Happiness. All we really want in life is for our friends, family, and people, in general, to be happy. But what does it take to be happy? How can we ourselves reach that goal?
The truth of the matter is that it’s not an overnight process. You can’t eliminate something from your life or wake up one morning and all of a sudden be the happiest person in the world. It takes motivation, dedication, and effort. Effort to take a look at yourself and see things as they are.
After studying up on UC Berkeley’s Greater Good research, I’ve decided to simplify happiness. So, let’s break this down with the traits that make up a happy person.
Note: All practices are from studies done by UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center.
Above all others, social connection is the most important trait in happiness. This includes the friendly nod to a stranger and the shallow conversation with someone at church or work. But what cannot be left out is talking about your own difficulties and weaknesses to people you trust. Having multiple people that you can open up to and that you actively listen to. I could write an article on this subject alone, but we have a lot of ground to cover, so I’ll move on with an exercise for social connection.
Social Connections practice:
Find a quiet place with someone to talk to. Invite him or her to share what’s on his or her mind. As he or she does so, try to follow the steps below.
- Paraphrase. Once the other person has finished expressing a thought, paraphrase what he or she said to make sure you understand and to show that you are paying attention.
- Ask questions. When appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what the other person means.
- Express empathy. If the other person voices negative feelings, strive to validate these feelings rather than questioning or defending against them. You might respond, “I can sense that you’re feeling frustrated,” and even “I can understand how that situation could cause frustration.”
- Use engaged body language. Show that you are engaged and interested by making eye contact, nodding, facing the other person, and maintaining an open and relaxed body posture. Avoid attending to distractions in your environment or checking your phone.
- Avoid judgment. Your goal is to understand the other person’s perspective and accept it for what it is, even if you disagree with it.
- Avoid giving advice. Problem-solving is likely to be more effective after both conversation partners understand one another’s perspective and feel heard.
What is empathy? According to the dictionary, it’s, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” But there are two main types of empathy. The first type is Cognitive Empathy. This is when you can look at someone’s situation and understand how they feel, and usually why they feel that way. Then we have Social Empathy, which is purely emotional and can hardly be stopped. With this kind of empathy, you can sense someone’s emotions before you even begin to understand them. You walk into a room and you can feel what the people in the room are feeling.
Now that we’ve discussed empathy a but, let’s explain why it’s so important to happiness. For one, studies have shown that empathetic people are better at regulating their own emotions they’re more stable and socially functional in life whereas people who experience empathic distress have other issues and struggles.
As one psychologist from UC Berkeley stated, “people with empathy are better at sharing joy; you’re more capableof experiencing pleasure in a collective way. There’s neuroscientifc studies that show that when people play games together and earn an award, there’s a greater activation of their dopamine reward circuitry than when they earn that same award on their own. The other advantage is empathic closeness with others. Leads to more deeper and meaningful social interactions and the likelihood that others will empathize with your own pain and suffering and support you when you’re going through hard times and that’s systematically associated with happiness.”
This is a word we throw around quite a bit. But oftentimes, we confuse it with words like pity or sympathy. When in actuality, there’s a huge difference. With compassion, we put ourselves equal with the person we are having compassion for. We don’t pity them. We also feel the strong desire (or need even) to help this person.
The hardest thing about compassion is to feel it for people who you dislike or can’t relate to. It’s easy to show compassion for your children, friend, or someone who you’ve been in the same situation as. But what about people who have wronged us? Or people we just…don’t like? Do we still manage to show them kindness and do we still have that “desire” to help them?
While compassion and empathy are hard to train someone for, kindness isn’t. One day this week, perform five acts of kindness—all five in one day. It doesn’t matter if the acts are big or small, but it is more effective if you perform a variety of acts.
The acts do not need to be for the same person—the person doesn’t even have to be aware of them. In fact, it may be more fulfilling if the person never knows about them.
After each act, write down what you did in at least one or two sentences; for more of a happiness boost, also write down how it made you feel.
Forgiveness (and Trust)
Now I’ve added trust to forgiveness because the two go hand in hand. The reason we think we can’t forgive people (or choose not to) is because we believe they’ve broken our trust. If we can no longer trust them, we hinder resentment, hostility, and anger.
One thing that we don’t often confront is shame, and its importance. It may not seem related, but it is proven that people who communicate shame are more trustworthy. People subconsciously believe (rather accurately) that people who have the inability to feel or communicate shame are “unworthy” of forgiveness or trust.
Since forgiveness can be difficult, and the steps are elaborate, I’ve decided to attach a direct link to Forgiveness Practice. Please read it, it’s one of the most important practices you can do.
This one is an ongoing practice that should be done throughout the day. To remember the steps, think of the word ATTUNE.
Awareness: of the other person’s emotions.
Turning: toward the emotion. It’s easy to walk on past someone in pain, to turn away, brush it off, blame them for their own misfortune. But turning to it is crucial.
Tolerance: of two different viewpoints. We’re all different, we have to accept that others will have varying opinions.
Understand: the other person. Or at least try to.
Non-defensive: responses to the other person. No walls. No self-concern. Just open doors and heartfelt, logical responses.
Empathy: respond with it, and show them that you are empathetic.
How easy is it to go through the motions everyday without allowing ourselves to take it all in? Mindfulness ties just about everything we’ll talk about today together. Whenever you eat lunch, do you taste and feel every bite? Whenever you walk, are you conscious of every step? These are the tiny attributes of mindfulness. The large ones, the important ones, involve being Intune with your own feelings and thoughts, as well as the thoughts and feelings of others. But more than just being aware of the feeling itself, it’s crucial that you are aware of why you are feeling that way as well.
The catch is…most people will lie to themselves, laying the blame on something that is easy to absorb.
Stress, anger, and anxiety can impair not only our health but our judgement and skills of attention. Fortunately, research suggests an effective way to deal with these difficult feelings: the practice of “mindfulness,” the ability to pay careful attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and sensing in the present moment without judging those thoughts and feelings as good or bad. It just takes fifteen minutes daily for at least a week, though doing it longer is even more beneficial.
The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally, you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.
Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This word is used so often in Eastern philosophy, that Westerners often turn against it. But what is it? Flow is fully immersing yourself in a task so much so that you often lose track of time. Little kids do this all the time as they paint, play, or put together a puzzle. It’s something that we often look down upon as something “irresponsible.” It’s true that at the wrong times, we can put people in danger completely immersing ourselves into flow. But there is a time and place for everything. Those who make a time for flow are generally happier.
This one is often missed, especially in first world countries where it’s so easy to take things for granted. Are we grateful for everything smell, touch, taste, and gift we receive? Are we truly grateful for everything that the people around us do? Or even grateful for who they are? Are we grateful for the things we can buy?
One thing strange about spending money is that buying tangible objects actually decreases or is ineffective to your happiness. However, buying experiences (concerts, rock climbing, comedy show, etc.) actually increases your happiness level.
Now, this is one of the most important ones to practice actively. Everyday, make sure you think about everything you are grateful for. Is the server extra kind? Be grateful. Is your favorite flower in bloom? Be grateful. Are you eating three meals today? Be grateful.
Call to mind someone who did something for you for which you are extremely grateful but to whom you never expressed your deep gratitude. This could be a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague. Try to pick someone who is still alive and could meet you face-to-face in the next week. It may be most helpful to select a person or act that you haven’t thought about for a while—something that isn’t always on your mind.
Now, write a letter to one of these people, guided by the following steps:
Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”).
Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember his or her efforts.
Try to keep your letter to roughly one page (~300 words).
Next, you should try if at all possible to deliver your letter in person, following these steps:
Plan a visit with the recipient. Let that person know you’d like to see him or her and have something special to share, but don’t reveal the exact purpose of the meeting.
When you meet, let the person know that you are grateful to them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude; ask that he or she refrain from interrupting until you’re done.
Take your time reading the letter. While you read, pay attention to his or her reaction as well as your own.
After you have read the letter, be receptive to his or her reaction and discuss your feelings together.
Remember to give the letter to the person when you leave.
Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Awestriking. What do these words have in common? The word “awe.” But again, what is this word?
Since greenery is one of the most awe-inspiring creations, let’s talk about statistics in areas surrounded by greenery. According to Berkeley’s studies, there are 50% less crime in green areas, lessened ADHD symptoms, and people who see the world outside of themselves. Not only are they kinder, humbler, and more humane, but they also answer questions non-biased. This isn’t just people who live where there are trees, but people who are in awe. People in awe have a better ability to see the big picture and answer regardless of themselves. They will give more accurate recollections when asked about their day.
With the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings, like a trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like the top of a skyscraper. (For more ideas of where to take your walk, see the list lower down.)
Once you have chosen where to go, during your walk consider these general guidelines:
Turn off your cell phone. Cell phones can be distracting and draw your attention away from what’s happening around you. Even better, don’t bring your phone with you at all so that you won’t be tempted to check it.
Tap into your child-like sense of wonder. Young children are in an almost constant state of awe since everything is so new to them. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time.
Go somewhere new. Each week (or month, or whatever frequency works for you), try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe.
When was the last time you laughed? Kids laugh, oftentimes, a hundred times a day. But as adults, many of us will go weeks without laughing. It’s not important for our survival to laugh, right?
Parents and teachers often believe that too much play results in kids with little control. But the truth is that play teaches boundaries. Why do dogs wrestle? To learn boundaries and bite inhibitions. Why do kids act out fight scenes? To exercise their imagination and separate real violence from play violence.
But adults seem to forget to laugh, forget to play. But play is crucial to every relationship, even the one with ourselves. This could be the ability to laugh at ourselves, the cracking of jokes and ouns with friends, or the silly game of “race you to the car” with your spouse. Never…stop…playing.
Since play isn’t something we don’t know how to do, I’m going to end this with one of the most important practices you can do.
First, identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life. Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. Sad? Embarrassed? Angry? Try to be as honest as possible, keeping in mind that no one but you will see what you write. The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike. As you write, follow these guidelines:
Imagine that there is someone who loves and accepts you unconditionally for who you are. What would that person say to you about this part of yourself?
Remind yourself that everyone has things about themselves that they don’t like, and that no one is without flaws. Think about how many other people in the world are struggling with the same thing that you’re struggling with.
Consider the ways in which events that have happened in your life, the family environment you grew up in, or even your genes may have contributed to this negative aspect of yourself.
In a compassionate way, ask yourself whether there are things that you could do to improve or better cope with this negative aspect. Focus on how constructive changes could make you feel happier, healthier, or more fulfilled, and avoid judging yourself.
After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back to it later and read it again. It may be especially helpful to read it whenever you’re feeling bad about this aspect of yourself, as a reminder to be more self-compassionate.
Now, like most of my articles, this hardly scratches the surface of what I want to communicate. However, if you have any questions or would like any resources, please contact me and I’d be happy to help!