HJ: Now more than ever, there is a crisis of happiness, which is ironic, because we now have the ‘key ingredients’ of happiness readily at our fingertips in the plethora of books and media available to us dealing with the subject and offering sound, time-tested advice. Why is it then that we still seem to find happiness elusive? A large part of it is that we are never really taught what happiness is or how to achieve and maintain it. Unless we are compelled to seek this information out of our own volition, it largely remains elusive. We are not taught in school, religious institutions, universities or any other major institutions what it means to be happy and how to maintain it. Furthermore, we are told things like “Life is hard”, “Life is work”, “No Pain, No Gain” and other euphemisms that reinforce that suffering is somehow noble or necessary. These create a perception that happiness may be elusive and we become conditioned to accept this as a fact of life. Then when we find happiness elusive, we accept this is as the natural order of things, when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
In this eloquent and thoughtful essay, Larry Berkelhammer, PhD mixes his lifelong research with profund personal experience to present a simple roadmap to happiness that is at once accessible and powerful.
Habits of the Happiest: 12 ways to improve your health by living like the happiest people
Are you already eating a nutrient dense diet, getting an hour of daily exercise, sleeping eight hours a night, and still living with chronic illness or depression? If so, there’s more you can do to improve your sense of well-being and overall happiness, which can then improve physiological functioning and even health.
As someone who had been living with several debilitating chronic medical conditions as well as depression, I felt frustrated because I had been eating a nutrient rich diet, getting an hour of daily exercise that was split between aerobic, stretching and strengthening, plus I was getting plenty of sleep. Despite taking such good care of myself for decades, I continued to suffer from two forms of arthritis, a mild case of a primary immunodeficiency disease, a severe mal-absorption condition that had resulted in very advanced osteoporosis and several other conditions.
I’d been maintaining a small psychotherapy practice exclusively devoted to clients who had chronic health challenges, ranging from autoimmune diseases to various forms of cancer. Although I was successful in helping people find non-pharmacological ways of managing depression, their health didn’t improve.
I gradually became increasingly frustrated with my inability to help myself or my clients create significant improvements in health. Although my clients did learn skills that allowed them to better tolerate chronic pain, fatigue, malaise and disabilities, I wanted more for them and for myself.
I stopped taking new clients and began to spend all of my time reviewing published studies relating to behaviours that went beyond diet, exercise and sleep to improve health. What I discovered surprised me. After performing my own informal qualitative analysis of all the studies published in refereed journals, I learned something remarkable. It was remarkable because of the simplicity of it, and because of the fact that it didn’t require additional medical interventions.
What I learned was that when we adopt the behaviours of the healthiest and happiest people, our own health and happiness improves. Obviously, there are biological and genetic components to health and happiness. However, we can all learn to tweak those components with a commitment to adopt the behaviours of the healthiest, happiest people. In fact, there’s evidence that we can reprogram the brain and even influence genetic expression.
The following is a list of the most evidence-based of those behaviours:
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet and get sufficient exercise and sleep. A consultation with an integrative medicine physician, or any doctor or nurse practitioner in mind-body medicine, could be a good starting point.
- Practice mindfulness meditation to cultivate the skill of letting go of negative self-talk and other unhealthy thought patterns. An easy way to learn is to sign up for an eight-week MBSR class.
- Schedule at least a few minutes of face-to-face contact with a friend every single day. Studies consistently show a positive correlation between the number and quality of social connections and health and happiness.
- Every day engage in activity that adds meaning and purpose to your life—something that makes you excited to get up in the morning and feel good about yourself. This can be related to work, recreation, family, or doing a good deed.
- Learn to automatically gravitate towards behaviours that add the greatest aliveness to your life. What turns you on? What excites you? For most people, hanging out with good friends adds the greatest aliveness to life. However, for some people, being completely alone in nature makes them feel most alive. Whatever it is for you, find a way to engage in that behaviour at least a few minutes every day.
- Look for opportunities to help other people. This can take the form of volunteer work, or even something as simple as holding open a door or carrying a package for someone. One of the biggest surprises in my literature reviews was the discovery that altruism directly correlates with health and well-being. I did my own informal observational case studies and saw that the happiest people were those who served others without wanting anything in return.
- Consciously look for things for which to feel grateful. In case you’re skeptical that this could have anything to do with health or well-being, try a simple experiment. Every day, set aside a few minutes to write a few lines about a person or situation for which you feel gratitude. Notice that whenever you do this, you feel better.
- Cultivate curiosity and learn new things. This can add a wonderful new sense of aliveness to your day.
- Never do anything you don’t want to do: recognize that you can consciously chooseeverything you do rather than begrudgingly do things you tell yourself you have to do. Every time we tell ourselves that we “have to" do something, we diminish our aliveness. Even the scheduling of a colonoscopy can be used as an opportunity to practice the power of choice. Learn to recognize that you literally choose everything you do every day. Simple recognition of that power of choice can make an enormous difference in health and well-being.
- Learn to treat yourself with the same compassion and forgiveness that you would extend to a small child.
- Schedule a favourite activity into every day. This could be something as small as spending a few minutes working in your garden or enjoying a hobby.
- Cultivate taking charge of your life and fighting for what you value.
In essence, we all need good medical care and we all need good nutrition, exercise and sleep. However, if you adopt the practices of the healthiest, happiest people, you can become the master of your life, resulting in reduced emotional distress and learning to view problems as challenges rather than as defeats. The reduced emotional distress will improve physiological functioning and will increase the odds of improving your health.