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The Science of Happiness

MJ O'Leary

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What makes happy people happy?

Are we born with a happiness set point, or do our environment and life experiences hold the key?

Yet, we want to be happy and sincerely want our children to be happy and lead joy-filled lives.

There is encouraging news! A growing body of research points to a clear path to boost happiness levels.

It turns out there is a science to becoming happier.

We used to think that brain pathways were set in early childhood. We now know that changes occur throughout our entire life. The field of neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change in response to training and experiences.

By teaching our brain to think in a happier, more optimistic, and resilient way, we can effectively train for happiness. This practice can help us find peace of mind and thrive in a world that often feels negative and beyond our control.

Can we increase our happiness levels regardless of where we start? YES!

Be Happier: Stop Chasing Happiness

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is one of the most familiar phrases in the Declaration of Independence. Google synonyms for "pursuit" and "chasing" will be at the top of the list.

Is happiness something we have to chase?

All too often, we focus on some external reward to bring us the fulfillment we want. "I'll be happy when (fill in the blank)." We tend to think certain events, achievements, or acquisitions in the future will make us happy.

And it's no wonder — it's estimated that we're exposed to more than 5,000 advertisements a day, all designed to make us think we need to buy X to be happy. The messaging reinforces this notion that happiness is outside ourselves.

But research tells us otherwise. According to Rev. Dr. Brent Strawn, "the pursuit of happiness," as written in the Declaration, wasn't meant to refer to chasing happiness but instead to the overall experience of happiness. Seeking happiness is one thing, but actually obtaining it and experiencing it — practicing happiness — is entirely different.

Our founding fathers were encouraging the practice of happiness!

Be Happier: Practice Happiness Habits

Pursuit of Happiness reviewed thousands of scientific studies and identified six specific ways of thinking and acting that can strongly impact our sense of happiness and peace of mind.

1. Nourish healthy relationships.

People who have one or more close friendships are happier. It doesn't seem to matter if you have four best friends or one. What makes a difference is if and how often you engage in activities and share your personal feelings with someone you trust.

How healthy are the relationships in your life? How supported do you feel? Focus essential energy on your loved ones, nourish your healthy relationships, and, whenever possible, avoid toxic relationships.

2. Show kindness.

People who volunteer or care for others on a consistent basis are happier and less depressed. Psychologists call this "prosocial behavior," many studies have shown that when people have a prosocial focus — doing kind acts for others — their happiness increases.

3. Be grateful.

Grateful people have been shown to have more positive emotions, a greater sense of belonging, and a lower incidence of depression and stress. Study after study shows that people who write down three things they are grateful for daily are happier in their lives after just six weeks.

4. Live in awareness.

Too often, our default is to move mindlessly through our days. When we are mindful, we are more engaged and less judgmental.

We have thousands of thoughts a day, and many are negative. Try to catch yourself in any negative self-talk and reframe. Talk yourself up! Just as important is to pay attention to positive experiences and savor them. Let them sink in!

5. Utilize your strengths and find time for activities you love.

Studies also show that happy people have discovered their unique strengths and regularly utilize them, especially when applied toward a cause or purpose greater than their personal goals.

When we are deeply involved in an activity that is challenging and suited to our skills, we enter a state of FLOW. FLOW is when you are so immersed in something you lose track of time. Spending time in a state of FLOW contributes to your happiness.

6. Take care of your physical well-being.

How we eat, breathe, move, and rest, even our facial expressions, can affect the release of our body's feel-good chemicals. A landmark analysis of 23 studies on exercise and depression concluded that regular exercise had a "large clinical impact" on depression.

Happiness is the collective experience of our positive emotions.

While our genetics determines a portion of our happiness, there's plenty of room for happiness-boosting habits to influence our overall state of well-being.

Take stock of the habits you already practice and keep at it! Observe which happiness habits could use a little more of your attention, and try to find time to practice. Happiness is an inside job.

If you need encouragement, take a look at the health benefits of practicing happiness.

Your Health on Happiness

  1. Happiness is linked to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
  2. Happier people are less likely to get sick.
  3. Happier people release less cortisol (the stress hormone).
  4. Happy people tend to experience fewer aches and pains.
  5. The happiest people tend to live significantly longer than those who are not.

What are your next steps toward a "very happy" life?

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MJ O'Leary is founder and executive director of wellnessmultiplied. A certified Integrative Health and Wellness coach and mother of four, MJ has a BA in psychology from Gettysburg College, a certification in finance from the University of Chicago, and is a 2017 graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
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