Getting married, having children, landing a better job: contrary to popular belief, these don’t guarantee happiness. They can produce a temporary high, but over the course of years, they don’t tend to produce happier people.
Happiness, however, can be learned. Studies have shown that there are multiple ways to make ourselves happier. Most of them are quite simple, which isn’t surprising when you consider how many people go about their lives with happiness in their hearts. They don’t seem to be doing anything different than us, but they’re happy. Why is that and how do we get there?
First, it’s important to note that the brain is marvelously plastic. It changes constantly in response to environmental factors. Trauma produces a negative effect. Poor nutrition or health, violence, neglect, loss – these things can alter the brain for the worse. Conversely, love, friendship, belonging to a community – these all produce feelings of well-being.
So what we need to do is replicate these positive feelings. There are two paths to greater happiness – one internal, one external.
Meditation is the internal path. Many believe it’s difficult because the few times they tried it, they struggled to empty their minds. But it’s actually quite easy. You don’t have to visit a doctor or a Buddhist center or some natural healer guru who will direct you to find your center. You just have to sit in a chair and close your eyes and focus on your breathing – in, out, in, out.
Your mind will inevitably drift to other thoughts, but when that happens, you just pull it back to the simple act of breathing – in, out, in, out. Don’t worry about how often your mind drifts to other things. Just keep bringing it back to your breaths. Do it for small periods to start – 5 or 10 minutes – then work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes.
The biggest deterrent for many is the belief that they don’t have the time; they’re just too busy. But most of us aren’t too busy. We just have other things we’d rather do, like watching television. That’s almost meditation. It’s mindless enough. But it doesn’t help us focus our thoughts.
So instead of watching that sit-com or that reality show, consider meditating for 20 minutes or so. But here’s the catch. You have to commit to doing it for 3 weeks straight because we know that it takes about 21 days to develop a new habit. If you commit to doing meditation for 3 weeks, you will likely find it of immeasurable benefit and you will be happier than before you started.
What about those of us who just aren’t interested in meditation? Is there some way we can be happier?
Sure – this is the external path: Immerse yourself in the world.
What do I mean by that? I mean, get outside yourself, push yourself into other people and other experiences and do so with an open mind. Allow yourself to be part of something bigger than just you.
Some of the concrete steps that help us do this are as follows:
—exercise a little (exercise gets muscles and blood moving as well as endorphins – this is external in the sense that it is outside the mind, and when our bodies move, they’re happier),
—get enough sleep (by feeling rested, you will better be able to cope with the problems that hit us every day – a great stress reducer),
—get together with friends (belonging to a community is a known happiness achiever and there have been studies of nuns, for example, that show they live a long time in good health, happier than most of their contemporaries),
—get outside on a nice day (studies have shown we feel better after doing so because we’re getting sunshine and building vitamin D as well as experiencing nature),
—smile more (by showing the world we’re happy and engaged, we allow others to extend themselves to us, which they’re less inclined to do if we’re frowning all the time), and
—help others (maybe the best way to feel happier is by making someone else happy).
These things all help us to move outside ourselves – to be other-directed rather than self-directed. When we’re tired or lonely or depressed, we feel like that mood is forever. It’s hard to motivate ourselves to move, to do something other than focus on our misery. But if you can pull yourself together and get out of your locked-in mentality, if you can for a moment experience the world around you and immerse yourself in it instead of just observing it from the outside, you will find that you are happier and more inclined to stay immersed in it.
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