How to Choose Happiness

It’s estimated that as many as 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are related to stress. We are overscheduled, over-caffeinated, and, often, anxious. Heaping insult on top of injury, we sometimes apply our high intensity to the goal of happiness itself—pushing ourselves, working overtime, exercising compulsively, all of which drive up our disease and stress levels.

What are we seeking? Is happiness the true definition of success? Why does it matter? And, perhaps most important, is happiness a choice?

Many of us have been conditioned to believe that we were either born with the ability to be happy, or not. “We’ve been told that our genetics work in our favor or lead us to be depressed, pessimistic, or anxious. This is partly true,” says Maria Sirois, PsyD, a Kripalu presenter. Scientific findings from leading figures in Positive Psychology, like researcher Sonja Lyubormirsky, do indicate that genetics play a role in our happiness. However, biology is not destiny. “Research in the fields of epigenetics and neuroplasticity demonstrates that our brains and our DNA can be influenced, over time, by our choices. We can change our basic level of happiness through our behaviors,” says Maria.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track. Emma has dedicated her career to the psychology of happiness. She says that the cycle of burnout in which so many of us find ourselves leaves us more self-focused, less inclined to notice how others are feeling or to be present to support those around us. This adds to our overall lack of ease.

“People generally have the misconception that, in order to be successful, they have to postpone their happiness. Ironically, what research is showing is that happiness is the fast track to success. If, instead of overworking and burning out, you take time to relax, to cultivate calmness, to stay present, and to be compassionate to yourself and others, you will be more productive, more resilient to stress, more charismatic and influential, and more creative and innovative,” says Emma.

When we do the things that make us happy—relax, spend time with others, meditate, exercise, engage in creative activities—we can actually derive a deeper sense of success in all areas. This is empowering. The perception that we must push harder, do more, work longer, and drive ourselves further, always, is a draining way to live. And with the high rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression, there is a deeper need to take a step back and ask ourselves: How can we get happier?

What we know is that happiness, overall, is influenced by our habits. Hence, when we are feeling stuck or unsure, we have the power to alter our mood, emotions, and perception. “Our happiness is demonstrably influenced by the choices we make,” says Kripalu Yoga teacher Sam Chase, MFA, E-RYT. “For example, we know from numerous studies that the quality of our social relationships is among the single greatest factors capable of influencing our happiness and well-being. I have never heard a story of someone on their deathbed who said, ‘I wish I worked more and bought more stuff.’ How we choose to invest our time and attention in the people we care about can have a profound impact on our daily joy. Time and attention are precious resources, whether you’re rich or poor or old or young—we all get the same amount—and we can choose to use them more or less wisely.”

Since our perception and decisions greatly influence our state of mind, we can take action on a daily basis to increase our happiness levels. Studies reveal that attitude influences our sense of self, therefore impacting how happy we are. Here are some key ways we can cultivate a sense of happiness in our day-to-day lives.

  1. Be mindful. There are simple ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day. You can start with mindfulness meditation, practice mindful eating, or go for a walk alone and make an effort to be present in your surroundings.
  2. Get grateful. A daily practice of gratitude decreases the frequency of negative thoughts and emotions and lessens their intensity. Reframing our perspective through gratitude brings us into the moment, to notice what is going well and acknowledge the gifts around us. “People always think they will be happy if and when something happens,” says Emma. “But research shows that we are bad at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy. Instead of always pegging our happiness on something, we can realize all the things we have to feel grateful for now.”
  3. Prioritize positivity. Research from positive psychologist Barbara Frederickson has shown that prioritizing positivity—actively planning for those things that lift us up—has a cumulative effect on our levels of happiness and overall well-being, notes Maria.
  4. Make space for sadness or grief. Being happy doesn’t means never being sad. As humans, we experience a broad range of emotions, and we need to make space for all of them. “One of the most pernicious myths to come out of our modern fascination with happiness is that something is wrong if we’re not happy all the time,” says Sam. “When tragedy and suffering take place, I want to be sad or outraged. And I want other people to feel that too, to know that we are part of a shared human experience. We have a shared responsibility to build a better world together, not to recoil from reality into a world of magical thinking.”
  5. Unplug. We all know it’s important to detach from work and our devices, even though doing so isn’t always easy. Studies show that dependence on devices can negatively impact mental health, directly affecting our sense of overall happiness. Don’t check e-mail after 6:00 pm, avoid bringing devices into bed with you, and try to unplug entirely for at least one day or half a day per week. You will feel the difference.
  6. Volunteer. Self-care is hugely important to maintain overall mental health. However, studies have found that doing for others has a tremendous impact on our sense of self and place in society. When we connect, share, and help, our happiness is boosted. Studies show that giving is more satisfying and sustainable than personal comfort or gain. 

You can choose happiness—today and every day.

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