Happiness may seem lightweight, but it counts
Written on May 5, 2013 by Dr. Laurie
A client came in complaining about how unhappy she was. “It is so hard to just stay even. I can’t imagine being happy again,” she told me.
Such a painful place to be.
Yet, it is not a place any of us need to stay. Recent research suggests that we have more control over our states of happiness than we ever thought possible.
The field of positive psychology has birthed many of these research studies on happiness.
One of the more interesting learnings about happiness is that we have a “set point” or set range for our happiness. That range, or area for our personal happiness, is partly determined by genetics, ( about 50%), partly by our circumstances (and this is only a tiny sliver – 10%) and then a big chunk is determined by our daily habits and experiences. (40%).
When you live with a chronic illness, you may want to give a lot more weight to that 10%, but in reality, your own genetic set point has much more to do with how you react to and live with all the ramifications of your daily journey with pain or limitation.
There is not much we can do about our base line or set point. You can get a sense of yours here: http://sonjalyubomirsky.com/subjective-happiness-scale-shs/. The average is about 5. We can recognize where we fall, and see, that when good things happen we may go up a little, and when difficult things happen, we may sink.
Noticing our own set point may give some relief – if yours tends to be a little low, you can admit that this is the way it is for you, and let go of some of the guilt or expectation that you need to be sunny or cheery in your essential disposition.
The real potential for us to attend to our happiness is that 40% of habits and experiences.
If you are concerned that you tend too much towards melancholy or “the glass half empty” – here is where you can support yourself.
Major in relationships
I know – like a broken record I emphasize relationships. But these matter, and they don’t always have to be about your closest deepest friends or loved ones. They can also be relationships that feel fairly “light” – people you meet in an exercise class, or sit next to regularly at the coffee shop. Social connections make a significant difference, and some of us have to make a significant effort to be with other people in real time When you do, you can feel the mood boosting effects. You get connected!
Pay attention to your strengths.
We usually focus on “where we need to improve.” But focusing on what we do well. And making sure that we spend time in those areas of strength can improve our feelings of happiness and well being.
One of my clients is a natural learner. She loves to read, to research, and to gather bits of knowledge. Her usual daily work and routine are packed with duties and errands. She works for a firm that requires her to “be on call” for a number of emergencies. In the press of daily expectations, she does not have the luxury of learning. She is “doing.” And her mood and her body and her spirit suffer. When I suggested she take an online class, and spend some time in the early morning surfing blogs she loves, there was a definite brightening of her happiness quotient. She was doing strength training with something she loved, and it showed.
Not sure what your strengths are? Here is a brief quiz that will help you identify yours: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/.
This one seems easy but for most of us it requires practice and attention.
You can attend to this in any way that suits you – writing it down, collaging it, sharing your gratitude with a loved one. The most important part of the gratitude practice is that you do it regularly and in some concrete way.
To whom and for what are you grateful? What do you appreciate very day?
Look not only for what is there – but for what is absent. There is so much we take for granted. We remember that yesterday pain was absent, as was hunger, homelessness and debt. We acknowledge so much of what we have – and we also notice what does not plague us. We are grateful for the wholeness and richness of our lives.
Those are only three practices. You may have others that help you boost the 40% of our happiness experience that we can affect by our practices and the experiences we cherish.
Happiness may seem like a light-weight thing, but it counts. It protects our health and our mental well being, and it makes us more available to others. Our happiness can be a beautiful contagion that helps lifts the spirits of all those with whom we come in contact.
Attend to yours!