hap・pi・ness - a state of positive well-being
Up until 3 years ago, I would have considered myself happy. Not thriving, but content.
Then a series of traumatic events began to unfold. First, my beloved bulldog died after a family camping trip. Seven months later, my Dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at my parents’ cabin. Five months after that I quit my 15 year career with the police. I descended into hopelessness and was desperate to climb out.
Without having the proper tools to ascend or even identify what I was feeling after this string of events, I mistakenly identified my grief as unhappiness. I longed to feel happy and content once again. I joined the self-care movement. I took courses on meditation and the science of happiness. I was determined to chase down happiness and grab on as tightly as I could.
In one of my desperate attempts to harness happiness I signed up for a certification course in applied positive psychology. I figured if I could learn scientifically proven methods that lead to happiness, I would most definitely be happy. If there was an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to happiness, I could follow it.
On the first day of my course I learned the most important rule in positive psychology: The more you chase happiness, the more unhappy you become.
Happy people don’t chase happiness.
Research actually shows that those of us who strive to feel happy all the time are destined to suffer. Being happy doesn’t mean avoiding negative emotions or events. It’s actually quite the opposite. The key is learning to process the negative emotions, express them at the right time and not get stuck in them. Learning skills and utilizing tools to work through negative emotions is key to building resilience and cultivating more positive emotions.
The first step for me was to identify that grief is not unhappiness and feeling sadness, anger and frustration was justified. The second step was to show myself some love and compassion. I just went through some seriously sad events and instead of avoiding the sadness, I needed to feel it. Lucky for me, I have amazing friends who are willing to listen and share a box of tissue with me.
There is no secret to happiness or 10 step program to guarantee it. But there are some things you can do everyday to bring more positivity into your life:
Connections. Research shows that social connection is a factor that always predicts happiness. Happy people have good relationships. If fact, studies show that when people are excluded or isolated, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same areas when we feel physical pain. Spend more time with the people that uplift you and less time with those who drain you.
Gratitude. Having a grateful mindset predicts greater happiness, life satisfaction and optimism. Robert Emmons stated that the more you move to a grateful mindset, it’s almost physically impossible to be anxious or depressed.
Mindfulness. Being mindful refers to focusing our awareness to the present moment without judgement. Data from Matt Killingsworth’s project, trackyourhappiness.org, found that people are less happy when their minds are wandering (ie. not being in the present moment). When we focus our mind to the present moment, we are less impulsive and better able to handle our emotions.
Negative emotions are part of life and we can’t avoid or run from them in the pursuit of happiness. Prioritizing positivity on a daily basis and carving out time to do more of what we love, while working through the parts we don’t love, will put us on the path to greater happiness.