Learn the science of happiness

Many people believe that happiness and fulfilment are linked to how much money or possessions they have.

However, leading research at Berkeley University is showing that many people experience happiness from other sources, including music, art, meaningful relationships, community and connecting to nature.

In the “Science of Happiness” research project they explored what makes people happy and discovered that one elemental theme was that people needed to regularly remind themselves of good things in their lives that inspired them and brought them joy.

This includes spending 15 minutes reflecting on, and journaling, three good things that have happened to them in a day.

So, to not just reflect on it but to write it down makes it stick in the mind and can induce a sense of well-being, in spite of other difficulties experienced in the day or recent past.

We need to make time in our busy schedules to do this, even in the midst of challenging experiences.

To find one or more good things that happened in the day, a tangible thing that made you feel good and to consolidate this by bringing it to mind again and to put this down on paper. For example, some participants recalled spending time with family or people they enjoyed being with. One happiness “guinea pig” in their research said that she enjoyed spending undisturbed and focused time throwing pebbles into the water with her son. She had taken this for granted before. While doing this, she stayed focused on it and then reconstructed it later in her journal, which helped her to slow down and start savouring things, moment by moment.

The research suggests that we regularly stop and think about what we can do to “create and re-create” these good things in our lives that lead to good feelings.

Sometimes it can be as simple as a change in attitude. The brain has a negativity bias wired to protect us against future bad or dangerous situations. Thus we have a tendency for bad things to cling like Velcro and good experiences to slip off our minds like Teflon. If we take time to recall good things that happened, the difficult experiences will also feel less overwhelming.

Other times, we need to learn to let go and sometimes to accept that it is okay to have a bad day. Some days things are just terrible and don’t go our way and if we can say to ourselves, it is okay to have a bad day and to not be happy, something shifts and we feel less overwhelmed or stressed by life. When you accept that the day sucked, good things start to happen, which includes that you feel better just in the acceptance that sometimes things don’t go your way.

Any form of reflection is good for the psyche, including journaling and writing things down. To stop and to reflect on your day gives the opportunity to settle into the present and to take in what is good and working in your life.

Finding three good things helps us to pay attention to good things that actually are happening in our lives. Hedonic adaptation is when things become familiar to us and we stop paying attention to the good things in our lives. We stop paying attention to good in life in general because we have become so used to it and start taking things for granted.

The good side of hedonic adaptation is that we mostly get used to difficult things and experiences, and we adapt to them. For example, divorce is a difficult experience, and we don’t plan for it to happen, but sometimes it does, and it affects ourselves and our children. However, after some time, usually adults and children settle into this new way of living. Children learn to accept and live with the realisation that their parents are not living together anymore but still love them. This is helpful for them and builds resilience, if they feel loved and supported. Hedonic adaptation is a very helpful psychological tool but can be part of why we start to overlook the good things in our lives. So, regularly, we need to wake up and remind ourselves of what we have that we have taken for granted, more especially the people in our lives.

Another important element to bringing more happiness into your life is self-compassion. Being kind and understanding towards oneself is integral. This means realising and reminding oneself that we are all human, imperfect and will make mistakes; to be able to strike a balance between acknowledging that something bad has happened but not to stay stuck in it or beat yourself up incessantly for making a mistake.

Our perspective on our shortcomings is vital, to be able to accept our human foibles and inadequacies. We all experience a sense of inadequacy on a daily basis. When you look at your life, think about what choices you have made and that you have achieved something in spite of really challenging experiences. Taking an easier look at your failures and realising that this connects us to all others plays a significant role in feeling okay about who you are, warts and all.

Many people experience a sense of failure in their lives, that they have messed up or not achieved great things. When you have a sense of compassion towards yourself, something inside you shifts, you feel better, more at ease. Additionally, we experience greater physical and mental health when we practise self-compassion towards ourselves.

The happiness “guinea pigs” experienced a greater acceptance of their failures and regrets, and with this more value in learning to not repeat the experience because they were more compassionate towards themselves.

Next time you feel really bad and self-deprecating because you feel you failed or messed up, look at your situation from the position of an observer. This allows more kindness, friendliness and acceptance of yourself. Doing this allows you to feel more encouraged to learn from the experience as well as to free yourself from the punitive, hurtful thoughts that often lead to greater unhappiness.

However, sometimes very difficult past experiences can cause an individual to ruminate on bad experiences over and over and they feel unable to let go of things, incessantly punishing and beating themselves up. If this is the case for you, it is best to seek help from a registered mental health professional in your area.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.