Come On, Get Happy!
February is often associated with love. Don’t get me wrong, love is amazing—it’s about self-care and healthy relationships with others. But I want to talk to you about the importance of feeling happy because happiness is about so much more than love.
Happiness doesn’t just feel good. It promotes your overall well-being including lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, strengthening your immune system, reducing stress, and decreasing your overall aches and pains. A study in the journal Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being followed almost 5,000 university students for more than 40 years. It’s the most comprehensive study done so far linking happiness to overall health benefits. Head author of the study, Ed Diener, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois found clear and compelling evidence that those who were happier lived longer, healthier lives.
Starting in 1930, the Nun Study is the most famous study of happiness and longevity. It involved almost 200 Catholic nuns about to enter the convent. They were asked to write about themselves, reflecting on both their present lives and their futures. Nearly 70 years later, psychologists analyzed their writings. What they found over the years was that the nuns who wrote positively about their lives lived nearly 10 years longer than those who wrote negative or neutral entries. At the age of 85, more than 90% of the happier nuns were still alive compared to the unhappy nuns.
How can you begin to bring more happiness into your life?
You start by changing your thoughts.
You’ve probably heard the expression, happiness is fleeting which implies that it is brief and unsustainable. It doesn’t have to be. Of course, no one can be happy all the time. Things happen in our lives that cause stress and anxiety. But you already have the tools to weather those storms and bring happiness right back into your life. How can I bring happiness into my life? Well, it all starts with your thoughts.
The power of positive thinking
You see, your thoughts are powerful. You might even say, you are what you think. That’s because every feeling, every action you take all started with one thought. Some people mistakenly think that change comes from the outside. It really comes from within.
One of my favorite stories about the power of positive thought is that of Marilyn Monroe in New York City in the 1950s. She lived in New Your City for a year. She loved going about her business because, unlike in Hollywood, no one bothered her. One day while walking along Broadway with her friend, Anne Greene, Marilyn said, “Would you like to see me become her?” Anne didn’t know what she meant but watched Marilyn light up from within somehow. It was almost magical. Suddenly, people stopped and stared at her. Cars slowed down and marveled at her. They all immediately recognized her even though a minute before, no one knew who she was. By changing the way she thought about herself, she changed people’s perceptions of her. It was as if she had taken off a mask.
The science behind happiness
Your thoughts, emotions, and actions are all connected. When you think a sustained negative thought, not only are you going to feel sad or depressed, but that negativity can lead to feelings of hopelessness and chronic stress, it can upset the body’s hormone balance and diminish brain chemicals required for happiness. In addition, scientists have found that the stress brought on by negativity shortened our telomeres—the end caps of our DNA strands which lead to premature aging.
Your brain can change!
One of the most amazing things about your brain is its ability to change. From the time you were born, your brain has established these neural pathways which are reinforced by experiences, memories, and learning. Whenever we learn something new, which happens every day, we create brand new pathways between our neurons. It happens naturally, but it’s also something we can consciously encourage and stimulate.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain cells’ ability to physically change their structure and function. For years, scientists thought that the brain you were born with was the brain you had throughout your life. If you were injured or your brain cells were damaged or killed, that was it. In the last few decades, however, scientists have found that your brain can actually regrow new cells. You can change the structure and functions of your rain by the way you think.
According to Selin Kesebir, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School, happiness is a skill we all can learn. Much like learning a new language, it is a skill of the mind. Our brains have the capacity to reshape the way we interpret our perceptions.
According to a 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry, patients with anxiety disorder showed increased neural activity in the amygdala which is the almond-shaped mass of gray matter involved in experiencing emotions. When you change the way you think, you actually change the physical structure and neurofunctional response of the amygdala.
How to cultivate happiness
So what can you do to become a more positive thinker? A few common strategies involve becoming aware of your thoughts. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, replace that with a positive one. Look for the silver lining. It may take some time, but eventually positive thoughts will come more naturally to you.
You have the power to cultivate happiness. Recent research into the types of activities you can do to promote happiness confirms that these are skills we can learn. Here are seven things you can do right now to start to feel true happiness:
- Smile—The phrase “fake it till you make it” is often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to hang in there. If you’re feeling down, smiling can actually make you feel better. That’s because when you smile, your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides to help fight off stress. The brain releases other feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.
- Give thanks—Gratitude can make you happier. It is the fastest way to bring good things into your life. By being in an “attitude of gratitude” your stress levels decrease. The positive emotions you feel will improve your health and allow you to handle adversity better. Try this: before you even get out of bed, think to yourself how many good things you have in your life: your health, your job, quite literally the bed you’re in and the roof over your head. Remind yourself of all your blessings. You’ll be amazed at how good that makes you feel.
- Laugh—You’ve heard the expression “laughter is the best medicine.” When it comes to relieving stress, there’s nothing like a good laugh. Not only will it improve your mood, it can relieve pain, boost your immune system, oh, and make you happy.
- Spend time with positive people—Here’s another expression, “negativity breeds negativity.” If you want to feel down, hang out with people who are glass half empty. That’s the best way to zap your energy and depress you. Instead, seek out people who are glass half full. Being around positive people has been shown to boost your self-esteem. You feel motivated to tackle your goals. You receive encouragement. And you find you’re happier around positive people.
- Start every day on the right foot—Take a moment to plan your day in advance. Picture what you want your day to look like. Instead of stumbling out of bed and going through the motions, take charge of your day. Planning your day in advance will help you become more productive. You’ll also have more time for hobbies and spending time with loved ones.
- Get outside—Studies have shown one of the fastest ways to boost your mood is to spend time outdoors. Your levels of anxiety and stress decrease. Fresh air raises your oxygen levels in your brain, which in turn increases the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. People in Japan practice shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University in Japan has done extensive research on the benefits of spending time outdoors. His studies conclude that spending time outside and inhaling the natural pine oils found in forests, or simply lying down in the grass reduces stress and increases happiness. When you exercise, more oxygen gets to the brain. A well-oxygenated brain helps you manage stress, anxiety, and depression. Studies have also shown that 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise releases the feel-good hormones endorphins that interact with receptors in the brain to reduce pain. Serotonin and dopamine stay in your brain for a few hours after your exercise, boosting your mood.
“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”
~ Eckhart Tolle
Happiness is within your reach. Become aware of your thoughts. A very important sentence to creating our own reality starts with two powerful words: I am. Anything that follows those two words, you will into existence. If you say to yourself…I am tired, I am lonely, I am bored, I am old…you, in essence, make that true. Instead, try saying to yourself…I am loved, I am healthy, I am (plug in any number!) years young, I am happy. You have now just given power to those words making their existence real. You have the power to think yourself unwell. You also have the power to think yourself happy.
Positive thinking isn’t magic and it won’t make all your problems go away. It will make those problems seem more manageable. With each passing day, you will find it easier and easier to think yourself into happiness.
What are you waiting for? Come on, get happy!
If you are experiencing anxiety and feel as though your negative thoughts and behaviors are impacting your everyday life, please reach out to us. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.