Happiness is not just the outcome of healingbut can facilitate healing. When my trauma therapist first suggested I “bathe in grace” every day, it fell on deaf ears. Many years later, I now understand.
Traumatic states are very magnetic, as are other emotional states that we habitually inhabit. Any state can become home for us, the place we naturally reside. Sometimes these are referred to as “attractor states,” meaning that is where the nervous system is naturally pulled to. It can be a state of hopelessness, anxiety, or anything else.
Moments of contentment, pleasure, and meaning (the components of happiness) help counter-balance negative attractor states. They provide a different experience for the nervous system, creating more choice. They are also a lubricant to the system, giving us the energy and motivation to what might otherwise seem like slogging through our troubles.
Research shows that positive emotions lead to feeling more resourceful, more energetic, and more sociable, all of which further support healing.
There has been a lot of research on the subject of happiness in recent years, and my favorite book explaining this research in practical ways is The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD. who spent 18 years researching happiness. The suggestions below come primarily from that work.
The important thing to remember about happiness is that it doesn’t come from circumstances. Lyubomirsky measures circumstances as accounting for only 10% of happiness. A big chunk is genetic, but the rest is really from our state of mind and what we choose to cultivate.
Lyubomirsky suggests that you identify happiness-enhancing strategies that may work for you and vary them over time. Here are 10 such strategies.
1. Stop to savor.
You have probably had the experienceofdoing something you looked forward to and then recognizing it was over and you forgot to enjoy it. This is the usual way we live. Spiritual sages have been pointing out forever that the ingredients to a happy life are right here, if we pause to take them in.
It might be appreciating some part of nature or a loved one or the food you are eating. This is such potent medicine that Lyubomirsky found that those who spent 8 minutes a day savoring for 3 consecutive days felt better a month later.
I like savoring in the moment, although savoring moments from the past and future also help increase satisfaction.
Flow has been defined as intense absorption in the present moment, usually involving a task that takes some skill. Playing an instrument or sport or doing an art form all may lead to the pleasurable experience of flow. It is important to have some activities like this that give you a vacation from your attractor states and usual mindset.
I have expanded this to what I call “flow time,” which is feeling moment by moment for what is “in the flow,” the natural thing to do next. I can’t always do this, but when I do, I find this time very pleasurable (and surprisingly productive!).
3. Practice gratitude.
There has been a lot of press about gratitude, and it is well deserved. With gratitude, we focus on what is going right rather than what we don’t like. At any given moment, there is actually much that is non-problematic, although we take these things for granted and seldom notice them.
Gratitude helps us let go of grudges and not feel so bitter about life, which is easy to get stuck in if you’ve had a lot of hardship. A yet more advanced practice is to extend this gratitude to include even your hardships, which helps highlight the learning present in those hardships.
You can practice gratitude by pausing to give thanks, keeping a gratitude journal, by including what you are thankful for in prayers, and by sharing gratitudes verbally.
4. Think positive (or at least more objectively).
Of course there is a long history of positive thinking, and also plenty of evidence of people getting caught in magical thinking. I don’t believe that our thoughts alone create reality, but they certainly do shape our experience.
People who suffer from depression are often caught in a negative way of looking at the world. What researchers call Learned Optimism is a correction for this. People who think more optimistically fare better in times of high stress, because they’re not caught in tunnel vision. Maybe the sky is falling, but maybe something else is happening.This is also the province of cognitive therapy.
Research shows that learned optimism promotes more positive feelings, higher self-esteem, and a sense of mastery.
5. Avoid ruminating on your problems.
This is also part of CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy). Ruminating on problems can really sink you. This is not to say that we want to always push difficult things out of mind, but rather to discern when our contemplation of them serves a useful purpose and when we’re just digging a bigger hole.
Lyubomirsky also found positive results when people stop nursing hurt and angry feelings. She suggests cultivating empathy for the people who’ve hurt and disappointed you. This doesn’t mean excusing or tolerating abusive behavior. It means understanding where it is coming from.
We want to work through our hurt and angry feelings without holding onto them longer than is useful.
6. Practice random (or planned) acts of kindness.
When we are extending generosity toward others, it helps open the heart. It helps us see others in a more positive light, lubricates relationships, distracts us from our problems, and helps us feel good about ourselves.
Lyubomirsky found in her research that acting kindly on a regular basis increased happiness for an extended period, although such acts cannot be rote. You have to feel it to have it affect you. Other research has confirmed a “helper’s high” that comes with helping another.
7. Act the way you want to feel.
This is the well-known principle of “Fake it until you make it.” So, for example, when you act happier, you feel happier. There is even evidence that the body picks up on something like a smile and reinforces it.
8. Cultivate close relationships.
Having more close relationships helps people feel better emotionally as well as supporting physical health through mechanisms like improved immune functioning. If your relationships are not fully satisfying, look at how you can improve them and cultivate new friends.
9. Get out and exercise.
A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and boosts self-esteem. It helps regulate the body and get us out of those stuck states.
10. Adopt meaningful goals.
Goals give us a sense of purpose. They add structure and meaning to life. You want to make sure they are your goals and not just your conditioning, so it’s good to reassess periodically. Ask yourself, What’s really important to me? How am I moving toward this?
These are strategies that have been validated by research, but they aren’t the only ways for you to increase happiness. I encourage you to become curious about how you experience contentment, meaning, and enjoyment, and what leads to these moments. Become a Happiness Detective!