Is there a secret of happiness?
Let’s start by clarifying that the definition, or secret of happiness is different for everyone…it’s not a one-size-fits all sort of thing…yet I can tell you with certainty one thing that happiness is: a choice
You need only look at the recent worldwide recession for proof. We are surrounded by people who have lost jobs, homes and lost dreams. But it didn’t kill their spirits or their smiles, they refused to be victims of their circumstances. Instead, many of these people were downright happy to still have their health, their families and their lives. They ‘choose’ happiness over unhappiness, refusing to let the later get the best of them.
Happiness Is…a Physical Reaction (this is so amazing!)
While the jury may still be out on the definition, or secret of happiness from spiritual and emotional standpoints, recent science has made huge breakthroughs in pinning down the physiological definition of happiness.
In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom, neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson and Dr. Richard Mendius focus on two questions: “What brain states underline happiness, love and wisdom?’ and “How can you stimulate and strengthen these positive brain states?”
Only within the last 40 years has the scientific community accepted the theory of neuroplasticity…that the brain can change over time. And that philosophy is at the heart of Buddha’s Brain. “We can actually use the mind to change the brain. The simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brains activity and its structure.”
Most of what changes the brain over time are our experiences, so Hanson and Mendius argue that if we embrace and focus on positive experiences instead of negative ones, these will become part of the landscape of our brains.
“Every time you take in the good, you build a little bit of neural structure,” they say. “Doing this a few times a day…for months and even years…will gradually change your brain, how you feel and act, in far-reaching ways.”
They also point to the powerful effects of meditation, which activates the parasymphatic nervous system in several ways, including “withdrawing attention from stressful matters, relaxing and bringing awareness to the body.” In the long term meditation can actually increase the gray matter in key parts of the brain, in turn improving “psychological function associated with these regions, including attention, compassion, and empathy.” It can also lift mood, decrease stress-related cortisol, strengthen the immune system and help a variety of medical conditions.
Shawn Achor a student and later a teacher at Harvard was puzzled by four out of five students being depressed. He focused his research on the one out of five, “the individuals that were truly flourishing, to see what gave them the advantage over their peers. What was it that allowed the these people to escape the gravitational pull of the norm? Could patterns be teased out of their lives and experience to help others in all walks of life to be more successful in an increasingly stressful and negative world?” His findings are The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psycology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. https://amzn.to/2RnjtNX
Achor concluded that the popular belief that success leads to happiness is actually true in reverse, “that happiness leads to success in nearly every domain, including work, health, friendship, sociability, creativity and energy.”
From a physical standpoint, Achor says this is because “our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”
The biological explanation is that feeling happy releases dopamine and serotonin, which “dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer and retrieve it faster later on.”
As Hanson and Mendius write in Buddha’s Brain, “small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time, as you gradually build new neural sturctures.”
That’s what Gretchen Rubin discovered in The Happiness Project https://amzn.to/2BMiM6Z One dreary day on a city bus, the wife, mother, and writer realized she wasn’t focusing on the important things in life and decided to spend a year making her life…and herself…happier. But, since she couldn’t uproot her existence for some Walden-esque sojourn, she committed to taking small steps.
“Making little changes in your ordinary day can have a dramatic impact on the happiness you feel on an everyday basis,” she says. “Be mindful about your life and your choices, (these changes have) to be manageable.”
Find Your Happy Place…
While there is no cure all for the blues, here are some simple, everyday actions, courtesy of Shawn Achor and Gretchen Rubin, that can help you get closer to solving the secret of happiness now…and in the long term.
1. Laugh out loud
2. Keep a gratitude notebook
3. Commit conscious acts of kindness
4. Use good manners
6. Tackle a nagging task
7. Spend money on experiences
8. Find an area of refuge
9. Take time to be silly
10. Embrace your social network
11. Find something to look forward to
So now that you know the secret of happiness are you willing to fight for happiness?
I too, as I mentioned a few posts ago…was not focusing on what’s important in life. That being said, I’m now fighting for happiness daily, by following many of the items on the list above. In addition I’m taking time daily to meditate and focus on things that I have to be grateful for, things that make me happy, experiences that I’ve had that are happy.
Action Exercise 1: Sit in a quiet place and think of an event or experience that made you happy…see how long you can hold onto that thought without other thoughts fighting for attention.
It might surprise you to find that you can’t hold that thought for more than a couple of seconds! Keep practicing daily until you can hold a happy thought or memory for a minimum of 15 seconds.
Action Exercise 2: Go back to your wonderful thought and think about it more, re-live it. Remember how good that feeling was then and start to feel it…not just think it…Go back, and experience it again.
This is a powerful technique I’ve recently learned to control my thoughts. The ability to control your thoughts will help you switch off the chatter box upstairs and reboot your brain… giving you control of your thoughts and taking you from being negative, living with stress and fear, to happiness at will.
It’s an exciting journey, I’m continually amazed by the changes I’ve experienced in my life since discovering and practicing these techniques.
So remember, the secret of happiness is…choice…not circumstances!
Cheers to your happiness,
PS: Most of the information I used for this article was taken from Success Magazine – Choosing Happy by Pauline Estrem – January 2011. So if you liked this article you should consider reading the rest of the issue, its packed with more great information on happiness and success!