Research by Dr David Lykken, author of Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment (St Martin’s Press) suggests that around half of our satisfaction with life comes from our genes, which affect characteristics such as a sunny personality and the ability to handle stress well. ‘Circumstantial factors’ such as our education, income, marital status and religion contribute about eight percent.
The remaining 40-odd percent, Lykken says, is shaped by ‘life’s slings and arrows’ – and how we choose to deal with them. Happiness is ultimately a choice and the benefits of choosing happiness and positive emotions are substantial. Learning to control negative emotions and feel happier and more contented can affect everything from our blood pressure to our digestive and cardiovascular health.
Many studies have detailed how negative emotions harm our bodies and how serious stress, fear, anger and anxiety can alter biological systems can break down our bodies, leading to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Here’s how to unlock the mysteries of your happiness equation and boost your mental and emotional health…
1. Take charge of your happiness
Stop waiting for other people, another job, more money or a diet to do it for you. Make time to think about what truly makes you happy – whether it’s painting, playing the piano or hand-making pasta – and do more of it.
2. Work with your talents
Our greatest happiness comes from self-actualisation, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial). This means doing what you do best, which is invariably also what you love.
3. Beware comparisons
There will always be others better off than you, so if you compare yourself to them you can never be content. Studies show that the happiest people are not those who lead perfect lives, but those who have learned to be happy with less than perfect things.
4. Embrace failure
We all face setbacks – make a conscious effort to take them in your stride and focus on learning from them, and you can grow in strength, serenity and happiness.
5. Grow gratitude
Consciously counting your blessings has been found to significantly increase satisfaction in life, reports Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness. Write them down, too. Appreciating things you usually take for granted, like the legs you walk on, the food you eat, the sun shining, and giving thanks creates a positive outlook on life and its adversities.
6. Spread kindness
Doing even small acts of kindness can boost your happiness – smiling at strangers, paying (genuine) compliments, visiting an elderly relative, volunteering at a children’s home or donating to a shelter can give you as much satisfaction and happiness as it does those you help.
7. Open yourself
Exposing yourself to new situations, whether through travel, the theatre or art exhibitions, and learning new things (languages, instruments, computer programmes or other skills), will stretch and engage you, fostering happiness.
8. Cultivate friends
Having healthy relationships is one of the greatest predictors of well-being. Make time to feed friendships, even if it’s with an email, SMS or Facebook message, although nothing replaces the warmth of face-to-face encounters.
9. Shape up
Make fitness part of your day – do sit-ups or squats while you’re waiting for the bath to fill, and walk briskly, garden vigorously, gym, swim, dance or play with kids for 30 minutes a day. Exercise releases feel-good hormones that energise you and help you feel happier about yourself.
10. Schedule good times each day
Just knowing you’ve made time to have coffee with a friend later or to catch a favourite TV programme, can power you more happily through a rough day.
11. Enjoy the moment
We constantly chase after what we think is missing in our lives, believing it will bring happiness, yet when we achieve it something still seems missing. Look for enjoyment in each small step of your life journey, not just the destination. Being in the present chases away anxiety and stress. It enables you to detach from regrets or negative memories associated with the past and the ‘what ifs’ from the future. Practice being in the present with meditation: sitting quietly for 10 minutes and focusing on your breathing.
12. Start today!
Don’t put off happiness: “Tomorrow you might not be living in this dimension anymore,” says Arne Klingenberg, author of Yes I Am Happy Now! “Nobody will ever come to you and say ‘thank you’ for leading an unfulfilled and unhappy life in sacrifice for this or that.” Chances are that you may even be happy already – you just need to stop and realise it, and let yourself enjoy it.
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