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Why You'll Be Happy If You Choose to Be Happy

It's so hopeful to realize that, right in the midst of the harder realities of this life, happiness is never out of reach. It's right here, right now in both the small and large choices.
12/09/2015 04:03pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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by Mimi O'Connor

Our efforts to adopt lifestyle practices that change our lives for the better can also trigger feelings of overwhelm. Like the mythological Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the mountain, we can also find ourselves becoming fatigued and disspirited. Add a dose of the harsh realities we see every day on the nightly news, and before you can blink, you've caught the negativity bug. Feelings of pessimism and cynicism are usually not far behind.

For the sake of our health and well-being, we can't afford to reinforce cynicism and mock light-heartedness. The pursuit of happiness is not only an inalienable right, it's also our responsibility. As novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson said, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy." Our life's work of transforming external struggles into hard won progress will seem empty and meaningless if it is not balanced with internal resources that promote optimism, vitality, hope, and trust.

In his book The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, Paul Loeb includes an essay by activist-historian Howard Zinn on the power of optimism.

Zinn writes:

An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, courage, and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Choosing Happiness

Past research has centered on the work of geneticists who assert that we are each born with a happiness set point. This is much like a metabolic set point that predetermines our natural body weight. This theory states that regardless of what we do, or what happens to us, this set point will always take us back to a certain level of subjective well-being. In other words, we have little control over our own happiness. It implies, for example, that some of us are just born more cheerful and others of us more pensive.

Well, it turns out there's more to it. Research is now showing that what we do and how we think does matter in contributing to and increasing our health and happiness. Lifestyle changes that include exercise, whole-food nutrition, stress management, and social emotional connection have all been identified as habits that result in healthier bodies and happier individuals.

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, co-authors of the book, How We Choose to Be Happy, set out on a three-year exploration to investigate and uncover the habits of happy people. They wanted to determine whether a happiness set point was set in stone. They studied over 300 subjects from all over the world ranging from a mother in Seattle balancing career and family, to a holocaust survivor in Amsterdam and a hardware store owner in rural Alabama.

As a result of their findings, they determined that adopting behaviors such as setting intentions, fostering accountability, practicing appreciation, and being of service, among others, created happiness, contentment, and an elevated quality of life.

They concluded that we can choose to learn these happiness-yielding behaviors regardless of our genetic make-up, personality, or background. Happiness, they assert, is a choice that is clearly within reach if we practice it like a habit.

Science and Happiness

The biochemistry of happy people is highly correlated with the biochemistry of healthy people. Researchers describe two kinds of well-being: eudaimonic and hedonic. Eudaimonic well-being results from a sense of purpose and service to others. Hedonic well-being comes from enjoying personal pleasures. A life in balance would include both.

However, a study conducted by Dr. Barbara Frederickson, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Steven Cole from the UCLA School of Medicine found that blood samples of people with high levels of eudaimonic happiness demonstrated a better immune response than those with high levels of hedonic happiness.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author and psychology professor at University of California, Riverside believes deeply in the importance of the scientific study of happiness and well-being. In her book The How of Happiness, she writes, "Working on how to become happier, the research suggests, will not only make a person feel better but will also boost his or her energy, creativity and immune system, foster better relationships, fuel higher productivity at work and even lead to a longer life."

She conducted experiments aimed at finding out which happiness-boosting strategies are most effective. A partial list of these strategies that also promote eudaimonic well-being includes: performing deliberate acts of kindness, nurturing strong, social relationships, becoming a better listener, and learning to forgive.

In a study in the Journal Psychological Bulletin, Lyubomirsky, King and Diener found that the link between happiness and success exists, not only because success makes people happy, but also because happiness precedes successful outcomes in life.

In another study reported in the Journal Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that emotional vitality and happiness was associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The study followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for an average of 15 years. The results showed that a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, and of engagement in life created a heart protective effect that was distinct and measurable.

Savor the Sweet Moments

Our intentional focus on increasing happiness in our daily lives can be just the counterpoint we need to the constant bombardment of media messages that tell us we don't have enough stuff, that we aren't smart enough or rich enough and that there is more bad in the world than good.

Consciously slowing down in order to drink in and be lifted by life's simple, momentary treasures that touch our hearts can greatly increase our feelings of contentment, satisfaction and joy.

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson demonstrates how we can learn to "rewire" our brain, so that we can respond to the world receptively, contentedly, and peacefully. We do this by focusing our sustained attention on a positive experience. This creates a lasting impact by re-sculpting the neural structure of the brain. "When we consciously practice gratitude we increase the flow of beneficial neurochemicals in the brain, he writes. "If we focus on what we resent or regret, we build out the neural substrates of those thoughts or feelings. But if we rest our attention on things we're grateful for, we build in very different neural substrates. New blood starts flowing. Existing synapses become more sensitive and new synapses grow."

He cautions that if you don't take those extra seconds to enjoy and stay with the experience. "It passes through you like wind through the trees, momentarily pleasant but with no lasting value."

I have a vividly memorable example of this principle in my own life. When my daughter was 3 years old, I took her for a swim at our local pool. It was early afternoon and, unusually so, we had the pool all to ourselves. She was leaning on me, her back up against my chest, my arms wrapped around her as I gently swirled her back and forth through the water. Her little body became heavy and she actually nodded off to sleep. In that simple and sweet moment I felt like we were both wrapped in the arms of contentment and peace. It so moved me that I told myself I was going to freeze that moment within me so that I could take it with me the rest of my life. Sustaining my attention there created a permanent file of happiness that I have downloaded from my memory and into my heart countless times in the past two decades.

In our daily lives, it only takes a moment to feel the delicate warmth of the winter sun on your face, to revel in the contagious belly laugh of a child, or to soak in the delicious aroma of a home cooked meal. Developing the habit of being on the lookout for these simple wonders of contentment can enrich us, delight us, and restore joy to our awareness.

It's so hopeful to realize that, right in the midst of the harder realities of this life, happiness is never out of reach. It's right here, right now in both the small and large choices.

What brings you happiness?

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