Can we make happiness happen?

Did you know that 10% of the quality of your life is based on what happens to you, and 40% on how you respond to these events?

Make Happiness Happen

Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that we all have the capacity to make ourselves happier regardless of how bad our circumstances might be. As long as we take direct ownership of our thoughts, manage our emotions, and take actions that have been carefully considered rather than impulsive.

Over our lifetimes, we all develop habitual ways of responding to events, called “schema”. These come from a mix of temperament, cultural conditioning, and childhood experiences that we know “set” the brain to react in certain ways when triggered. For example, the child who has too much of a good thing, comes to believe that he is entitled to having his every need met instantly, and as an adult has difficulty coping with frustration. The child who is overprotected fails to learn to be prepared when taking risks because he has not learned to be alert to possible hazards. These responses become unhealthy life habits, they become fixed or rigid patterns, and they often contribute to us not getting the most satisfaction out of life that we could.

Being able to respond to changes in our lives – to be open to new possibilities and adapt flexibly – is a life skill that opens us to greater flourishing, that is, being more likely to grow into our best possible selves. It does take courage to let go of unhealthy rigid patterns of thought or emotional habits, but through taking the risk we have the chance to enjoy a much better life.

So how do we make happiness happen?

  1. Seek ways to bring moments of happiness into other people’s lives. This might seem strange, to prioritise somebody else’s happiness at least 3 times a day…but the reason is that emotions are contagious! We all know what happens when we’re watching a sad movie, and the people around us start sniffing, we notice the dabbing of the eyes and the sharp intake of breath. That’s right, we “catch” other people’s emotions. Inside the brain is a complex system called “mirror neurons” discovered in the early 1990’s. Mirror neurons allow us to decode facial expressions in other people, as well as making sense of other people’s intentions as well as their actions. In all our interactions with people, our mirror neuron systems are bouncing information back and forth between us and shaping the way we feel – the emotions we experience. So if we want more happiness ourselves, we’ve got to activate other people’s “happy neurons”.
  2. Happy feelings are built on happy thoughts. We all know what happens when we get tangled up in the cobwebs of negative thoughts, such as replaying over and over scenes when we didn’t behave at our best, or worse still, scenes that haven’t even happened but we assume will be bad. This is called ruminating, and the worst form of ruminating is imaging a worst-case scenario. Replaying experiences in our minds (especially those that haven’t happened) causes the brain to respond as if that scenario is a reality. The brain is hard-wired to respond to information literally – so if the mind is telling the brain “this is what’s going on”, the brain automatically activates the fight-or-flight response – and we feel stress! So if you want to have good feelings (nor bad ones), spending time reminiscing about good life experiences and actively thinking about these will automatically relax the nervous system and flood the brain with the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
  3. Actions speak louder than thoughts. Deliberately planning daily activities that turn on good thoughts and feelings is the third element necessary for happiness. Now this might seem a bit self-indulgent, in fact, many people would say “selfish”. And I agree. Doing something that gives yourself pleasure or satisfaction with yourself is selfish, but it’s a good form of selfishness (unless of course you overdo it – all things in moderation). When we receive unexpected gifts or pleasure from others it makes us feel good, but having enough self-esteem to confidently give yourself moments of pleasure is essential for wellbeing. It’s the cake on which others’ gifts become the icing. And it means you truly do value yourself and all you have to offer the world.

Will activating happiness in others, doing something for yourself, and spending time reminiscing about good times you’ve had or are yet to come, all help you to feel happier? Definitely! So we issue you the 7-day challenge – commit to doing each of these three changes every day for seven days and discover how you can make happiness happen.

Published on February 8, 2016 by Kate Lemerle