These questions actually are said to have come from Buddha. It turns out that humans are not always fantastic at predicting what will make us happy.
Researchers Brickman and Campbell studied a process called adaptation. They found that when we want something and then attain it, we don’t seem to be any better off. They called this the hedonic treadmill. It’s like we are walking on a treadmill but not really getting anywhere because we are adapting to things. They studied lottery winners and found that one year later, life satisfaction was not significantly greater for the winners. This process of adaptation explains why we are not significantly happier despite significant increases in the standard of living over the last 50 years.
Researchers in the area of Positive Psychology, such as Martin Seligman and Barbara Fredrickson, have highlighted the importance of positive emotions to wellbeing. Happiness is a mental or emotional state of wellbeing characterised by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. Happiness is clearly related to biological markers that play an important role in health:
Positive emotions, such as joy, curiosity and happiness take us out of a ‘survival’ mindset and into a “Broaden and Build” mindset. These emotions invite us to explore our environment, come up with creative solutions to challenges, connect with new people and learn new information.
Negative emotions have a crucial role to play in our functioning also. They can motivate us to act, defend our boundaries, and keep us focused on our immediate survival. The mindset tends to be focused, conservative, self-protective, pessimistic and narrow.
In addition, cultivating positive emotions throughout our lives can, in the long run, allow us to be more creative and adaptive in the face of difficulties. They appear to increase our overall sense of wellbeing, our confidence in our ability to cope, our personal resources including (very importantly) positive relationships, and help banish any lingering negative feelings after difficulty strikes. There is evidence that they may even lead to increased physical health and a longer life.
Handwritten autobiographies by 180 Catholic nuns, composed when participants were a mean age of 22 years were scored for emotional content and related to survival during ages 75 to 95. A strong inverse association was found between positive emotional content in these writings and risk of mortality in late life. As the quartile ranking of positive emotion in early life increased, there was a stepwise decrease in risk of mortality resulting in a 2.5-fold difference between the lowest and highest quartiles. Positive emotional content in early-life autobiographies was strongly associated with longevity 6 decades later.
Most cheerful versus least cheerful:
90% vs 34% alive at 85
54% vs 11% alive at 94
However, it is crucial that we cultivate genuine positive emotions. Forcing ourselves to be happy when we are sad and ‘putting on a happy face’ or suppressing our negative emotions, can actually lead to increased risk for stress, emotional over-eating and even heart disease.
So how do we cultivate genuine positive emotions no matter what the situation?
Choose settings that promote positive feelings. Where are the places I tend to feel good? Being in nature has proven benefits for calming the nervous system. We all also have places that are particular to us, which have good memories attached or tend to promote good feelings. Where are they? How can I spend more time there, or bring elements of those places into my daily life?
Choose people carefully. How do the people around me leave me feeling? Who are the people who tend to leave me feeling up-beat? Who are the people who tend to leave me feeling drained? Are there people I would like to spend more/less time with? Am I spending more time with those who inspire me, or those who are most demanding of me?
Cultivate humour. Laughing, to yourself or with others, is truly great medicine – if it is not at the expense of yourself or others. Watching a funny clip or movie can help relieve stress, and finding the humour in your own behaviour or situation helps to shift your perspective.
Be selective about inputs. Consider your social media feed, your news intake…how do they leave you feeling? What is the balance of distressing as opposed to encouraging inputs. Are there social media pages or people you might need to unfollow? Might it be healthier to read the news online rather than watch the graphic images on the TV news? Are there inspiring or meaningful pages you could explore? Do a quick stock-take and consider what might be useful to change.
Volunteering and helping others has been shown to bolster happiness, meaning and purpose, feelings of health and connection to others and community. There is evidence that it may even have protective benefits for heart health and protect against the effects of stress.
Inject some novelty. The human brain is highly adaptive, and is very good at adapting to both difficult and positive experiences. This can lead us to the “hedonic treadmill”: we ‘get used to’ even very enjoyable things so, over time, we don’t enjoy those same things as much. Injecting some novelty into your routine can keep interest, curiosity, enjoyment and pleasure up.
Practice Gratitude: Write a thank-you note. Say “thank-you” more in your everyday life. Make a weekly time to “count your blessings” by writing them down. Write and personally deliver a letter of thanks to someone who has made a difference in your life. Keep a gratitude journal, making a habit to things you are grateful for or that went well that day. Try to make these unique to that and avoid slipping into writing the same thing every day. You are likely to get a boost of happiness and, over time, improved relationships.
Loving-kindness meditation: This is a guided, or self-guided, practice in which you reflect on a person towards whom you feel easily warm and affectionate (a dear friend, child, pet, partner), then extend that feeling to others, then even people who are causing you difficulty. It has been shown to cultivate more long-lasting positive feelings, especially when practiced regularly. There are many such meditations freely available on the internet. Give one a try:
Chase meaning vs pleasure. Pleasure lives in our dopamine system, it is short-lived and has an addictive quality to it – a little is good, but more is better. It comes from treat foods, using substances, and other physical pleasures. Try to limit these somewhat and focus more on gaining good feelings from the more long-lasting effects of engaging in meaningful activities. Creating something, connecting with others, working towards a meaningful project. These activate the more long-lasting effects of the serotonin system of the brain. Make time and space, and plan for these types of activities for more lasting good feelings that tend to linger.
Reflect on good experiences: Writing about a very positive personal experience for 20 minutes, on three separate days close together, has been shown to be able to increase happiness levels and reduce visits to the doctor. Or spend time going over photos from holidays or special occasions. We can get more joy and pleasure from planning and reminiscing about such experiences than we get from the joyful experiences themselves!