I sat on the bathroom floor watching my baby niece Angel as she sat in the bathtub singing “baby happy” and clapping her tiny hands for joy . I could only smile as I wiped away the water Angel had splashed on me . I was enjoying the moment. I too was happy . As I dried her , I remembered a patient I had seen earlier that day. She said to me “Doc , I have never been happy . I do not know what happiness is “
She was not unusual ,as over the years I have met countless unhappy people . I have never had a patient come to me and say “I am so happy . I am just here for a check up.”
Children always seem to be happy . Photographs of children invariably show them smiling – no matter the circumstances . I have seen some recent photographs of children orphaned by December’s tsunami and they are smiling – genuine smiles too .
Subjective wellbeing is the nickname experts in the field give to happiness .One person’s hell may just be another’s paradise . I have met happy poor people , unhappy poor people , happy rich folks , unhappy rich ones .I have also met happy terminally ill people and unhappy ill people .
So if we begin life as happy children how do we get unhappy ? And what is happiness ?
Richard Davidson , a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin states that happiness is not just a vague ineffable feeling , it is a physical state of the brain . This state can be induced deliberately . Researchers have concluded that happiness has a powerful effect on the rest of the body . When psychological tests were conducted , persons who rate in the upper happiness scores develop 50% more antibodies than average in response to flu vaccines . Some studies have discovered that happiness or related mental states like contentment , optimism and hopefulness appear to reduce the risk or limit the severity of hypertension ,heart disease , diabetes , lung disease and colds . Findings of a Dutch study published in November 2004 stated that happiness or related mental states reduced an individual’s risk of death 50% over the study’s nine year duration . That makes sense because health care professionals have known for years that depression can actually worsen hypertension , diabetes and heart disease.
If happiness is a physical state of the brain ,where is it located ? Two brain imaging technologies – functional magnetic resonance imaging ( MRI ) , which is able to map the flow of blood to active parts of the brain and electroencephalograms ( EEG ) which detect the electrical activity of the brain – consistently point to the left prefrontal cortex as a prime locus of happiness. Professor Davidson found in his research that high levels of activity in the left prefrontal area coincided with feelings of enthusiasm , alertness , joy , high energy and happiness . Activity on the right frontal area corresponds to feelings of anxiety , worry and sadness .
So how can we be more happy ? There are a number of ways but we are better off aiming for happiness moment to moment than trying to become happy through long term planning . Science has demonstrated that human beings are fairly hopeless at predicting what will cause happiness or how long that happiness will last . For example , you can sacrifice and save for a bigger house , in a better neighbourhood , only to find out that you are not welcome in that area or that working so hard to afford a particular lifestyle causes you to be too exhausted to enjoy the new lifestyle . In other words we tend to overestimate how things will affect us and rarely underestimate them.
Here are some suggestions for a happier life based on my personal experience and observations and research findings from University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.
• Get as much positive emotion as possible. Savour life’s joys
Fear is the greatest enemy of happiness . In our life there are two basic fears- fear of not having enough and fear of not being enough. How can theses fears be overcome ? By appreciation. Dan Baker coauthor of What happy people know contends that appreciation is fear’s greatest antidote .He states that the brain cannot be in a state of fear and a state of appreciation at the same time . The two states may alternate but cannot coexist . That is because appreciation engages the prefrontal cortex that is dominant over the amygdala ( which is the brain’s rapid response system where fear resides ) . To keep fear in check , I recommend that you count your blessings by keeping a daily or weekly , “gratitude journal “. In this book you write down five things for which you are thankful . These can be as ordinary as “the marigolds are blooming and make my garden so pretty “ or as defining as “I finally realized that my husband loves me “
• Practice acts of kindness . Being kind to others
Whether friends or strangers , triggers a number of positive effects . The act makes you feel generous and improves your sense of connection with others . Think about it – stopping the car to allow a elderly person to cross the road and having that person wave to you and say “Thank you . God bless you “.
• Take care of your body
Eat healthily , exercise , get adequate sleep every day
• Smile ! Laugh!
Do not take life too seriously
• Thank a mentor .
If there is someone who has guided you at one of life’s crossroads ,express your appreciation – if possible in person .
• Learn to forgive
Bad memories cannot be erased , but they can be overcome .
Focusing attention on finding satisfaction in the here and now is more effective than fixating on the past . If someone has hurt or wronged you , let go of the anger and resentment by writing a letter of forgiveness to that person . An inability to forgive is associated with persistent thinking about the situation and / or dwelling on revenge . Forgiving allows you to move on .
• Invest time and energy with family and friends
Income , job title , address and even health appear to have small effects on satisfaction with life . The greatest factor in happiness appears to be strong personal relationships.
• Figure out your strengths and find new ways to use them.
Focusing on strengths and building on successes creates energy which drives real change.
Use your inner strengths in the service of something larger than yourself.
• Develop strategies for coping with hardship and stress
Hard times cannot be avoided. Situations will arise that cause much anxiety and stress . I believe that one of the determinants of the outcome of a stressful event is how the event is viewed . I firmly believe that happiness is a choice . Despite the circumstances we can choose to be happy.