“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” —Mahatma Gandhi
What is happiness and where does it come from? Is it synonymous with optimism, bliss, and satisfaction, or is it something else? Maybe a sense of inner peace spells happiness for you. Some of us just seem to be born with a happier disposition than others, and research indicates that — yes — some of that sense of well-being may be in the genes. But only partly. Your genes make up an estimated 40% of your ability to be happy, say therapists. So, at least you don’t have to feel unhappy about being an unhappy person. It’s not completely your fault.
Physiologically speaking, we feel “happiness” in our bodies with the release of dopamine and serotonin, two types of neurotransmitters in the brain. Both of these chemicals are heavily associated with happiness (in fact, people with clinical depression often have lower levels of serotonin which is what pharmaceuticals like Lexapro are all about).
Despite the countless potential sources of happiness, from a new car to a Cancun vacation, people around the world are most likely to say they derive “the greatest happiness” from physical health and well-being (cited by 54%) mental health and well-being (by 53%) and a close relationship with their partner/spouse.
Globally, we Americans are not especially happy; only 33% of us polled recently said they were. In 2016, it was just 31%. In May 2017, the Harris Poll, which has been conducting a happiness survey for the last nine years, surveyed 2,202 Americans ages 18 and older. Those who reported being the happiest were men and women at the top and bottom, so to speak: in high-income households and those with a high school diploma or less. Internationally, for the sixth year in a row, Finland placed first as the world’s happiest country.
Whatever your definition of happiness, you probably want more of it. So here’s your Happiness Challenge. Start small; 7 days is a good block of time although some folks go for 21 days or even a month. See what strategies actually move the needle for you. Results– as the TV ads say –will vary.
Do one of these seven tasks each day; the days are interchangeable, just make sure you cover them all.
- Yes, not no: Practice positive emotions. Irritated by the bumper-to-bumper traffic? Swap that anger with a more realistic reflection on the luxury of owning your own car which can take you anywhere whenever you like. Only 18% of the world’s population owns a car!
- Feet first: Put on your sneakers, get outside, and take a walk, a run, a hike, a bike ride. Exercise works as well (or better) as any of those dicey drugs for lifting moods. Make it a daily, or twice-a-week ritual. Recruit a friend who needs a happiness hike, as much as you do. Making it social also improves happiness potential.
- Back to basics. Before you uncork the wine bottle or get lost in the maze of social media, or hire a therapist, check how well you’re scoring with life’s basics. 7 hours of sleep, nutritious meals free of ultra-processed foods, fresh air, and sunshine every day? Corny but impactful, and important for human thriving to get a thumbs up on all these bases.
- Reach out. Try to talk to a stranger today. It breaks down walls and stretches you. Even a smile or a comment on the weather or an exchange in a line at the supermarket can reset your day. That stranger may be as starved for connection as you. Someone has to make the first move. You be the one.
- Ruts be gone. Take a close look at your daily patterns and replace a few of them with something more challenging. Start working at a standup desk, switch from coffee to herbal tea, replace 30 minutes of social media immersion with 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation. If gossip is your jam, spend a day (ok, a half day) in silence.
- Let it go. A clean nest, organized and (relatively) clutter-free, can be a source of peace and satisfaction. Buy or borrow a guide to deep cleaning your living space and see if it doesn’t give you a bump of joy.
- Getting outside of yourself can be transformative and boost your neurotransmitters. Volunteer at a senior center, a child care or domestic abuse facility, or an animal rescue.
Last but not least, if feelings of depression linger, pick up the phone and call 800-662-HELP (4357). It’s powerful to ask for help and it’s completely anonymous.