Friday, August 28, 2009

Adjusting the Happiness Thermostat

My last book, Happy at Last, borrowed from psychology, economics, brain science, and social research to identify how we can be happier. It turns out that each of us has our own set point for happiness, like on a thermostat. Some of us are constitutionally bubbly, others seem to be natural grumps. When good things happen to us, those who are on the grumpy side can feel good for a while, but they usually return to their previous set point. If we want to stay happier, we have to put in focused attention and practice. The good news is that it really works. Both brain research and the social sciences have shown that we can make a permanent adjustment in our happiness quotient by making a few changes in how we think and what we pay attention to.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions that will add both joy and satisfaction to your life:

1. Happiness is a skill. It’s not an innate gift. It requires that we pay close attention to our experience and see objectively what makes us happy. Our minds and our culture tell us a lot of lies about what might make us happy (getting rich, beating out the competition, acquiring a lot of things). We have to get past those assumptions and systematically learn what makes us happy.

2. Practice mindfulness meditation at least four days a week for a half hour. Just sit, clear your head, focus on your breath, and listen to the noise your brain makes while you're trying to disengage from it. Your brain really doesn’t want to give up control. But as you practice this, you will become healthier, calmer, less stressed, more aware of hidden meanings and patterns in your life, and less subject to anxiety running away with you. By some measures, experienced meditators are the happiest people in the world.

3. Practice mindful thinking and observation. Because we’re under so much stress, we feel we have to quickly categorize our experience into simple, black and white categories. This makes us miss out on the rich details of life. If you practice noticing how you judge, slowly you’ll begin to stop. View yourself and the world with compassionate curiosity, the desire to understand and the belief in your own worth. Learn to be noncategorical, detached, willing to let go, willing to think independently, willing to take responsibility. Cultivating mindfulness will make you more aware of opportunities for joy, help you make better decisions so you’ll reduce unnecessary misery and experience greater satisfaction and meaning.

4. Exercise aerobically for a half hour, three to four times a week. There’s an enormous body of research out there to prove a very simple point: the more you exercise, the better you feel.

5. Don’t fall for the belief that you’ll be happy when you get what you want. Inevitably, when you get what you want, you’ll quickly get used to it and start wanting something else. And while you’ve been waiting, you’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities for joy.

6. Work on wanting what you have. Look around you and try to appreciate your possessions and possibilities as if you were Ben Franklin popped into the 21st century. Central heating, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, a stove and refrigerator. A vehicle that will take you 600 miles in a day, in comfort, on paved roads. An orchestra you can carry in your pocket. If Franklin doesn’t do it for you, simply look carefully at your surroundings. Your furniture, books, possessions. There’s beauty and memories there. Savor them.

7. Contemporary living conditions are not what our bodies and minds were designed for. We’re designed to live in small cooperative groups; to work no more than four hours a day; and to spend the rest of the time communing with each other, making music, making art. So don’t assume there’s something wrong with you if you’re not happy. Being happy in today’s world takes effort.

8. Most unhappy people have an Inner Critic in their brains. The Inner Critic is the voice that blames you whenever things go wrong and is never satisfied no matter how well you do. It’s your brain looking for someone to blame for your stress and disappointment, and settling on the most convenient suspect—you. You can’t argue with this Inner Critic, because it doesn’t play by the rules of logic. It’s a result of crossed wires in your nervous system. Imagine that you have a volume control for it. When you hear the voice of your Inner Critic, turn the volume down a little and distract yourself with other things. The more you practice this, the easier it will get to ignore the Inner Critic.

9. Happiness is smaller than you think. Cultivate small pleasures. Learn to cook. Eat well. Cook for friends. Expose yourself to awe and beauty; get out in nature, and pay attention. Watch less television. Play more. Get a dog. Join a laughter club. Get more touching into your life.

10. At bedtime, let yourself go to sleep thinking about three things to be grateful for, things that made you happy, or simply the best memories of the day. As you do this, pay attention to the feelings in your body: the smiling reflex, a warmness in your heart, the flow of tension out of your neck and shoulders. Whenever you feel good, let your body express it. Just doing this exercise every night has been proven to raise your happiness quotient as long as you keep it up.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your blog, while I haven't read Happy at Last I'm using some of these points as they're mentioned in Undoing Depression. In particular, am using meditation for improving mindful thinking, am logging my disfunctional thoughts and am enjoying thinking of 3 good things that happened that day when going to bed.

    I think for me the exercise process of the disfunctional thought log is proving particularly helpful how it walks my mind through a more rational approach to my feelings.