Since ancient times, healers of the mind have distinguished between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is important, but it is fleeting: if we rely on it for our fulfillment, then we will be disappointed. We ultimately want a deeper sense of satisfaction with life. Depression is the third most common issue for which people seek help from our counseling office, which is a short drive from Shelbyville. While many of my clients feel depressed due to what appears to be a major chemical imbalance, we have discovered that many of them are really just unhappy. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, I recommend trying these eight avenues that have been statistically proven to make people happier.
Regularly name something for which you are thankful. Be very specific. Make a game of it by trying not to ever think of the same thing twice. Some researchers advise doing this once per week, while others suggest doing it three times per day. The point is to make a habit of it. As you continue doing this, you will come to appreciate each moment more and more until at last it is second-nature to do so.
There are many different kinds of meditation, and all of them can make you feel better. Two basic kinds to start with are (a) mindfulness and (b) diaphragmatic breathing.
You can do mindful meditation by simply focusing on something positive, whether it is a word such as “peace” or an image of a good experience you had that day or of a calming environment. When focusing on imagery, try to use all of your senses to mentally transport yourself to that happy place: smell whatever is in the air, hear the sounds, taste and feel whatever is around you. It is best to sit in an upright position so that your mind is alert. This can be done on a chair or on the floor.
b. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Also called “deep breathing,” it may be easier to start practicing this by lying down on the floor or on a couch. With enough practice, you will be able to do it at your desk or while walking. The key is to make sure you are breathing with your belly as opposed to your chest. A helpful way to make sure you are doing this correctly is to place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your navel: when inhaling, the hand on your navel should rise higher than the hand on your chest. It is okay if your chest rises too, just so long as it does not rise higher than your belly. Spend four seconds on each of the following steps, in order: inhale, hold, exhale, hold. More specifically, breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath at the top for four seconds, breathe out through your mouth for four seconds, hold your breath at the bottom for four seconds, and repeat this cycle for at least ten minutes.
A popular belief is that the best way to journal is to write about all the things that are bothering you. This certainly has its place, as it provides an outlet for unresolved negative feelings. But, if the goal is to be happier, merely venting to yourself is not as effective as reflecting on positive experiences. If you want to make journaling a part of your daily rhythm, it might be ideal to write about such moments before you go to bed. That way, your mind will be full of good things to remember. Even if you are not writing about these memories, simply pondering them before bed is shown to increase happiness.
We have all been told that physical activity releases endorphins, known as a kind of “happy chemical.” Anyone who swims, goes to yoga, plays any kind of sport, or even uses a push lawn mower understands the value of these pursuits. A runner will talk about feeling the “high” after a long jog, and this is a quite literal description since the chemicals released after a long jog are the same ones released when using drugs. Too much of anything is probably unhealthy, and this also goes for exercise. But a little bit of exercise is better than nothing. Even simply going for a walk can do the trick. Just make sure you are averaging 30 minutes of physical exertion per day.
Take a different route to work. Walk your dog down an unfamiliar street. Try a food you have never eaten. A routine is great, and it is advised to keep one if it makes you more efficient and happy. But switch things up once in a while to maintain a sense that the world around you is interesting. Find a balance between change and sameness.
We tell ourselves the cliché, “Money can’t buy happiness.” Yet when asked, like John D. Rockefeller was, “How much money is enough?” we cannot help but agree with him: “Just a little bit more.” There is no doubt that money can buy happiness for those who cannot afford housing, groceries, and other basic needs. But, if you are in the “just a little bit more” camp, it will be worthwhile to know that the research proves this inclination to be misleading. It may feel good to get the latest-and-greatest and keep up with the Joneses, but what provides a deeper sense of joy is a sense that you are contributing even in a small way to making the world a better place. Whether you commit a random act of kindness (e.g. paying for a stranger’s bill at a restaurant) or volunteer your time to a good cause (e.g. picking up trash on the side of the road), the point is to do something that is intended to make a positive impact. Resist grandiose giving, especially if you are new to this. As long as you consciously and consistently do something good for someone or something bigger than yourself, you will begin to feel like your life has a greater purpose.
7. Close Relationships
Another thing we pursue, even though we tell ourselves it won’t make us deeply happy, is status. In extreme cases, we invest all our time into the in-crowd. This is the student who follows the popular kids wherever they go, even though no friendship is present. But this also happens in subtle ways, such as when we care too much about what our acquaintances think of us. What makes human beings content is not popularity, but intimacy. Every time you find yourself wishing you had more Facebook friends, remember that you are seeking a momentary pleasure. Then, if you find yourself interested instead in a more enduring kind of pleasure, call your loved ones.
8. Personal Growth
If generosity and intimacy are juxtaposed with money and status, respectively, then this last item is juxtaposed with image. I often ask my clients, “If you were to imagine that you are very old and on your death bed, looking back on your life, how would you have spent your time? What are the things you wish you had done more frequently or differently? What risks do you wish you had taken? What didn’t you try that you wish you had? What are your regrets? Is there anything you did because it was ‘the thing to do’ instead of what you genuinely wanted to do?” The things people tend to think about on their death beds are not whether they looked cool in all their photos, or had a perfect bikini body, or had big muscles, or avoided getting wrinkles too soon – but whether they experienced the fullness of life and everything it had to offer.
If you are interested in exploring one of these avenues further, or if you have tried them all and found that none of them worked for you, I would be honored to begin the therapeutic process with you and help you find true happiness in your life.