As editor of this happiness magazine, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I leap out of bed each morning after a restful sleep with a grin on my face, full of great intentions for the day ahead. Not so! Indeed, for the main part, for me, happiness is a choice rather than my natural state of being.
In fact, like all of us, I’m not happy all the time (let’s face it, that would just be weird). In reality, for me, authentic happiness doesn't signify a lack of negative feelings such as sadness and pain, but an ability to experience a wide spectrum of emotions while managing to appreciate – and stay focused on – the positive things that I do have in my life.
According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, roughly 50 per cent of our natural happiness level is genetically determined (our so-called happiness set point). I believe my own happiness set point started out lower down the scale, but, with work, I’ve managed to boost it because – over time and consistently – I’ve made the choice to be happy, even when my life circumstances and situation were telling me otherwise.
Choosing to be happy is a constant effort, and to be honest, it’s not something that comes naturally. In fact, I’ve had to train myself to think happy. Indeed, like millions of us, I’ve struggled with periods of depression and anxiety, had to live with periods of debilitating panic attacks or episodes of rumination that have beaten my mental health and happiness down.
Along the way, I’ve learned that these problems should not define me or my mood. Indeed, I can still see happiness as a choice, but it requires focus and effort to stay positive (and, of course, professional help or medication when appropriate).
Most people go through life thinking that happiness is something that happens to them as a result of success or something good happening, for example, getting a pay rise or getting 100 new likes on their latest Instagram post. Indeed, large parts of the population don’t realize that happiness is a choice, and instead go through the motions in life, waiting for joy to pop up and slap them in the face!
Stay smiling: make the choice to be happy
However, science shows that this type of instant gratification doesn’t really make us happy (not in the long-term, anyway). In fact, there is no magic pill to finding happiness. However, there is one thing that is required to boost well-being, and that is work. Work? Ugh! I’m afraid so. Because happiness is a choice, it needs to be worked at consistently, with effort, care and dedication on your behalf.
In fact, I believe the root to happiness is in the work you put into it. You have to commit to being happy, prioritize it, focus on it, and remain disciplined as much as possible, even in those dark and difficult days – especially on those dark days!
It sounds staggering, but it’s reported that we make around 35,000 remotely conscious decisions every single day. From seemingly inconsequential stuff about choosing what to eat and what clothes to wear, to bigger things like who to love, how to spend our free time, whether to move city or quit the job we feel stuck in.
Some of our choices turn out to be great and others not so. What they have in common though is that all of these choices are based in our deep desire to be happy. These choices make up part of our ‘life activity’. As mentioned earlier, genetics make up roughly half of happiness levels. The remainder depends on our circumstances (10 per cent) and this so-called ‘life activity’ (40 per cent).
"Happiness is a choice, not a result. Nothing will make you happy until you choose to be happy.” Ralph Marston
While we cannot always control our circumstances, we do have more control over our life activity. And if that life activity is said to be responsible for almost 40 per cent of our happiness, we can focus on making better choices here to increase our happiness levels. In fact, we can even make choosing happiness as one life choice!
OK, I hear what you might be thinking: all of this is easier said than done. Life is tough. Shit happens. Stuff gets in the way. True, there are many challenging things that we will experience in life and we know that the only certainty is change, so we will always face upheavals. This doesn't mean that all of life is bad, it just means that life is not easy. But happiness does not come from your circumstances or your situation. Happiness comes from a choice that you make within.
I’ve had to train my brain to choose happiness, even when my circumstances suggested the opposite. I believe I’ve boosted my natural happiness set point by carrying out specific ‘feel happier’ activities. If you're struggling to find the root of happiness, incorporate these eight science-backed tips into your daily life and you may start to feel happier. Stick at it, put in the hard work, and you should see results.
No matter how bad life seems, there’s always something positive you can find to focus on. It could be the fact you have a place to live, friends and family that love you, have clothes to wear, or even that you have eyes to see and legs to walk with. There are millions of people in the world that don't have some of these things.
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Since happiness is a choice, start finding things in your life that you're grateful for. It could also be seemingly small, general things that we often take for granted, such as the smell of cut grass, the sound of the ocean, etc. Writing these things down in a gratitude journal helps to solidify your happiness further. Try jotting down three good things about every day: studies have shown that doing this increases optimism, reduces anxiety, and chemically changes the brain to be more positive.
Try to live by the ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ anecdote. Focusing on positive thoughts and trying to reducing negative thinking is easier said than done, but give the following technique a try. Each time you have a negative thought, simply replace it with a positive one. This practice will help to retrain your habitual thought patterns to bring more positive thoughts and happiness into your life.
Changing perspective on your situation will help you find happiness. If you’ve made a mistake – however big – try to focus on your past achievements instead, actually visualizing your previous successes and happy times.
Turn that frown upside down! One of the most important figures in the fields of mindfulness and meditation, Thích Nhất Hạnh once wrote, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”’
Indeed, studies have shown that smiling and other external expressions work as a continual feedback loop, helping to reinforce our internal emotions. A study by scientists at the University of Kansas found that making yourself smile can help lower your heart rate during stressful activities. So, smiling even when we feel down will gradually makes us feel happier (and healthier). Try smiling at strangers, too: as well as being a choice, happiness is also contagious.
Grin gains: force a smile and choose to feel happier
When you choose to do kinds acts for other people, so-called happiness hormones are released, boosting your serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being and satisfaction. Endorphin levels also rise, leading to a phenomenon known as a 'helper’s high’.
Another physical benefit of kindness is that it can help to lower anxiety. Social anxiety is associated with low positive affect (PA), which relates to an individual’s experience of positive moods such as joy, interest, and alertness. A four-week study on happiness from the University of British Columbia found that participants who engaged in kind acts displayed major increases in their PA levels that were maintained during the study duration.
Research shows that happier people have rewarding social relationships. Indeed, we humans are a social species and need regular contact. In fact, loneliness is proven to decrease levels of happiness and recent studies show it can be as harmful to mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So, to make a happiness a choice, choose quality friendships. In fact, even a short positive interaction with a stranger can contribute to you feeling happier.
Mindfulness meditation is an easy way to try to increase your happiness levels. Start your day with just 10-15 minutes of meditation, shortly after waking: the immediate heightened inner clarity and focus it will give you will set you up for what’s ahead.
Many studies have shown that mediation can boost happiness levels by reducing stress hormones, shrinking the part of the brain that controls anxiety, and by stopping rumination, amongst other things.
“No matter how bad life seems, there’s always something positive you can find to focus on. Since happiness is a choice, start finding things in your life that you’re grateful for.”
And, according to Psychology Today, meditation is the strongest mental practice that has the power to reset your happiness set point, thus turning you into a more joyful person and literally rewiring major areas in your brain so you can feel happier.
Meaningfulness is a happy factor that you can extend into your whole life. Whether it's volunteering, gardening, or becoming politically active, activities with a purpose have been shown to boost people's happiness and reduce stress levels at the same time. A study from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that people who took part in such activities became 34 per cent less stressed and 18 per cent less sad.
Ex-US President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” And in today’s Insta-ready society this rings true more than ever. In a social media savvy world, flaunting your money, travels and other supposed successes or happiness is all too common, especially with the younger generation. However, if happiness is a choice, then comparing yourself to other people will only result in unhappiness.
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In fact, data from a 2010 survey of 19,000 Europeans showed that those who compared their incomes to others were less happy with what they had. The comparisons that were most damaging to happiness were when people compared their incomes to those of school and university friends (even though we know that money can’t buy happiness, right?) Choose to be satisfied with what you have and stop comparing your life to that of others: reduce the time you spend scrolling through social media.
Abraham Lincoln is famously quoted as saying, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And he was right. Happiness is a choice but also a daily practice that requires time, effort and dedication. By carrying out our suggestions above, you should hopefully start to see some benefits. But, if you still fail to feel happy, take time to think through your actions. Are you doing the things you need to choose happiness or are you letting your emotions take control?
If you’re trying to feel happier and you remain down or struggling with depression, consult with your GP or therapist to seek professional help. Happiness is a choice and choosing help is a also a great step to getting started if you’re feeling blocked. •
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Calvin edits the happiness magazine, as well being an artist and lover of travel, swimming, yoga, dancing to house/techno, and all things vintage! Find out more.
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