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Finding Happiness

The science-backed way to a happier life

Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

Yesterday I woke up and looked outside as a hummingbird danced at the bird feeder. I wondered if the hummingbird feels happiness. What is Happiness? A thousand ideas floated by me – a big yellow emoji to a double rainbow and the faces of my loved ones – before my doggies pounced on me with hugs and kisses.

As I started my day, I had a recollection of how my life has improved a little bit each day as I immersed myself in my own recovery as an adult child and family member of an alcoholic parent. Maybe my happiness comes from knowing where I’ve been and living my truth each day.

Today, I define happiness as a feeling of contentment and peace about oneself. It is the emotional response that the world is okay, there are better days ahead – some would call that hope – and there’s room for possibility. I am ok. I am good enough.

Sure, anyone can have a bad mood, a boss yell at them, a horrible date, or like the book and experience a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day and still find a slice of happiness. True happiness lives in the moments when we feel good about ourselves, our purpose, our passion and our relationships with others.

Still, in my many years as an educator, social worker and interventionist, I’ve seen how those who foster a foundation of happiness while in recovery not only stay committed to their well-being, they create lasting happiness in all parts of life. So what’s the trick?

In recent years, behavioral healthcare scientists and researchers have looked at the science of happiness and their research has uncovered steadfast truths about how we live and interact in an increasingly hyper-connected world. These science-backed truths can help you find happiness and live your best life.

For instance, Business Insider reports that “40% of our happiness is under our control.” That’s a huge amount of control we have over our own happiness! The other 60% is attributed to external factors such as the behaviors of others, unforeseen events and genetics. The key insight is that nearly half of what makes us happy – through our daily activities, thoughts, and interactions with friends, family and coworkers – gives us the power to harness happiness.

The following looks at these behaviors to unlock how we can live happier lives. In conjunction with Time Magazine’s Special Edition on The Science of Happiness, top-notch researchers from UC Berkeley to Harvard Business school and beyond, pulled together key findings related to behaviors that bring a spirit of happiness. Through these mental and physical exercises, happiness can be achieved when these practices are nurtured and cherished in daily living, through recovery, and lasting into our twilight years.

Finding Happiness

For many of us, there is an assumption that happiness only comes from life’s major milestones — weddings and birthdays, going to college and grad school, first cars and homes, vacations and kids. This false narrative – coupled with the idea that we have to constantly move to accomplish our goals, foregoing happiness, enduring stress and weathering negative feelings – may be why many Americans feel overworked and stressed out. Let’s break through these assumptions, be curious, and take a look at the ways we may discover and ignite happiness:

  • Social Bonding. Human connection is in our DNA. According to The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which followed hundreds of men for over 70 years, the happiest were those who cultivated strong relationships where there was a bond of trust and commitment. That translates in modern day terms to take time in your week to meet with friends, go to 12-Step meetings if you are in recovery, have alone time with your spouse and kids, or join a club where your voice is heard. Moreover, focusing your energy, time and money on social bonding – rather than material goods – maximizes pleasure and vitality. Why? Because developing cherished memories stay with us long after we experience them. Even “the anticipation of an experience can be as valuable a source of happiness as the experience itself,” says Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. “And for months afterward, recalling the event continues to make you happy.”
  • Empathy. Like Atticus Finch says in the classic children’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird, empathy is the ability to “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” And research shows exercising empathy in the form of love and compassion toward others makes us happy. “While giving to charity brings more happiness than spending money on yourself, our research finds that doing things for people you know makes you happiest,” says Michael Norton. Moreover, researchers suggest watching a tearjerker movie to build empathy and well-being. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a professor at Ohio State says, “the sadness that you feel as a result of watching unfulfilled love, for instance, can spur you to think about your relationships and appreciate what you have.”

According to Brene Brown’s article published in Psychology Today, who references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s research on the four attributes of empathy, there’s a lot we have in our power to use empathy toward a happier well-being:

  • See the world as others see it (i.e. the Atticus Finch view).
  • Leave your personal judgments at the door. Judgment only discounts the person’s experience and discourages them from sharing.
  • Focus on understanding your own feelings – good, bad and ugly – in order to understand the feelings of your loved one.
  • Communicate love and understanding as a way of showing support and validation for their feelings.
  • Focus. Psychologists at Harvard University studied 5,000 people and found that “adults spend only about 50% of their time in the present moment.” As such, we look for distractions through digital devices, media and escapist fare, which in turn only makes us more anxious and depressed. In fact, “the more people engaged in media multitasking (from word processing to text messaging and email), the higher their anxiety and depression levels tended to be.” One study cited in Time Magazine and published in the scientific journal PLOS One found “the more people spent time on Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.”

In focusing on the good stuff, happiness can be achieved by letting go of our past, which may be marred with unpleasant emotions, memories or trauma. Thus, making amends with ourselves and others, and for past actions received and given, the good stuff comes into sharp focus. Once we’ve done that, in concert with exercising the above mentioned daily happiness-building practices, we can look forward to a better tomorrow.

Building Resilience

Researchers have come a long way in understanding how humans develop resilience and use it in their lives to weather life’s tough storms. In 1955, Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist, formed a team from UC Berkeley to create the most important longitudinal study in the field of resilience research.

The 40-year project looked at nearly 700 children in Kauai, Hawaii, who had alcoholic parents. Turns out many of the children “adapted exceedingly well over time.” Werner and her research team found the following ways the children thrived when faced with adversity:

  • A tight-knit community
  • A stable role model
  • A strong belief in their ability to solve problems

The key to building resilience? A stable support system. “Very few highly resilient people are strong in and by themselves. You need support,” says Steven Southwick of the Yale School of Medicine. Moreover, these tenets for building strong resilience are the very things that 12-Step support groups use in recovery. Turns out, recovery and resilience go hand-in-hand!

What else can you do to build strong resilience? Here are expert tips:

  • Develop a set of your own personal values and stick to them.
  • Look for meaning in stressful or traumatic life moments.
  • Focus on the positives more than the negatives each day.
  • Face the things that scare you the most. Dark shadows disappear when light shines on them.
  • Learn something new. Every. Day.
  • Pick a positive emotion and ignite your behavior towards actualizing the emotion each day.
  • Find an exercise regimen – yoga, pilates, running, walking, boxing, cycling the park trail – and stick to it.
  • Let go of the past.
  • Recognize your sources of strength and own them.

Feeling Grateful

Gratitude – in big ways and small – scientifically helps us feel happier. It’s true: “research suggests [a spirit of gratitude] is beneficial to our bodies and brains. People who are regularly grateful – who acknowledge the goodness in life and the sources of it – are generally healthier and happier.”

Like empathy, gratitude is developed through mindfulness. Giacomo Bono, an adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills says, “gratitude is the most changeable character strength because it’s about mindfulness – something anyone can do.”

What is mindfulness? In my studies and teachings on the topic, I’ve come to define mindfulness as the conscious awareness of the present moment and the people in it. According to my findings on mindfulness, featured in my keynote presentation on the topic, here’s what mindfulness can do for you:

  • Lower stress
  • Relieve pain
  • Build immunity so you’re sick less often
  • Help you through other medical issues
  • Mellow your kids (shout out to parents!)

The key to mindfulness is giving all your attention to what you are doing; to be present, rather than dwell on the past or future. It’s easy for our minds to drift – “How do I make my mortgage payment next month?” to “Why did my sister get all the attention growing up?” to “I’m never going to go on another date again.” – so much that we’re distracted from the moment before us. Beginning with meditation – the touchstone of mindfulness, says researchers – ten minutes a day can get you going toward being more present.

So how do mindfulness and gratitude work in sync? Through mindfulness – a focus on the now – we’re present from the distractions in our lives. When we do that, look to the things that bring us positive feelings in the form of being grateful for what matters. Here are ways to feel grateful for each and every day:

  • Write notes – little reminders around the house that say you are grateful for all that makes your home warm and comfortable.
  • Journal your gratitude – a place where you can write down three things you are grateful for each morning before you start your day. According to Time, here are the top 5 things Americans are grateful for:
  • Family
  • Freedom of living in America
  • Good health
  • Close friends
  • Ability to practice religion of choice
  • Give thanks daily – to people on the street, family and friends, coworkers and bosses. When we give thanks to others, it shows that we care and truly value their contributions. Not only that, giving thanks helps us to remember the blessings that bring so much to our lives.
  • Be specific – about the things you are grateful and thankful for. For instance, if you share that you’re thankful when a friend organizes a group event, specifically thank them for this gesture and maybe it will lead to more.

In my many years as an interventionist and social worker, I’ve seen that happiness is a muscle that must be exercised and practiced with each passing day – in recovery and beyond. With these new tools in your toolbox, you can flex happiness and embrace life’s challenges.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com

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