Everyone’s looking for that one big secret to happiness: the magical thing that will transform their lives and the outlook and allow them to feel peaceful and content.
But I’m going to let you in to a secret of my own: reality is much more mundane than that. There is no magical happiness formula. There is only learning to manage your feelings and take simple, practical steps to nurture your emotional health.
If that sounds disappointing, it shouldn’t be. In fact, it’s empowering.
You don’t have to keep searching for some external source of happiness that may or may not fall out of the sky and fix your life on your behalf. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you’ve had the tools you need to lift your mood in your possession all along. You just need to learn how to use them.
1) Give That Shitty Feeling a Name
You’re not happy, you know that much. But what are you feeling? Be precise.
Are you angry? Sad? Disappointed? Frustrated? Wounded? Resentful? Frightened? Anxious? Don’t just stop with a definition: use descriptive and metaphorical language to express the experience. For example: “I feel trapped”, “I feel like I’m moving through fog”, etc. Know your enemy!
It might sound unlikely, but pinpointing and describing an emotion will help you to prevent it from overwhelming you. It diffuses that helpless, blind panic that a powerful emotion can trigger.
Why? Because these emotions are controlled by the limbic system, which operates instinctively. Trying to suppress an emotion means fighting against your limbic system – a battle you’re doomed to lose. But using language to conceptualise your emotions is an intellectual activity, not an instinctive one. It activates your prefrontal cortex, naturally shifting activity away from the limbic system and reducing arousal in that area.
Next time you feel yourself getting dragged into a downward spiral of negative emotions, take a moment to write down exactly how you feel. You’ll be amazed at how much calmer and in control you feel when you can put your emotions into words.
2) Practice Being Grateful
Gratitude does crazy things to the brain… in a good way. Identifying and noting down what you’re most grateful for every day releases dopamine and raises levels of serotonin, the happy-hormone. I mean, people take party drugs to get a hit of this stuff, but you can get a burst of it without the downsides, just by saying thank you to the universe. How’s that for a bonus?
Take a few minutes every day to list the things you’re grateful for today – not vague, general things like “my family” or “my friends”, but actual, specific things, like “The card my 5-year-old made for me at school today” or, “The good luck text my friend sent before my presentation.” Counting your blessings is a great way to pull yourself out of a pit of misery.
3) Do Nice Things for Other People
Like gratitude, selflessness gives you a chemical buzz. Little acts of generosity, an un-asked-for favour, a kind word or compliment, even a cup of tea… making another person unexpectedly happy will reflect right back at you, cheering you up and putting a tiny little spring in your step. Plus, when you’re totally wrapped up in your own head and problems, shifting your focus to someone else’s happiness for a moment can be a genuine relief.
4) Hug the People You Love
Physical affection has a profound effect on our emotional health. Did you know that we’re so excruciatingly sensitive to perceptions of social exclusion that we experience rejection as physical pain? Physical and social isolation go hand in hand, as far as our brain is concerned, and the best way to counteract that is to incorporate physical intimacy as much as is appropriate.
With family, partners and close friends this should be easy enough – a hug, a kiss, a stroke of the hair or holding hands can help raise your happiness levels no end. But even with those less close to us, simple interactions like shaking hands, patting on the shoulder or exchanging a kiss on the cheek at greeting helps to establish a sense of intimacy that keeps us chemically buoyant and staves off a sense of isolation.
5) Make a Decision
Nothing will make you miserable like indecision. As Dan Gilbert explains in his excellent TED Talk on the science of happiness, we all think we want more choices, but leaving the door open to too many possibilities doesn’t make us happier at all. In fact, it makes us deeply dissatisfied.
I get that you want to avoid mistakes, but very often, it’s better to just make a decision – even an imperfect one – than to um and ah indefinitely over a choice and make yourself miserable in the process. Sometimes, you need to go for “good enough” instead of torturing yourself over whether it’s “the best” or (the non-existent) “perfect”. Making a decision and moving on keeps you active and energetic, rather than stuck. It can feel like a physical load has been lifted from your shoulders.
Sick of deliberating? Force yourself to make a decision fast. Today. Make your choice and make that the end of it.
Now take a deep breath, and smile.
What daily rituals do you follow that raise your spirits? I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice in the comments section below.