Some of us are just born with it. Happiness, that is. Happiness is genetic to a point. But, many of us do not have a happiness gene, and that’s ok, too. If your genetic disposition didn’t predispose you to cheer and happiness (or even if it does), you can improve your happiness.
First of all, as my other blog posts this week should have demonstrated, it is important to surround yourself with happy people or at least make the acquaintance of the happy lady down the street from you. Like tends to attract like, so if you find yourself at a social gathering with people you’d describe as only as happy as you, and that’s not the happiness you’re looking to be, get you some new friends. Even one in your proximity can spread happiness to you.
In a capitalist society that preaches and rewards us for being good consumers, we too often spend our time in the attainment of things to find what our society tells us is happiness. Too often, we spend our lives in pursuit of some sort of utopia our media and culture tells us is as close as the big house, newest car or independently-brewed IPA. How many hours a week do you work? If you are like your neighbor, probably about 47. (outsideonline) We are told to be successful, you have to push. Strive. Work harder. Keep grinding. Check off those goals and complete that checklist. If you’re successful (in this capitalistic/consumerist measure), you’ll be happy. Only you can make yourself happy.
But that old adage that “Only you can make yourself happy,” is a bit of bull. Yes, ultimately, you are responsible for how you “feel” and the attitudes you accept and tolerate become habit, and all that, but happiness is strengthened by our bonds to others. The key ingredient to happiness: connectedness.
I just saw a post on social media today describing the results of addiction research in rats. A rat in a cage with no other rats, no stimulus, fun or joy, will choose to drink from a drugged water bottle until it dies in a matter of weeks. But that same rat in an environment that provides stimulation, excitement, fun and connection does not choose to use the drugged water in excess. These findings in a nutshell; addiction may not be driven and triggered as much by our genes and predisposition to addiction or some sort of moral failing as it can be overridden by good environments with true connection to others. Hmm. Sounds like others can make you happy after all.
Having trouble meeting people? Volunteer. I guarantee there is an organization near you, one that intersects with your interests, that desperately needs your time and effort. You may learn a new skill. You will definitely make a difference in someone’s life, which will increase your feeling of purpose and bring you contentment and fulfillment that leads to happiness. Connection.
If the thought of being around other people in that sort of capacity terrifies you, find ways to volunteer or make a difference that don’t require you to be around others. Mail a check to your favorite charity. Buy raffle tickets for an organization’s fundraiser, or donate items for fundraising events or a food bank. Donate blood. You don’t have to even be around people, and you’re still building connections that matter to the people in your community you are a part of. And altruistic giving rewards us with the warm fuzzies that lead to us being happier.
You can also build connection to your world with non-people. Pets have amazing happiness-building gifts. We all know we are our pets whole world. They depend on us for everything, and they reward us by loving us in full. No judgement. An empathetic, compassionate connection we could only wish to have from the people around us. Even a goldfish can help you feel connected and make you happier, but if you can’t have a pet where you are, spend time walking, petting, loving on pets in shelters. They are all overwhelmed right now.
Get outside. Take a walk, and focus on what’s around you. Birds, squirrels, grass, flowers and trees. Clouds, sun, raindrops. Puddles, creeks, rivers. Rocks and grass. The wonders of our natural world have been out there cycling for millennia, doing its thing without you, but for you, too. Those birds and squirrels disperse the seeds that grow the flowers you love and maybe even the food you need to live. You are connected to them. Even if you are surrounded by concrete and noise, notice how resilient nature is and how it takes hold in cracks and crevices around you. And maybe get a houseplant. They give you oxygen in exchange for a bit of light and water, and I get incredibly giddy when they grow or have babies. And if you rescue a houseplant on the clearance shelf at a local big box hardware store? That’s happiness, Baby!
Walking also gives you the happiness boost of exercise. Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s so cliche. Get outside. Exercise. When this advice is given to people struggling with mental health illness such as depression, trauma and anxiety, it is infuriatingly flippant and dismissive. I will always advocate for mental health treatment, counseling, therapy and medication. But if you are not clinically depressed, and you just want to improve your daily mood and life, exercise is where it’s at. I’m HORRIBLE at doing it consistently, so this is a “listen to me, don’t emulate me” situation, but I’m trying to do better. A little yoga here. Walking the dogs, there. I always feel better. You will, too.
Yoga helps you incorporate mindfulness, which is another practice to build your happiness. Meditation and breath work can help you get out of your head and focus on the here and now. Being present. Find yourself being overwhelmed by stress or covered up in the negative sludge strewn about by your coworker? Take a break and focus on breathing. Count your breaths. Count how long you can hold your breath. Count your exhales. Think of the last place and time when you felt happy. Go there in your mind. Listen to the sounds around you in that place. Remember the smells, the sights, even the heat or coolness on your skin.
(Hmm. Sounds like laughing yoga might be perfect for gentle exercise, breathing and mindfulness. Good thing you know someone who offers that. 😀)
Be grateful. While meditating, or praying, before you get out of bed or before you go to sleep, think of something you can be thankful for. Yep. It’s a garbage fire out there, and some of us are really struggling. Sometimes all I can do is say “Thank you,” to my feet when I put them on the floor in the morning. I work with people who struggle with the activities of daily living. I know how valuable it is to have working feet and legs that can carry me from bed to the bathroom and beyond, whenever I want. Yeah, my knees may throb and crack, but it’s something to be grateful for. Developing a gratitude practice is so important for improving our quality of life it deserves its own post, and I’ll get on that soon.
So, that’s your building happiness primer, my friends.
- Connection with your fellow man
- Purpose, altruism
- Time with your pets or animals
- Time outside or around nature
- Meditation, breath work, presence
Some final parting wisdom, warning, or caveats.
Happiness is not one-size-fits-all. No one will experience the same type or level of happiness. Comparison is the the thief of joy, after all. Do not compare your happiness or lack thereof to the people around you. You may not be solely responsible for your happiness, but you are responsible for how you measure and view it. If you’re happy, you’re happy. Period. It may not look like Joe Blow’s happiness, but that does not mean you aren’t happy or happy enough. You have complete control of what you value and what you need to focus on to be happy. Don’t let society tell you what should be important to you. Define your values and spend your time and energy there.
There is no happy ending. I mean, happiness doesn’t have a conclusion or endpoint. Happiness, once we know how to practice it, grows, evolves and continues. As long as you are alive you will experience happiness, and it will rarely look or feel the same way twice. You grow and change. Your happiness grows and changes, too.
You got this, Kiddo.
Which of the practices above do you swear by? Any areas where you are trying to improve? Let me know below.