Wednesday, May 18, 2011

happy happy joy joy part 2

Having rambled quite a bit about unhappiness in my last post - what about the other side of the coin?

What makes us happy?

My wise mum always said, you're only as happy as the relationships in your life. The ancient greeks had the proverb 'know thyself', and I think I would agree that understanding your inner self, your motivations and reactions, strengths and wounds/weaknesses become pretty important in finding wholeness, balance and happiness.

There is so much to say on this topic, many books have been written on it, but here's some points that really stood out to me in my musings and readings.

What I found fascinating was all the scientific studies that demonstrate what doesn't make you happier. Material wealth, beyond the meeting of basic human needs for shelter, food, clothing and the ability to participate in the society you are a part of, does not make you happy. Humans have an amazing capacity to practice what is known as 'hedonic adaptation'. Hedonic adaptation means that while a change in circumstances may initially make you more or less happy - you will soon adapt to the new circumstances and fall back to your happiness set point.(The book, 'The 'how' of happiness' talks a lot about the happiness set point - it is your 'natural' level of happiness). One of the reasons for material possessions not making you happy is that you quickly want more of the same, or the newer, bigger, better version. Upward social comparisons quickly destroy any sense of contentment. One of the reasons why dramatically unequal societies are unsustainable, from a psychological point of view among other reasons... seeing huge disparities leads to a natural progression along a scale from individual dissatisfaction to outright social revolution. Being physically attractive doesn't make you happy. Why? Happy people are not focused on their appearances determining happiness, and happy people tend to believe in internal beauty and cultivate self acceptance, which, also has the effect of enhancing external beauty. Health, education, climate, and gender also do not affect your basic happiness levels. (Though I bet whoever wrote that didn't write it in the middle of a northern winter)

What then, makes us happy?

1.having a rich social network and strong relationships (my mum was right)
we are hardwired for connection. belonging is arguably one of the greatest human needs and loneliness one of the greatest human tragedies. Love and nurture, from the moment we are born, shapes the way we react to the world, and the way our physical brains and emotional minds develop. Investing in relationships is one of the best ways way building happiness into life.

2. practicing gratitude and cultivating optimism

so if you did the test from the link on my last post you'll know if you are basically an optimist or a pessimist... and guess what, pessimists tend to be less happy... but it is possible to change the way you think and actively combat unhelpful thought patterns - cognitive behavioural therapy works on this principle- interrupting negative or destructive thought patterns in replacing them with more constructive though habits. Consciously thinking of the things in life you are grateful for is a happiness increasing habit.

3. having spirituality or religion
for some reason people of faith seem to live longer and stay generally healthier. Why exactly this is is hard to say - but the social network of a faith group, the sense of shared values and also the connection to a god, gods or higher powers generally allows people to deal with existential questions, and find reasons and/or meaning in life, which all contribute to happiness. Possibly included in this - (but obviously separate for some folks) is the factor of being engaged in something that is beneficial to others, or is a cause larger than yourself, giving your life larger purpose and meaning.

4. using your strengths and skills
This is the one that Seligman and the positive psychologists are big on. You can test your strengths on using your strengths involve doing thing s that you naturally incline toward, that you enjoy, and that you get a sense of mastery from doing. Using strengths on a regular basis in your life helps happiness. Hard when you don't enjoy your job, but if you really hate what you're doing, and you practice all the habits of happiness in your workplace and still are miserable...seriously thinking about changing your career would be good. I cope with a deeply unfulfilling job because I'm only part time so still have time to do things I enjoy outside of work, that and I'm leaving soon, hooray. Incidentally, one of my highest strengths is curiousness and love of learning, which is why I loved reading five books or more on the same subject - because it's feeding one of my basic strengths. in the present moment (practicing mindfulness)
This is most interesting and well worth looking into. it involves practicing meditation, with the end goal of greater awareness of your thoughts, feelings and the resulting physical reactions to these. the 'mindfulness in action' website define it this way: 'Mindfulness means living with spaciousness and appreciation, whatever life brings.Training in mindfulness helps you to be more emotionally aware, more attentive and more fully engaged, putting aside preoccupations and waking up to what is happening right now.' It comes from a buddhist tradition, but interestingly enough the christian monastics practiced meditation in a very similar way.

6. pursuing activities that engage you in 'flow' (A very interesting concept summed up in this ted talk) I won't even try explain... but it is fascinating.

7. forgiving
This one is perhaps one of the hardest ones to put into practice, especially if you have been deeply hurt - but holding onto anger, bitterness and unforgiveness is a sure way to undermine happiness.

8. physical activity
more and more research is coming up with how good this is for mental health, for physical health. Flow feeds into why exercise helps happiness. Endorphins are generated by activity. And where your activity involves learning something there's an added sense of enjoyment through mastering a skill.

9. having compassion towards yourself
This is the one that hit me the hardest -psychologist brene brown talks about the power of human vulnerability. In her book 'embracing the gifts of imperfection she talks about learning to be compassionate towards yourself, and the way that this then flows on to improving other relationships. Mindfulness can really help with learning how to be kind to yourself- as it teaches you to recognise negative thoughts as just that, thoughts,and not infallible truths. Add to this being kind and nurturing to yourself and recognising that experiences of failure and suffering are shared human experiences, and you're well on the way to being compassionate toward yourself.

Ok, rant over, Thanks for staying with me on it, it's been an interesting learning curve. I hope to put much of it into practice. There's a cool website called 'the happiness project' for anyone interested in exploring this topic further.

Here's a pic of a sign for the meditation tent at last years greenbelt festival taken at the site-vibing 'make week'. This year we're making many big flags. But I like the word of this one. abide. yep. My ulitmate source of happiness and much more beside is Jesus, who speaks the beautiful words 'abide in me, and I in you' (john 15:4). Our worth does not come from achievements or anything we do, but simply that we are. We are image bearers of the divine, infinitely valuable and immeasurably loved. Thinking on that makes me happy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

happy happy joy joy

With only 3 months to go before we embark on our big trip, there's not a lot of time to make things, which is sad for me! But green things are growing, and that somehow gives me great creative satisfaction. We have a fair few things in at the allotment and our little strip of garden at home is coming along, with things that will be colourful - geraniums, lobelia, pansies, sunflowers, dahlias and lots of tasty herbs, lettuce, peas and tomatoes.

So I've been pondering happiness for a while now. By the time one gets to thirty (in a few months)it is a wonderful thing to be happy. I think I have spent a good 16 or so years of my life being deeply deeply unhappy (most of my teen/adult life). At times I was seriously depressed. Why? I'm still figuring that out. I had everything I needed, materially, more than most of the world in fact, and nothing particularly traumatic happened to me, well - a serious long term illness, a marriage breakup and various other things life throws at you - nothing that other folks don't also go through and cope with. Why do some people seem to basically be happy people, and others, like myself, seem to be basically unhappy? (not unhappy at the moment by the way, feeling pretty chipper)

By happiness, I mean something like contentment, positive well-being, and a general sense that life is good. There is much to say on the topic of depression, which I think is a many headed beast. Clinical depression is an illness rather than a tendency toward sadness,negativity or anxiety, and it has a variety of causes and treatments. Some of it is chemically caused, and is sometimes just as simply treated. A genetic pre-disposition toward depression may mean that a relatively minor trauma or stress will trigger the onset of depression. More often than not it is caused by a combination of traumatic events, ways of thinking, and chemical imbalance or nutritional imbalances. But I am interested here not so much at in looking at depression, but at happiness and what makes some people happier than others - so not just the absence of negative feelings, but the preponderance of positive feelings and general contentment.

There are many many theories and hundreds of books about the matter- here's a selection of musings from a few books that I thought were excellent and which each provided a slightly different take on the subject.

Genetics is one thing, according to Sonjya Lyubomirsky (author of 'The How of Happiness'), scientific studies show that we have a happiness 'set point' that is essentially genetically determined. Out of all the factors influencing happiness 50% is made of up a genetic set-point, to which you inevitably return, despite fluctuations in fortune generating positive or negative events. Slightly demoralising news? Not so- she goes on to say that although 10% of factors affecting happiness are made up of circumstances mostly beyond our control (accidents or illness affecting health, inherited wealth, beauty, etc), the remaining 50% is within our control : determined by our attitudes, thought processes and actions (what we think and do). Lyubomirsky's book was based on clinical trials and science based evidence, so only covered what has been assessed in various peer-revised trials. Accordingly, the happiest folk tended to:

-Devote time to friends and family (more than average)
-Express gratitude for all they have
-Regularly help others (friends, co workers and passersby)
-Think optimistically about the future
-Savour life's pleasures and live in the present moment as much as possible
-exercise regularly (at least weekly)
-hold deeply committed life goals and ambitions
-Happy people are not exempt from suffering- they just deal with it differently, and have more resources to cope with it and find purpose in it

Biologically it seems that happiness is not necessarily instinctive. Richard O' Connor ('Happiness: the thinking person's guide') argues that three main things make us unhappy. The first is biology. Our brains, it seems, are hardwired into seeking what we want - to win, to acquire, to dominate - good for the survival of the species, but bad, it seems for happiness. The second is our minds, which, use all sorts of defenses to help us survive traumatic or confusing situations. These defense mechanisms, (denial, procrastination, projection, disassociation and so on) have a useful purpose - helping us deal with stress or trauma, but in many situations they become unhelpful distortions of reality that can lead to self-sabotaging behaviour - addictions, escapism, extreme risk aversion and so on. It seems that our thinking patterns generate neural networks, that actually physically change the shapes of our brain (a great book on this is 'The brain that changes itself', by Norman Doidge). The good news is, by cultivating practices of happiness, you can change your mind (literally) so you form neural networks associated with happiness, and constructive thinking rather than self defeating thinking. Finally - society is the third factor causing unhappiness. Oliver James, a British psychologist and author ( 'Alffuenza', and 'Britain on the couch') also cites this as a huge cause of increasing depression and unhappiness in the world. Modern society relies on making us unhappy so that we'll buy more. Impossible beauty ideal, constant upward comparisons and increasingly inequality between rich and poor make us much more aware of what we don't have, and more unrealistically think that we can attain what we don't have. Overwork, constant multitasking, and debt are becoming normal ways of functioning. None of these aid well-being.

A movement called positive psychology, spearheaded by Martin Seligman (Authentic happiness) looks at optimism and pessimism, as basic personal styles of operating and how these impact on happiness. Apparently, people who are basically pessimists, interpret good events as having temporary,and specific causes (it was once off, or they were having a good day). The optimist, on the other hand, will attribute good things to universal, permanent causes (I'm really good at this and they recognised that) You can see whether you are an optimist or pessimist by doing a test on this website.

According to Seligman you can increase your optimism by recognising, and arguing with automatic negative interpretations of events. He uses ABCDE model -
Adversity (something happens)
Belief (what you say to yourself)
Consequences (of that belief)
Disputation (of your routine belief)
Energization (that happens once you successfully dispute inaccurately negative beliefs).

And whattya know, I find that I'm a pessimist. It is a little disconcerting, owning up to some traits I'd rather not have. I am highly self critical, struggle with low self esteem and insecurity, and get quite worried about people not liking me.

Fortunately, it seems that there are many thing that can be done about these traits, and since this is now rather a long post, more on that next time...

Till then, here's a nice staircase at Kew Gardens. Positive upward spirals, anyone?

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