If you believe everyone has a passion, a purpose, a calling- whatever that may be- I think mine might be happiness. Specifically, helping others to learn what that really is and how to achieve it, or at least how to raise their own happiness set point.
My own attraction to happiness is not an accident. As a young girl, I noticed that I was not like other girls. I would observe them jumping around, giddy just because a new lipstick color came out or way too excited about going to cheer camp for the summer (which I begrudgingly attended 8 summers in a row). Don’t even get me started on the “spirit stick,” a cylindrical block of wood, painted red, white, and blue, which was awarded to the cheer team that showed the most “spirit” throughout the day. I did not understand why they were always bubbly, while I felt like a Janeane Garofalo character smirking in the background, sarcasm dripping from my thoughts.
While I still enjoy a bit of witty banter, dry humor, and well played sarcasm now and then…I realized that there is an aspect of this behavior that can separate us from them. Since I knew that isolation and disconnection did not a happy girl make…I decided to change. Thus, began my own search for what exactly happiness is, and what exactly makes the human happy.
My research started while I was in graduate school, often working with those who suffered the most. Those with severe mental illness, whose psyche’s lurked in the depths of despair and anguish. I formed “happiness groups,” and implemented many of the behaviors proven by research to increase our happiness set point, the top seven which are now found in my B.A.L.A.N.C.E model. To see them improve, if only slightly, gave me a sense of fulfillment I couldn’t begin to articulate with words.
After graduate school, I still maintained an unquenchable thirst for all things happiness. I poured through all things Seligman, Diener, Cziksentmilhayi, and Kabat-Zinn. I consumed happiness books like a fat kid loves cake (thank you 50 cent).
Today, as I am mid-way through my umpteenth happiness book, I was inspired to write again. The book I am reading right now is titled “The Happiness Project,” by Gretchen Rubin. She is not an academic (at least not in the psychological sense), she is not even a researcher. She is simply an east-coast girl from the midwest, who set out to map her own “Happiness Project.”
So far this book gets a 4 star out of 5 rating. She backs up her reasoning with sound research- two of which, I will share with you today:
1) Current research underscores the wisdom of a chart-keeping approach to happiness. People are more likely to make progress on goals that ar broken into concrete, measurable actions, with some kind of structures accountability and positive reinforcement. Also, according to a current theory of the brain, the unconscious mind does crucial work in forming judgments, motives, and feelings outside our awareness or conscious control, and one factor that influences the work of the unconscious is the accessibility of information, or the ease with which it comes to mind. Information that has been recently called up or frequently used in the past is easier to retrieve and therefore energized. The concept of accessibility suggests to her that by constantly reminding herself of certain goals and ideas, she could keep them more active in her mind.
* This underscores the importance of identifying those things in your life that you know are your own unique ingredients to happiness and doing them on a regular basis (recall Dale Carnegie’s quote “It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.”)
2) There is a quote in this book from Yeats, which says “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” (Just as an aside- why doesn’t anyone say “nor” anymore? I think I might try and bring that back).
Additionally, current research makes the argument that it isn’t goal attainment but the process of striving after goals- that is, growth, that brings happiness.
* This falls right in line with the L in my B.A.L.A.N.C.E model, which stands for Learning. Continual exposure to novel situations and challenge activates the left part of the brain associated with well-being and contentment.
So here is your happiness Rx today:
1) Everyone has an idea of what foods they should be putting into their body, what supplements and vitamins they should be taking, and how much and what kind of physical activity they should be doing every day to feel great physically. Today write down those things that you know you should be doing each week to feel great mentally…is it to love more? is it to cultivate your friendships more? is it to learn something new? engage in a hobby that provides you with peace? or simply meditate more?
Make your own Happiness Project, and then DO IT…there is no magical cure for depression other than this good ol’ directive from Nike. If you suffer with depression, even mildly, this may seem like climbing uphill at first. The irony is, it is these very behaviors which will start bringing you out of the funk and make the climb easier.
2) Yeats had it right back in the days of nor. Happiness is not the destination, it’s the journey. What things can you do today that will bring you challenge and growth? (If you don’t believe me, think back to when you were in school…even though you hated all those exams and term papers, you were LEARNING! I’m willing to bet that there was a part of you that felt alive, and that is part of happiness)
Dr. Colleen Long is the author of “Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E,” and practices in the Los Angeles area under the supervision of Dr. Richard Oelberger (PSY22186) . Dr. Long works mainly from a positive psychology framework as it applies to addiction, depression, relationships, body image and weight loss. Her website can be found at www.DrColleenLong.com. All public speaking/media event requests handled through FreudTV (info@FreudTV.com).