In my previous post (“On Happiness” Part 1), I described how I got over my…well, my unhappiness about happiness.
Since then, I’ve been enthusiastically reading up on what’s understood about how it works, and on how to cultivate and incorporate happiness as a stronger strand of experience in our lives.
There’s been a lot of attention in research and in therapy in the past few years to the principles and approaches of “positive psychology,” which field has to do with the ways that we can deliberately influence our experience of overall happiness. Some research has concluded that we each, individually, have a “happiness set-point” that largely determines our overall sense of well-being. Experiences that feel positive can temporarily raise our mood levels, and losses or disappointments can lower them, but generally our moods tend to cluster around this set point, and to return to it— it’s kind of like our personal “mood climate.”
While it’s thought that these basic mood level “set points” are partly determined by our genes and our upbringing, it turns out that about 40 percent of our personal happiness-climate is within our control, and can be changed by making conscious choices to behave in ways that increase positive feelings. Simply by taking our thinking (and other behavioral) habits off “automatic” and putting them on “manual,” we can add much more happiness to our lives than may have seemed possible before.
A keyword here is the word “add:” happiness is not made by covering over our sorrow and suffering with a smiley-face sticker; it’s about expanding the scope of our experience to include happiness as part of it. About choosing to invite happiness to live and to grow side-by-side with our other moods and experiences. In fact, our ability to successfully navigate life’s disappointments and losses (and even to cope with depression), is in great part dependent on our ability to look for, receive, cultivate and savor positive feelings and experiences also.
I find one of the most beautiful, living testimonials to the power of personal choice in the cultivation of happiness in my friend and mentor, Colleen B, with whom I spent a weekend recently at her home on Vashon Island. Now in her eighties, Colleen has lived a rich and loving family life with her husband and 5 children, and now also many grandchildren. She is one of the most deeply, even radiantly positive people I know, which radiance seems to only brighten –and her vitality deepen– as she ages. So much so that if you did not know her history, you might assume that she must have lived a charmed life, relatively untouched by loss.
In fact, the opposite is true: between 2004 and 2015, both of Colleen’s sons, her husband, and a daughter died, with the three most recent of those deaths coming only 2-1/2 years apart. It goes without saying that each one of these losses has been profound. Collectively, they are hard for me to imagine even living through.
But as I have watched and listened to Colleen speak about what it has been like to accept and digest these losses over time, I have seen in action the ways in which her dedication to, and faith in, all that is life-giving (which is perhaps, in essence, what happiness is made of) has made it possible for her to incorporate these losses into the whole of the experience of continuing to fully live, instead of either repressing grief by pasting a false smile over it, walling it off in some other way, or giving in to despair. Rather, happiness for Colleen is what makes the sadness bearable; the warp on which the weft of sadness is woven in the fabric of her life. Or as Colleen put it (in our text exchange just now about what I was planning to write about her here): “It is important to say that I experience feeling sad and happy at the same time. It took me awhile to recognize that in myself: that one does not cancel out the other.”
So how does one cultivate happiness, so that it’s there when we need it (and don’t we need it every day)?
The thing is, it does take intention and effort to keep happiness strong and alive, simply because the positive does not shout for our attention in the way that fear and disappointment do. As organisms, our brains are wired for fear to have the first and loudest voice…which wiring helps us survive, but it’s not what helps us thrive.
Here are 5 practices that can help to cultivate happiness (all of which, as it turns out, Colleen herself does on a daily basis).
Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before going to bed, write down three new things for which you are grateful. It’s important to write these down, not just review them in your mind: new habits of mind tend to take root more easily when the body and is involved. Doing this every day for 3 weeks will make it a habit, meaning your brain will start automatically looking for more things to appreciate.
Regularly notice and savor the positive. Maybe your practice will be to jot down at least one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours, and take the time to really appreciate it. Maybe it will mean really savoring the taste of a sandwich while eating it, instead of reviewing and savoring a grudge during lunch. As with the gratitude practice, you’re creating the habit of noticing and really “taking in” positive experiences automatically, by looking for them each day.
Make intentional acts of kindness a daily habit. There are so many opportunities for these throughout every day, it’s just a matter of taking them! Make a practice saying a kind word in place of a complaint (or instead of no word) to the person who checks out your groceries, answers the phone at a business, or pumps your gas. Do or say something thoughtful for a family member or friend. Kindness reaps what it sows in us, so notice whether or not you might start feeling more kindly toward yourself as a result of making a habit of kindliness.
Move your body every day. There’s no question that exercise and other physical activity reduce stress levels and boost the “well-being” chemicals circulating in the brain and bloodstream, as well as helping our bodies be more energetic and healthier in the long run. Once again, a commitment to a daily practice of exercise teaches the body to expect it, as well as to expect its positive results.
Sit in quiet attention for a period of time every day. Spending even one minute each day (but the more the better) just sitting quietly without “doing” anything else, just noticing the moment within and without, gives the mind a rest from all the reacting and story-telling it does otherwise. It’s not even necessary to “try to relax” or “try to be calm” (which can backfire anyway, since these involve “trying”). Just taking some time each day to sit still with whatever thoughts and emotions are going on can have a profound settling effect, boosting those well-being chemicals in the brain. My own practice is to do this 30 minutes each day…and I can tell the difference when I don’t!
I’ll end this post with one more (my current favorite in these difficult-in-many-ways days on the planet), which Colleen gave me during our visit. Here it is in her handwriting, as she’d copied it into her journal: