Can we really make ourselves happier? Is happiness a skill that can be learned, or practiced? I’ve read a few books over the years that seem to prove that the answer is YES. We have a lot of power over our emotions and can work everyday to become happier people.
But like any skill, it takes work. And if you’ve suffered (or are currently suffering) with anxiety or depression, you’re dealing with brain chemicals that might make these happiness goals seem unattainable. But research has shown that even those suffering from clinical depression (and those that are not) can make improvements in their overall happiness levels with a few lifestyle practices.
Two books that cover this subject really well include The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Both books take a very different trajectory, but come to the same essential conclusion: part of our happiness is intrinsic, but you can improve on your overall happiness level by adding or removing things from your thought and speech patterns, and adding practices that bring in play, expressions of gratitude, and bring a bit of reverence into your life.
I loved this article from Business Insider (!) about some rituals that can make you a happier person, and it seems to encapsulate many of the things I learned from both of these excellent books.
Having a gratitude practice is life-affirming, grounding, and just generally joyful. Sometimes, when the it feels like the Universe is conspiring to make you happy, being grateful is easy.
It gets harder when things are not going well, or if you have a sickness or tragedy in your life. But it is possible to bring gratitude into these situations too. Trying to find the lesson in the sadness or challenge, or being grateful for the process of learning and growing can be helpful.
More recently, I read Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass. In it, she writes, “you cut yourself off from the supply of awesomeness when you are not in a state of gratitude.” Basically, she’s saying that to be our best selves, we need to trust and live within a state of gratitude, which connects us with ‘source energy’ (aka, God, Universe, Spirit). In her book, Lyubomirsky recommends keeping a gratitude journal if that feels like a fit; she notes that it might not work for everyone, but if it feels good (and not tedious) it can have great benefits, including lifting depression.
Label your Thoughts and Feelings
Eric Barker, on Business Insider explains that labeling our feelings helps our brain understand them better, and not let them get the best of us. This has been something that my new meditation app, HeadSpace, encourages too. By labeling our emotions, we can see them as something we are experiencing, rather than something we ARE, and this makes a big difference because it can reduce the intensity of the emotion.
This little animation from HeadSpace helps explain our emotions as clouds (emotions) covering a blue sky (our happiness, or ourselves, or our calm mind). While the video doesn’t specifically explain the labeling idea, it does hopefully give you an idea about why labeling the ‘clouds’ of emotion can help us remember the blue sky (calm) that’s always there.
Make some Damn Decisions
We’ve all been there: paralyzed by making a big or small decision, which causes stress and/or anxiety, and makes us less likely to make a decison. But research shows that our decision making capabilities are limited, and in a world of unlimited choices (whether we’re talking Tinder or dishsoap or wardrobe options), it can be exhausting!
Making a decision that’s good enough is often enough to stop the flow of anxiety, and makes us feel better. “When you make a decision, your brain feels you have control [and a feeling of control] reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure,” explains Barker (italics in original).
I had a very intense experience recently that highlighted the power of decision making in making us feel better. I was trying to decide about whether to get my own storage unit (after separating from my long-term partner and our shared storage unit), and I was paralyzed with indecision (also angry and sobbing and sad) about having to get my own. I let myself feel all the feels for about 10 minutes, and then I just decided it was worth the fee to get my own. Once I made that very simple decision, all the anxiety went away (so did the tears) and it was just because a plan had been made. It still required me to throw some money at the problem and deal with some logistics, but the decision itself was super liberating, even though it was such a small (and seemingly logical) decision to make.
As humans we need touch from other humans. As babies, as kids, and especially as adults (always in appropriate and consensual ways, of course). But if you don’t have a partner (or a touchy partner) getting your good energy flowing with touch is something to try to cultivate as a serious practice.
From The Upward Spiral: “One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.”
I’m very thankful that I have a good group of ladies that love to hug each other, and offer cuddles and shoulders to lean on. And I’ve started asking for hugs from friends both to show that I love them, but also because, you know, I need a damn hug. And it’s been really gratifying.
But if you don’t have touch-feeling folks in your life, you can get a massage, which can help stimulate some of the same pleasure centers in the brain. Hugging, holding hands, and other non-sexual forms of touch can be deeply nourishing for our soul. Hugs should be longer (20 seconds or up to a minute!), and we should do it often, some recommend up to 12 hugs per day.
I hope that you will be able to integrate one or all of these feel-good habits into your life, and that it brings you immense happiness and calm, and brings joy to those around you.