I’m generally optimistic, but my optimism is tempered with a healthy dose of realism. And it’s obvious that life outside my front door? Well, it’s a mess. How on earth could I possibly be telling you that your happiness should be a priority and that it matters not just to me, but the world when we’re inundated with bad news, scandals, meanness and injustice everywhere you turn.? Because it’s a scientific fact that your happiness not only makes you healthier; it makes the whole world better. Happiness is contagious. That’s not just some toxically-positive social meme pablum; it’s scientifically proven. So your happiness can change the world.
I’m sure this has happened to you. You wake up in a good mood, your morning coffee is perfect, you have plans for the weekend you are looking forward to. You walk into your office or log-on for your first Zoom call of the day, and Debbie Downer sprays everything around you with her special brand of negativity. Next thing you know, you’re griping about your significant other leaving a mess in the bedroom or snapping at your dog who’s playing with a loud squeaky toy in the next room. Why is everything around you so exasperating?
None of that was exasperating until you let Debbie’s foul mood ruin yours. Negativity, depression and anger are powerful emotions that tend to create a whirlpool around them that sucks everything and everyone in. But happiness can be contagious, too. I mean, try not to at least crack a wry smile when you hear a recording of a baby laughing, or watch a video of puppies or kittens snuggling or playing. You can fight the tide of meh with a smile or an act of kindness. Change Debbie from a downer to smiler, and, even if it is fleeting, you just made the world brighter.
We all have a predisposition to pessimism. Evolutionarily, we needed to be on our toes. Everything, everywhere was a potential danger and to survive as a species, we needed to adapt highly-tuned fight or flight instincts. But, as a species, we aren’t being stalked by predators outside our doors anymore. Yes, many of us are struggling to meet the foundational needs we have for survival: physical needs, safety and security. We all know the shortcomings our capitalist, racist, misogynistic society creates in caring for the basic human needs of our neighbors, but it’s important for those of us who are higher up on the pyramid of needs to offer some happiness to the world. Increasing our happiness increases the happiness all around us, like a ripple in water.
Research has shown that living with or even near a happy spouse, sibling, friend or neighbor makes us happier, and we spread that happiness to others in ever-widening circles. Even if we aren’t near the original contact any more. If you live within a mile of a happy person your odds of being happy increase. (Harvard University)
Some people’s tendency toward being happy is influenced by genetics, just as a tendency toward depression, sadness and pessimism is. As I discussed earlier, if our basic foundational needs are not met, it is certainly harder to be happy. But a happiness habit can be developed to counteract our genetic propensities or our austere conditions. Money can “buy” happiness to a point. – the point to which it is used to help us obtain and cover our basic safety, security and physiological needs. Once those basic needs are met, the happiness of having money plateaus. So money can only help us to arrive to a point of security where we can then more comfortably pursue our higher needs, such as personal esteem, fulfillment and happiness. The fact that we can only buy so much happiness with financial security demonstrates that being happy requires ongoing work, and that work needs to happen on an interpersonal level.
Happiness, the I-am-happy-lifestyle happiness, has very little to do with us and everything to do with others. Happiness comes from our connections to others. If we work on spreading good will, friendship, connection and hope to those around us, we send waves of happiness out into the world far beyond our immediate circle, and that happiness radiates back to us. We feel happy, because we made others happy. You have to sow happiness to really feel happiness. We become happy in tiny, every day moments and steps that build upon one another to create a strong foundation of happiness. Small acts of kindness, politeness, empathy, compassion, smiling, listening. How we interact with the world directly impacts how we feel about ourselves and about the people around us.
This cyclical give-and-receive illustrates how beneficial happiness is to the world and how it impacts us as a result, but even if you care nothing about improving the world outside you, being happy is demonstrably good for your overall, holistic, health. Studies have shown that good mental health (absence of depression, anxiety, etc. with the presence of happiness, good will, etc.) helps us stay alive longer. While there are physical health issues that negatively impact our longevity, (smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity), good mental health and outlooks have still been shown to improve health outcomes in individuals and communities.
Some communities believe so strongly in the importance of happiness toward communal well-being, they created the GNH – Gross National Happiness- measure. In Bhutan, leaders believed the development of the country should not focus, nor only measure financial and economic growth, but should also measure how good its people felt about being alive in that country. And for years, Bhutan ranked in the top 20 of nations on a happiness scale. Recent years have found them slipping significantly in the ranking, with even the US ranking higher in recent years. But, the fact that this country of less than a million people believes that happiness is important enough to address and measure with a census-like survey every five years, impresses. And the fact that more than 90% of people reported themselves as some measure of happy in 2015 also impresses. When broken down, nearly half of respondents (almost 48%) reported they were just barely happy; so maybe, all in all, only moderately happy and the reason the country no longer ranks as one of the happiest places in the world. But considering happiness important enough to create and carry out its measurement illustrates that the country values the well-being of its people outside and aside from its unemployment, environmental degradation, economic and other measures. I’d love to see how my community would answer and report on a GNH. (NPR)
What if you aren’t happy? What if you aren’t happy and you. just. can’t. with. all. this.? If you do not have the wherewithal or strength to seek your happiness outside yourself right now, how can you improve your happiness and strengthen you happiness muscle? Lots of simple things around us can help. Being outside, spending time with friends, our pets, to name a few. Keep checking back this week, and I’ll help you come up with a happiness primer, or a happiness practice routine. You can improve your happiness whether you consider yourself deeply or barely happy.
One of the storied reasons why Bhutan was for so long considered one of the world’s happiest nations was because they think about death several times a day. Would thinking about the fact that you will die one day make you happier? As a person who works in the space with people who are facing life-limiting conditions and/or dying, I absolutely know that people who are dying often report they are happy or even happier than they have ever been. So, I will definitely be exploring this option as part of the happiness primer we develop this week. Join me, and let me know in the comments your most sure-fired method of getting or giving happiness.