance using the tools that the science of happiness has uncovered.
Some of these tools:
1. Setting realistic, achievable, and personally significant goals has given me a purpose.
My goals become projects that inspire and excite me. I set intrinsic goals versus extrinsic goals. These pursuits make me happier and keep me young. I no longer set goals about money, ego, or power. I value and truly “own” my goals; they are not handed down by what society dictates or what my parents, neighbors, or anyone else externally thinks are worthy
2. Savoring positive moments has become a real source of joy.
When I find a sunrise with a glowing moon that is awesome, I hold onto that awe and revel in it. Catch the beauty, savor the positive.
3. Connecting with people can make a huge difference.
Reaching out to good friends, (even when I don’t want to) has helped me stay more connected and therefore more content.
4. Sharing with a close friend what’s going on in my life helps to take the weight off my shoulders and I get to share my secrets.
You’re only as sick as your secrets. Sharing is caring. Listening to good friends is just as healing.
5. Practicing random acts of kindness (letting someone go first in a line or writing a “thank you” letter) has shown me compassion.
These small acts get me thinking along the lines of being of service. Being of service takes the focus off of me and onto others. Where can I make a difference in someone else’s life?
6. Increasing my spiritual connection has become a source of hope and strength.
Through meditation, prayer, and contemplation, I have found a connection with the universal source which I tap into daily.
7. Catching my negative self-talk has been huge in helping me to stay positive.
Catching negative talk such as: catastrophizing (“This is terrible”), all or nothing thinking (“It always turns out like this”), negative predictions (“My finances will be in ruins”), labeling (“I’m so stupid”) and so on has been a big turnaround.
Catching these thoughts is not always easy, but I’m on the lookout for them now. I immediately stop myself and switch the thought to a positive, more accurate statement. Our negative thoughts aren’t the truth of the situation; they’re lies and distortions the ego tells us. It’s all in how we perceive it.
8. Paying attention to the little things helps me maintain a healthy mental space.
Even something as simple as listening to my music and getting up and dancing will almost always lift my mood.
9. Finally, living in the moment as much as I can, without bringing the past into it or dooming and glooming about the future has allowed me to be free of torment.
The “now” is where true peace lies. Present moment awareness is simple but not always easy.
So all of these actions and more can make up our 40 percent choice point. We can raise our state of well-being through practice of the happiness hygiene habits. Science has proven that practicing these habits has helped in raising low-level pessimists into low-level optimists.
Hey, if I can do it, anyone can. And that means you!
About Antonia Banewicz
Antonia Banewicz has over twenty years of training and teaching experience (MA in Interpersonal Communication) and has taught at NYU and Columbia University. She has had gobs of life experience, therapy, twelve-step programs, and two certifications (Mindset Coach and Science of Happiness). She is a Happiness Coach and owner of Brighter Better Days. You can benefit from her experiences and training by getting her free book on happiness here.