May 1, 2014

Happiness; What "they" don't want you to know!

Ya. I thought that title may add a bit of intrigue to my post today. Although "they" could easily represent every company that makes, sells, and markets stuff. In North American we are literally sold on the notion that we will not be happy unless we buy their stuff (their homes, cars, clothes, creams, weight loss programs, fitness membership and so on and so on....).  What researchers now understand more than ever is the simple fact that things (including appearance and life circumstance) may not have anything to do with obtaining the life long pursuit of happiness.

I've just put together a presentation on the subject for a talk I have to deliver tomorrow. Although I have read many books on positive psychology and am including it in my internship as a clinical counsellor in training, I never really examined the academic literature on happiness. So I did....and I learned a few things. In fact, having a greater understanding of what it really takes to be happy has made me happy (and less stressed out about the money, the achievement, and even the wrinkles).


They make a good point.
For example, did you know researchers examined people who experienced life changing events that resulted in quadrapalegia and found that, after 6 months, their happiness levels returned to the same levels as before the accident (whew...long sentence...I'm exhausted). Conversley, when examining lottery winners, they found that their happiness levels dropped and remained lower than their previous level before the win (that's great and everything, but I'd still like to find this one out for myself). In addition, women tend to be happier, in general, than men - they are happier when single, when married, and when widowed. In fact, the age where men are most unhappy is around 45 when they fear they took the wrong path in life and cannot make change because of their financial responsibilities.  Happiness across the lifespan looks like a U-curve on a chart; happiness in youth and old age is greater than happiness in middle-age.  In support of this, research has found that seniors (65+) report much happiness and life satisfaction (there's a joke here, but I don't want to appear disrespectful to a group I would like to belong to one day).

Research also suggests that couples with kids are less happy than those that chose childlessness, that marriage may make you happier (especially men...women are happy no matter what). Spending time and money to help others makes us happier (as long as you don't recieve any money for it) than spending it on ourselves. Spending money on experiences such as vacations and evenings out has been suggested to make us more happy than purchasing things.  Additionally, stress decreases as one moves up in salary to 75k/ year but additional earnings over that, stress begins to increase again.

What I thought was the most interesting was the breakdown of what makes up or are the components to happiness.  After much research, "they" suggest 48% of happiness is genetic (if your parents were predisposed to happy you may be more likely to happy), 40% is attributable to big life events such as winning a lottery (and being miserable...remember...must remember) or experiencing an accident, and the remaining 12% is based upon lifestyle elements.
This is really cute and all, but happiness has nothing to do with smiling (I've tried and looked like a complete idiot).  Most importantly, messages like this only add pressure and stress to those who aren't the smiley type. It's my belief that smiles are for those who see them and not for those who do them.  I'm always asking people why it is so important to them that I smile (and that usually shuts them down pretty quick....probably why I'm seen as the office grump...but whatever).
What are these elements you may ask? Apparently there is four; faith (a belief in something bigger than yourself), family (nuff' said), community (social connection), and work (yes....work). To have a job that you feel is valuable and serves people is the key; to feel you make a difference. If you don't have it at work, you may find it through community service or a hobby. 

So how, if you have grumpy genetics and have won the lottery, do you pursue a lifetime of happiness? There are a few strategies you may be aware of, and based upon the literature, they have been shown to be quite successful.  Counting your blessings is one.  By listing the things that are going well and/or are good in your life, it shifts your focus from the negative to the positive. If you find this challenging begin with writing down three things that went well for you today. I try my best to do this on the drive to work in the morning (that is, unless I'm driving behind someone going 10km less than the speed limit - or they flick their dirty cigarette out of the car window....another time, another blog post).

As I have mentioned, giving to others is a great way to give to yourself. Buy a stranger a coffee (a trend we are seeing in the drive-thrus), give to a charity or buy someone living on the street lunch.  Whenever I do this I am sure I get more out of it than they do....I guess that is where the debate comes from..."there is no such thing as true altruism" (that was also a very funny Friends episode).

Whenever possible (and it's all possible) reframe the negative into a positive. If your day sucks, list the things that don't (i.e. you are still breathing...if it is that bad a day). Challenge your thinking errors. We all have these habitual ways of thinking that can really bring us down, stress us out, or piss us off. For example, it's my belief that people shouldn't drive if they are going to drive under the posted speed limit. This is what is known as "black and white" thinking. Instead, I should be thankful that they are slowing me down so I don't get a speeding ticket (not that I would speed...of course).
Bobby has the right idea. He has
reframed a negative experience
into a positive (and more funny)
one.  Well done, Bobby!
So that's my two pennies for today. Learning more about authentic happiness (versus the crap we see on TV, hear in motiviation talks, and smell as we are driving past a KFC) has made me feel a lot better about things.  The fussing over pounds, wardrobes, and sagging jowls isn't worth my time....cultivating a larger group of friends to shop with, eat with, and plan our plastic surgery with will ensure a life full of happiness and joy (kidding.....sort of).

K

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