In the pursuit of happiness

One of the most commonly used hashtag in social media right now? #happiness or #happy or #happyme

All of us trying so hard to let the world know that we have one of the rarest commodity. Happiness. Most of us, trying to make ourselves believe that we are happy. Overuse of this word doesn’t make it any less important though. On the contrary, happiness has become more important than ever.

The biggest myth of this elusive feeling? Being happy means feeling good all the time. In the search for this constant state of happiness, we are forgetting to embrace all other feelings. People so caught up in trying to feel “happy” that they are escaping and avoiding what life really is. The ups and downs, that make us feel and appreciate happiness. The common way of thinking is that, over their lifetime, happiness will keep increasing and increasing as they cross each milestone or achievement. FALSE

Happiness comes and goes. Just like hard times come and go. It is not a magic pill you swallow and your life changes over night. You need to work on it. But, before you do that, you need to understand what happiness means to you.

Like most people, I used to think if I am with the person I love, build a happy world for my child, be successful in my career (which has changed every few years), have enough money to live a comfortable life and travel, I will be happy. On and off, at various points in my life, I have had all of them. Does that mean that I achieved my state of happiness? Clearly not.

Over the last few years, like all of you, I have been looking for my happiness. It took me through a lot of new friendships (some misses and a lot of hits), a lot of travelling (don’t regret them for a minute), multiple career changes ( all taught me so much). Nothing got me close to what I believed was what I needed. So, it was time to sit down and understand what was my idea of happiness.

That night out with my girls, attention from a stranger, new friends and new conversations, like everyone else, these things make me happy. What we all tend to ignore, is that this happiness is momentary. That feeling, warmth dissipate as the moment passes.

Going out with my friends, having that drink, or two or four. Hell yeah! It’s fun. Am I happy then? Of course I am! But, is that contributing to making my life a happier one in the long run? Honestly, it isn’t. This is me looking for that escape, the idea of happiness.

As I am writing this, I am home alone. Music playing in the background. A song I really like comes up, I drop my laptop and get up to dance. Uninhibited, I am happy. I have my therapist’s appointment coming up in the next few days, I am clearly still working through what I am and what I feel, and the old me wouldn’t call my life a happy one. This brings us back to the question, what does happiness mean to you?

My therapist taught me this mantra. Before I do anything, plan for the evening, job or even friendships. Even a simple decision of whether I should go early for the dinner party at my friend’s place or to my yoga class. Ask, “Is that good for me?” Meeting my friends, is of course good. Relaxed, stress free time watching our kids play. Yoga, is good for me too. Helps me further in my journey of fitness, makes me healthier, happier thanks to the hormones post workout, helps me with my work (being a fitness trainer), the pride of learning something new boosts my self confidence. Do you see a clear winner?

You have to understand that sometimes you would want to ignore the obvious answer to grab that momentary happiness. And, that is ok. “Sometimes” is the keyword here. Or else, you will be filled with regret, self doubt and even self loathing for not working for what you want,need and deserve.

Some things we can all do to be more happier in life.

  1. Exercise: My favourite! And hence will be along one. 🙂 Cardio, strength training, yoga or high intensity training – whatever your preference, exercise. Not for the sake of your health or your appearance, but for happiness.

Exercise is at the top of this list, and for a reason – it’s a wonder drug!

If you’ve been inactive, regular exercise will boost your long-term well-being by 10 to 15%.

There are a number of additional studies confirming the powerful results of exercise, as well as a number of different explanations for why exercise is so powerful for improving mental health. From my own life, after exercising regularly for a few weeks, I found a dramatic increase in my levels of energy and mood. After I upped the frequency and intensity, I experienced a sustained mood bump. It has been the biggest help in my battle with depression.

One study found that exercise was just as effective as an anti-depressant for improving mood. More significantly, those in the exercise group were 5 times less likely to relapse than those given a drug.

There are three different explanations for where those benefits are coming from: the mastery hypothesis, the distraction hypothesis, and the chemical hypothesis.

The mastery hypothesis suggests that the increase in mood originates from the feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy that come from our being able to push our bodies beyond our preconceived limits.

The distraction hypothesis suggests that exercise is like meditation – a forced break from the stresses of life.

The chemical hypothesis suggests that exercise releases chemicals which reduce stress and improve mental functioning. Personally, my bet is on this hypothesis. For example, exercise causes a drop in levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, causes a rise in levels of happiness hormones, like endorphins, and increases levels of brain derived neuropathic growth factor, which improves the functioning of the brain.

One important caveat – you might feel worse at first. Many who are inactive but decide to start exercising feel worse during their first few sessions. Don’t worry, the dip is temporary, and will soon be reversed!

2.Reflect on your strengths and victories:Instead of stressing out or ruminating on an embarrassment or failure, reflect on your strengths or a past victory. If you’re not sure of your strengths, ask others to describe a time when you’ve been at your best. If you find yourself lacking confidence and doubting your ability, instead of focusing in on the negatives, as our mind is likely to counter-productively do, focus on your positives – your persistence, social skills, intelligence.

3. Make friends with positive people: Spend more time with your positive friends and spend less time with your negative friends. Seek out and make friends with happy people. Emotions are highly contagious. We know this intuitively. After talking to someone filled with joy, we just can’t help but feel a little better and vice versa. I had no idea how much a friendship was bringing me down till I exited out of it.

4. Don’t ruminate: If you find yourself ruminating, do whatever you can to escape. Focus your attention on more positive thoughts. Or, instead of replaying abstract worriers over and over again, get specific and focus on problem-solving. Rumination increases negative thinking, reduces problem solving, in excess erodes social support, and increases your risk of developing depression. I make a lot of “To Do lists”. Sometimes, it is part of the process of me procrastinating. Sitting and making lists which I never get to. But most times, this process gets me to start. The need to tick off one of the list, starts a chain reaction which ends in me being slightly more satisfied with myself.

5. Reminisce: ” The happiness that comes from reminiscence is as real as the happiness that comes from the actual experience.” Go through old pictures, listen to your high school hits, call up an old friend. My constant sorting and organizing of my google photos account gives me a regular dose of happy memories. 🙂

6. Surround yourself with people who build you up: The fun, the positive, the happy ones are all great. But we also need people who would push us and support us to take the right decisions that are good for you. Especially for the decisions that are difficult and far from fun.

7. Get good sleep: Spend more time sleeping. Go to sleep at approximately the same time every day. Avoid caffeine in the evening. Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Avoid TV and internet in the 20 minutes before sleep. You know what I’m talking about. Those who report getting less and worse quality sleep also report having lower life satisfaction.

Sleep has a very important connect with our circadian rhythm and hence it’s imperative to sleep at nightfall and wake up soon after the sun rises. You can read about it in detail here

The link between happiness and sleep is complex but strong. Those who have more and better sleep report higher life satisfaction and happiness. Those who have less and poorer sleep are several times more likely to develop depression.

Depriving yourself of sleep during the weekdays and then catching up on weekends isn’t harmless. Likewise, for most folks with insomnia, their baseline level of happiness has gradually shifted to a significantly lower level.

Of course, getting more, high-quality sleep isn’t as easy as adding flossing to your routine. Think of it like a long-term project.

8. Don’t watch hours of TV, YouTube or spend excess time on social media: Do I even need to explain this further? There is a correlation between time spent watching TV/social media and both your level of anxiety and your level of material aspirations. The second is particularly worrisome. When reality doesn’t match up to the perfection, adventure, and romance that TV/social media suggests our lives ought to have, unhappiness ensues.

9. Smile: Smile. If you’re sad, it’s a bad idea to pretend that you’re happy. Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings backfires. But if you’re not sad or angry.. 🙂

Happiness is contagious and so is a smile, this is because we have mirror neurons that enable us to copy or reflect the behaviour we observe in others. That’s why we often feel happier around children – they smile more. Just smile, it will make you and others around you smile. In fact, don’t just smile, find time to do something that makes you laugh.

According to the facial feedback hypothesis, it isn’t only that being happy or sad will make you smile or frown, respectively, but that smiling or frowning will make you happy or sad. Research suggests that this hypothesis, with a few caveats, is true.

I have a freaky habit of remembering some happy or funny moments and smiling to myself. If not, cooking up or imagining something happy which can happen in the future also makes me beam.

10: Don’t settle: In too many areas of our lives, after we’ve made enough progress to become comfortable, we stop learning, growing, and making changes. That’s unfortunate. Most often, the focus of our change is in places that don’t have a long-term impact – continuously switching careers or romantic partners, or buying new things, over and over again. That kind of behavior is based on compensation and novelty replacement.

At first, the object or the job or the person provides lots of novelty and joy. As time progresses, the novelty and consequently the joy decreases. To compensate, a new job or object or person is found. Bang, the novelty returns. Over time, the novelty decreases. And so on, again and again. This kind of behavior leads to stagnation. Instead, the focus of change ought to be in places where progress is cumulative, rather than replacement.

Having two close friends brings more happiness than having one close friend. Being in a romantic relationship with someone who is compassionate, supportive, and grateful as well as being attractive, will bring more happiness than being in a romantic relationship with someone who is not those things but attractive. What defines the expert self-improver is an insatiable desire to continue making improvements to their life, well past the point most would have felt comfortable and stopped.

But remember, aim for cumulative improvement rather than novelty replacement. Finding another romantic partner because of loss of interest is novelty replacement. Investing in good relationship or attraction habits is cumulative improvement.

These were my top 10 ways to work towards happiness but, there is so much more that can be added.

Being compassionate: No explanation needed. Serving others releases ‘happiness chemicals’ such as dopamine and oxytocin (called by many the ‘compassion hormone’).

Spending money on others: You don’t have to empty your bank account, but little something for others. I always pick gifts for people on my holidays. The joy I get while selecting and later giving it to them is just wonderful! I once got people gifts on someone else’s dinner party. Ok, agreed. That’s a little crazy, but that’s me!

Explore: Travel, meet new people, expose yourself to different ways of life, different stories.

Have deep conversations: Not just what’s the latest movie, music, office gossip and life stress. Talk about what drives you, what you feel passionate about, what makes you ecstatic and what makes you cry.

Be grateful: Say ‘thank you’. Gratitude is not being apologetic. Gratefulness emanates from focusing on the good around us. Appreciate more and you will find more things to be appreciative of. Don’t wait for a reason, send out your gratitude or just give a hug.

Pick one and start working on it if you aren’t already doing it. Or figure out a way that suits you better. This is not the only list, this is just my list. 🙂 Does this mean, my funda for happiness is sorted? Nah. I am working on it, finding happiness in the things that come my way, trying to work on the ones that don’t.

Life is a work in progress. I am a work in progress. And that’s how you should look at yourself. What you have is not the end of the road. What you have been given is not all that you have. It is the raw material for the life you are supposed to build for yourself. It’s upto you now what you do with it. Do you look for the momentary happiness and spend your life away or, work hard on yourself, bear a little hardship every once in a while and build a life that you truly deserve.

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