How to heighten your happiness
I have recently had the pleasure of interacting with a number of individuals living in one or the other of the local retirement villages. Unlike most, a small handful of these individuals have managed to sustain a generally happy and content 'frame of mind' throughout this lockdown period.
And it seems to me that their positive attitude is not because they are in denial about the current situation and/or because they are unable to acknowledge the unpleasant emotions of uncertainty, anxiety and/or frustration that most others are experiencing. It seems, rather, to be because of the well-practiced skill of noticing the good; of looking out for the small daily experiences that are positive and then really soaking them up.
So, what does result in happiness and contentment, especially during difficult times like these?
Well, recent studies have shown that being happy is often about choosing a simpler life that enables one to focus on the essential. And happiness research strongly suggests that by practicing gratitude on a daily basis we will be much more likely to sustain feelings of happiness and contentment.
Gratitude is the feeling that tells us things are good enough as they are; a feeling that sets us free from high expectations and allows us to see magic in the little things. To make gratitude a habit, we need to learn to place more focus on small moments of joy.
The challenge then is for you to recognise the simple things that can make you feel good (and grateful); a friendly exchange with a teller at the supermarket, the last fire-coloured Autumn leaves, a beautiful Winter sunset/sunrise, a genuine compliment, etc.
We are all capable of gratitude, but sometimes we need a little reminder to practice it. And there are many reasons to practice gratitude, including the fact that it has the capacity to change and strengthen the brain in very positive ways.
Research shows that gratitude can improve general well-being, increase resilience, and strengthen social relationships. The more grateful a person is, the greater their overall well-being and life satisfaction. You will have a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, better sleep (and better waking hours).
You will also be more alert and more generous, compassionate, and happier. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions.
Gratitude simply involves being mindful of, i.e. paying attention to, the goodness in the world, but it doesn't mean ignoring the difficult or unpleasant stuff that we all experience from time to time. Gratitude makes sure that in the midst of the things that serve up a good dose of difficult and/or unpleasant feelings, we don't lose sight of the good.
Research has found that we tend to feel more grateful for experiences than for things we have. One theory is that 'things' can cause us to compare what we have to what other people have, while experiences are more likely to shift our focus to our own personal circumstances, and expand feelings of appreciation and contentment.
It has been found that regularly practicing gratitude will actually change the structure of your brain. This is because the feeling of gratitude activates areas of the brain that are involved in feelings of reward (the reward when stress is removed), morality, interpersonal bonding and positive social interactions.
Gratitude also causes a surge of feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These all contribute to the feelings of closeness, connection and happiness that come with gratitude.
And the more that gratitude is practised, the more your brain learns to tune in to the positive things in the world. This doesn't come naturally because we humans have a negativity bias, which means that we're wired to notice threats in the environment.
This bias has helped to keep us alive... but not necessarily happy. Gratitude can be a way to nurture a more positive focus, and teach your brain to spend more time on the good and less time hanging on to the things that cause emotional pain and/or turmoil.
It is also important that you hold the good experiences for about 20 seconds as this is long enough to create positive structural changes in the brain. Gratitude gives us space to 're-experience' the event, rather than having us quickly move on from it.
So, how do I practice gratitude? There are plenty of ways, but however it's done, it's important that it's done with consistency and novelty. Our brains like novelty which is why the great joy we feel for things in the beginning often quickly fades.
Gratitude can change this if we regularly give our brains something new and positive to focus on. Being grateful for the same things every day just doesn't work very well. As for consistency, if negative feelings are your default, it can be difficult. So start small. Here are some ways to practice.
1. At the end of each day make a mental note of (or even write down) 3 things that have happened during the day that you're grateful for. They can be as big or as small as you want. Doing this for 21 days will train your brain to start scanning the world for positives instead of for threats. Make sure that the things you are grateful for are new and specific. So rather than, 'I'm grateful for my friends', try, 'I'm grateful for Sally because of the way she made me laugh today.'
2. Spend two minutes writing down in detail one of your positive experiences from today. Try to recall every detail about it. As you remember positive experiences, your brain labels it as meaningful and the imprint in your brain deepens.
In general, gratitude rewires our brain so we become more likely to focus on the positives in the world than the negatives. We're not going to become oblivious to danger if we appreciate the positives for a little while but we will become more open to the good, the things that nurture our happiness and emotional well-being.
The result of my "naming competition" to provide a name for my new psychology-related training "school" / services... is that there were so many clever names offered by so many people that I am feeling a little stuck in trying to choose just one name! A sincere thank you is due to all who participated.
I have decided to offer everyone who reads my Newsletter free access to my online "Dealing with Depression without Drugs" course (for a limited time). This course will be beneficial for all those who have experienced or are currently experiencing depressive symptoms and/or for those who are wishing to support a loved one who is experiencing a depressive episode. The URL for this course is below:
My 8-week online "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" course is about to be finalised. I will let you know as soon as it is ready for you to access.
With warm regards,
Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist)