We tend to define our lives by the pursuit of happiness. Will my job make me happy? Will my partner make me happy? If I have more money, will this make me happy?
But we fail to realise that happiness is not some nirvana we can only access when all our desires fall into place. Neuroscience dictates that 40% of our personal happiness is absolutely in our control, 10% is due to personal circumstance and 50% is in our genes.
The creators of the 'Action for Happiness' movement, along with the founders of behavioural change website 'Do Something Different' passionately believe in this research and want to teach others how to take this control into our own hands.
They believe that if we were all more proactive about our happiness then we would actually make the world a better place, and reduce this misery.
So backed by this science, they have created a six week Happiness Programme.
As a willing guinea pig, I signed up to what was essentially a series of text messages assigning me a task to do each day that would help me see how I could lift my own mood. These tasks are tailored to your needs and based off a questionnaire that assesses your range of behaviours and habits, and how flexible you are at changing these.
It took a few weeks for things to really fall into place, but at the end of this programme I've realised two very important lessons that proves absolutely, you can control your own happiness.
1. Happiness is the result of action
Within this, there are five helpful tips:
Do things for others:
'Action for Happiness' share that research has proved that doing something for someone else activates the same part of our brain as treating ourselves. When an act of kindness is carried out our brain associates this with pleasure, connection and trust. And the bonus is, endorphins are released in both people involved.
Connect with people:
'Action for Happiness' state that people with strong relationships are not only happier, but also live longer. If we build strong connections we obviously create more love and meaning in our lives and boost our self worth.
Happiness is also contagious. If you're happy and you connect with another person, their happiness increases by 15%. When that person connects with another, the second persons happiness increase by 10%. The third contact? 6%.
So get off Facebook, which is proven to increase feelings of depression, and network in the real world with real people. Spread that happiness.
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Right now, today, what are you looking forward to? It could be as simple as getting through chapter one of that novel you've been meaning to read, taking a bubble bath or catching up on a favorite show, Burton says. "But you have to be intentional about creating stuff to look forward to," she adds. "That’s a daily thing, but it’s also looking out into the future -- what [are you] looking forward to next month or what are you doing this winter?"
"What a lot of people don’t realize is that when you have that full-on smile -- it’s called a Duchenne smile -- when your cheeks are all puffed up and your eyes are twinkling and crinkled, those muscles actually trigger the release of serotonin and endorphins in the brain," Burton explains. Even practicing by saying “Eeee” or putting a pencil in your mouth still triggers the hormonal rush. "There’s research around those who have the full-on smile," Burton adds. "If you follow them for 25 to 30 years, or even until they die, you’ll find that they live longer, they were more likely to get married and they were more likely to say their marriages were happy."
It’s really hard to be truly happy without serving others. "The most depressed people are the ones who always focus on themselves," Burton says. "You can think yourself into a depression by constantly thinking about what’s going on in your life that you wish were different." Instead, focus on acts of service as simple as saying something really kind to someone or opening the door for them. Think about who just had a baby that you can maybe cook a meal for. "When you put it in the context of our media today -- social media -- it’s about all telling everybody what’s going on in your life," Burton says. "When we direct some of that attention outward, you’re going to feel happier. This is not just about volunteer work ... this is about waking up in the morning and, in addition to asking, 'What am I looking forward to today?' ask [instead], 'Who can I bless today?'”
"One of the important aspects of play is that it’s not about productivity," Burton says. "You play because it’s fun; you don’t play because you’re going to get something done at the end of [it]. Play also helps you relax because you can’t multitask and play at the same time."
They say money won’t buy happiness, but in a lot of ways, money can make you happier, according to Burton. "If you’re making $15 thousand a year and then all of a sudden you’re making $45 thousand, you’re going to be dramatically happier." But there's a secret to happiness through money, Burton says: One, live below your means. "If you can widen that gap between what you owe every month and what you need to spend to live, and what you have, you’re going to increase your happiness," she says. And two, situate yourself in an environment where you feel like you're doing better than average. "Buying the biggest house you qualify for is pretty bad for your happiness, but moving in a neighborhood that is very comfortable to afford, where you don’t feel like you’re constantly trying to reach up to where everyone else is, that going to boost your happiness," Burton explains. "Buy experiences instead of buying things."
By 1 p.m., most people have probably talked to more people by text and email than they have in person. "Where we’ve started to lose out is, we’ve started to replace texting and emails and Facebook with real conversation," Burton says. But maintaining a sense of connection is critical. "There are things that we get from touch, from visually seeing people; there’s communication that happens that can’t happen via technology." Connecting in person allows you to be a little more vulnerable, she adds. "In our culture today, we like to put on a facade ... but it’s very difficult to connect with people when you insist that your image be perfect."
Writing down the things that you’re grateful for has been shown to boost your immune system so you’re less likely to get sick and you sleep better. But according to Burton, "gratitude [also] counteracts something that psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, which is just [the idea] that we’re very poor predictors of what actually makes us happy." That means we get the promotion, the new house, the thing we desperately wanted, but then we get used to it, and simply adjust. "We adapt to continually improving circumstances, but then we get used to it, so we want something more," she says. Gratitude helps us stay in a place of remembering. "Try to go back to where you were when you wanted to have the stuff you have now," Burton suggests. You might also try writing a gratitude letter, being intentional about thanking people for the ways in which they’ve impacted your life.
This trigger is all about your ability to fully engage in what’s going on around you. "Being in flow is that period where you almost lose track of time because you’re so engaged in what it is that you’re doing," Burton explains. "Flow is that point where your skill level or your ability matches the challenge in front of you. If the challenge is too big, you become frustrated ... if the challenge is too low, you become bored. But that perfect match of ability and challenge is where flow happens."
Of all the things that help us trigger happiness, Burton says relaxation tends to rank the lowest. Perhaps that because of our misunderstanding of what relaxation is. "Rest is a part of that -- taking breaks, taking vacation -- but also your ability to let go; from a spiritually perspective, trusting that God has your back," Burton explains. "Maybe things may not work out the way you thought they should, but that they will unfold and you’ll be okay. Being able to relax in your decision … is a part of relaxation."
When you see words like "love" or "yes," your brain does something different than when you see words like "no," Burton explains. Positive words actually release so-called happy hormones in the brain. But using winning words to trigger happiness also hinges on how you tell your story. "How do you describe your situation to people?" Burton asks. "Even when I went through very difficult things -- I went through a divorce -- I was very intentional about how I talked about it. Even when you don’t believe it in that moment, it changes how you feel when you speak words that are hopeful." Winning words is about learning to be more optimistic in how you speak, she says, suggesting doing so in the present tense: “I am happy. I am healthy. I am strong. I have energy.”
It’s been proven that cardiovascular activity can be as effective as antidepressants in people suffering from mild depression. "I like to think of movement as a happiness trigger more than I think of it as exercise," Burton says. And while spin class is great, you can also take a walk in the park with a friend, dance in your living room or do five to 10 minutes of jumping jacks right in your office, she suggests.
According to Burton, You can savor in three ways -- you can savor the past, the present or the future. But this trigger is all about noticing the moment, while you are there. "Savoring is slowing down and noticing it while it’s happening," she says.
With all of that said, obsessing over how to be happy is not going to help you get there any faster. "When you over-focus on what’s going to make you happy, you end up making your decisions based on pleasure and purely based on what’s going to make you happy at that moment," Burton says. Try not to make every choice based on which thing you're going to be happier doing; otherwise, you run the risk of living a very short-sighted life, she says.
Exercise not only treats but also prevents depression. The endorphins released when completing physical activity can immediately lift our mood, along with improving your ability to sleep. Another bonus? It gives you the opportunity to unplug from technology!
Taking time to stop and appreciate what you do have, and what is great about your life can really help you navigate your way through hardship. In fact, psychological research shows that you can increase your happiness by a whopping 25% when you practice gratitude.
Expand your mind:
When you're engaged in a task and learning new things, you get a sense of accomplishment and pride which boosts your self-worth and, you guessed it, your happiness. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when you're absorbed by a task even if you're left tired at the end, you emerge happier and energised, a condition he calls 'flow'.
2: Happiness is simply just a title for a set of coping skills
Society tends to view happiness as an end point or a singular, ultimate, achievement. But what I've learnt from the programme is that this idea of happiness is sadly very misleading. Happiness is really about being equipped to cope with life's ups and downs. It's a set of skills you have to learn so that when a challenge persists, you can navigate your way through.
Science has proved that these set of skills are absolutely able to be learnt too and it's due to the neuroplasticity of our brain, which shows we can actually learn to be more empathetic, appreciative and compassionate. Skills that make us happier.
'Action for Happiness' share plenty of facts relating to the idea that happiness is the result of mastering coping skills. They explain that if you have a 3-to-1 ratio of positive emotions you develop resiliency to adversity and are better able to achieve as a result. With an optimistic outlook you are better able to cope with tough situations.
So by taking action inspired by this programme I've definitely begun training my brain to react with positive thoughts.
While I haven't mastered all of the tasks above I have implemented more exercise and gratitude into my life. I'm walking to work and have even started running again. I find when walking to work and listening to music I'm able to practice gratitude.
With these two tasks alone, I have felt an intense lift in my mood and can say unequivocally that being involved in this happiness programme has genuinely, made me happier.
To get involved click here.