Thanksgiving is this week, and so I desperately wanted to come up with a Thanksgiving themed post. I considered doing the cliché “things I am thankful for” post, and I even tried mind mapping Thanksgiving ideas. However, nothing really came to me.
Then I pondered the question, what do I really like about Thanksgiving?
- Eating lots of food that I like (stuffing, pie, etc.)
- Traditions – cooking the same foods, watching football (not me by other people), and seeing a movie at night (because really there isn’t much else to do – although I guess now Black Friday starts early)
- Spending time with family and loved ones (something most of us could always use a little more of)
- Leisure – Thursdays off from work, and sleeping in (woo!)
- Being thankful (freedom, opportunities, knowledge, health … and this list could go on and on for most of us)
As I thought about these things I noticed a common theme – they make me happy (well except for possibly pilgrims, to which I am largely indifferent). And happiness is something worth writing about.
The Happiness Hypothesis
Recently my good friend Jessica recommended the book The Happiness Hypothesis, and as a fan of many business books I decided to give it a whirl. After reading it, I honestly cannot recommend it enough.
The book depicts wisdom from the ancient philosophers, religions, and even modern science to answer the question: What makes us happy?
I enjoyed the stories, and the author did a great job compiling his research in a compelling and easy to digest narrative. It was definitely one of the more coherent books that marry ancient philosophy with modern psychology. One of the easiest things to remember is the happiness equation:
Happiness = S + C + V
Which essentially states that our capacity for happiness is the sum of our set (S) baseline (based on our genetics and experience, the conditions (C) of our life, and the choices we make around our voluntary (V) or discretionary activities.
The author provides exercises and ideas to help you determine your baseline and find ways to increase your overall happiness. He also explains that you can change your baseline through 3 mechanisms: meditation, cognitive behavioral psychology, and SSRI drugs like Prozac and other antidepressants. On his website he has a page where he recommends some next steps and exercises to help you get happy.
I can’t speak to antidepressants, but I can say from my experience that both cognitive therapy and mediation can help make you happier.
My Journey to Happier
Not long ago I was a pessimist. I would often shoot down others’ ideas and when there was a proposal at work I was the one who could tell you everything that was wrong with it. When it came to my personal life, it wasn’t much better. I complained about everything, and felt like the world was out to get me. I literally would sit at home and think about how other conspired not to invite me, include me and avoided me. I sweat the small stuff, and the couldn’t only see the glass as missing half the contents.
Deep down I wanted to feel included and loved. This is a human need. All of us need someone to care for us, feel important, and valued. And thankfully I realized that I needed to make some changes to help me get there.
I did many things from reading self-help books (and I would highly recommend the book Feeling Good and the exercises if any of the above paragraph describes you), to meditation, although one of the things that stuck with me was my happiness journal.
For a whole year I kept a little notebook and each night before I went to bed I would write one thing – one word, one sentence – just something that made me happy. It was so simple that I was able to stick with it.
Every day I would write one thing that made me happy before I laid down to sleep. At first it was really difficult; I struggled to come up with things to note down. However, I started paying more attention to these things and storing them into memory.
As I walked to work I would notice a pretty flower, and I would think to myself “well if nothing else happens I will write that down”. I would keep note of anything good, and then when something better I would swap it out like a register in a computer. Over the course of a year (I did this for an entire calendar year) I felt myself actually seeing and focusing on so many happy things. Now can honestly say I think far more happy thoughts than good ones. I actually changed my baseline of happiness – and not just by a little, but a lot.
Maybe you are reading this post and thinking to yourself “well that is all fine and good, but I am just fine being grumpy” well I recently listened to this TED talk – on the happy secret to better work which said that only 25% of job success if predicted by IQ, the rest if by your optimism levels, social support and ability to see stress as a challenge instead of an obstacle. When you are happy and positive, dopamine floods into your system and activates the learning centers in your brain and so helps you absorb more information and adapt in your environment.
Being happy and positive essentially makes you smarter.
In this same presentation Shawn Achor says that your brain and how you process the world around you determines 90% of your happiness. This means that if you choose to, you can change the way you see the world and achieve even more success in your career and personal life.
And that is a pretty convincing argument.
What are some ways to improve your happiness level? Here are some of the suggestions that have worked for me:
- Create a happiness journal. You can try the one I did where you just jot done one thing every day. Or if you don’t want to commit to a full year, try to write 3 positive things in your life, and then tomorrow write down 3 different things, and so forth every day for a month. I bet that would be a fun list to read though afterward.
- Learn to meditate. Meditation helps you learn to focus on the task at hand, and there have been studies that show that focus leads to happiness. Here are two sites that will get you started: www.how-to-meditate.org and www.mkzc.org/beginzen.html . And if meditation is too much for you, then start how I did – with yoga. It is a great way to start – guided by someone and practicing mindfulness as you stretch and relax. It is a great way to progress into full-fledged meditation.
- Give positive feedback to someone else. Send a thank you or other genuine praise to someone in your social network. Maybe a colleague at work that helped you, or someone else that did a good job in the office. Or maybe even your partner or family member that went out of their way to make your life easier. All of us love to hear praise, yet it is amazing how seldom people receive real heart-felt compliments. One thing I chose to do recently was send emails to people in my past that made a big impact on me – the ones that really helped shape the woman I have become. In many ways sending those letters made me feel far better than the recipients, but it their responses meant a lot too.
- Acts of kindness. You can volunteer for a charity or help someone else in need. Or even just pay it forward by paying for the order of the person behind you next time you are in the drive thru or waiting in line at your local coffee shop. Leave a bigger than normal tip for good service. Come up with a way of brightening the day for someone else – even if you don’t know the person.
- Take inventory of your life. Think about your funeral – what do you want people to say about you? Who would you want in attendance? On your deathbed do you think you will wish you put extra hours in the office or spent those hours with friends and family? Make sure that you are making smart tradeoffs now in your life and prioritizing the things that will matter most to you in the future.
- Exercise and eat healthy. Ever time I talk with older, wiser people I hear the same thing over and over – take care of your body and health. Get regular exercise (even just 15 minutes of brisk walking each day can have an impact). Eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables. Make sure you get plenty of rest – go to bed early and splurge on nice bedding. No matter how much success you have none of it will matter if you aren’t in a condition to enjoy it.
- Forgive, forget, and let go. I know how hard this is, but one of the best things you can do is let go of the worry, anguish and pain you are holding inside. One technique is to write the other party a letter, be as detailed as you want. Then write their response to you. All of the things you wish they would say. It is amazing, but the act of doing this can really put things into perspective. I did this when I was at odds with a family member. I was so worked up of over our tiff for months, but after going through the exercise of writing the letter it was so much easier to let go and reconcile. Amazingly, even though I never heard all the things I wanted to hear – the act of writing these letters ended up being more than enough. Research shows the act of writing things out helps put everything into perspective, and removes the unknown parts that seem to take over and create worry in our very creative minds.
And of course these are just a few I have tried that worked for me – hopefully you can find some techniques that work well for you too 🙂
Need more tips?
Here were some other articles filled with more good tips:
- 34 Ways to Bust a Bad Mood in Ten Minutes or Less
- 101 Ways to Feel Happy on a Daily Basis
- Twenty Easy Ways to Be Happier
And if you have other ideas or resources be sure to share them in the comments.
Happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful for you and appreciate you joining me on this journey.