The Happiness Prescription
Jody Stanislaw, ND
Who are the happiest people you know?
Are they all married and have lots of money? Your answer is quite certainly, “no.” Some are likely single, while some are married. Some might have little money, while some have a lot. Some may even have health challenges. Or perhaps you don’t know anyone that is truly happy.
Less than 30% of people report being deeply happy. The World Health Organization predicts that depression will soon be second only to heart disease in terms of the global burden of illness.
Society tells us that money, beauty, success, and fame are the keys to happiness. Yet we all know that those factors in actuality do not come close to guaranteeing happiness.
So, if all those things that society points to for happiness don’t actually guarantee happiness, then this begs a couple of very important questions: How can we create a happy life? What does it really take to be happy?
Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. The goal of all goals.”
So, we need to just find the things that make us happy and produce more of those things, right? Sure, that seems like a good idea. But this approach won’t actually create deep happiness. Why? Because as soon as the activity is over, so is the happiness. One can be happy about the things in one’s life, but still not be very happy.
More is Better
There are 2 major myths keeping millions from happiness. The first is “More will be better.” This one is easy to prove wrong. American’s personal income has increased more than 2.5-fold over the past 50 years, yet the overall happiness level has remained the same. Nearly 40% of people on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans are less happy than the average American. It’s been shown that once personal wealth exceeds $12 000 per year, more money has no correlation with more happiness.
A recent survey showed that at all income levels, people assume that more money would definitely increase their level of happiness. We are all seduced by the deep-seated belief that more money will buy happiness.
The “Myth of More” is the engine that drives our economy. Billions are spent each year to convince us that we are not okay the way we are and that we need things – lots of them – to make us happy. We are all negatively affected. The messages we repeatedly see and hear go into our brains on a subconscious level and become beliefs. If this were not true, advertisers wouldn’t be spending billions to make sure we see their ads over and over again. No matter the area, the underlying feeling of needing to be more or different than the way we are – that who we are today is unacceptable – obliterates any chance of enjoying lasting happiness.
“I’ll be happy when I have more” is a myth. Don’t fall for it. You’re smarter than that. Let that go.
I’ll Be Happy When
The second major obstacle to happiness is the myth of “I’ll be happy when…” How many of these apply to you? I’ll be happy when I have the perfect mate; the perfect house; the perfect body; the perfect amount of money; when I get my degree; when I get more recognition; when I have a family; when the kids move out; when I have a perfect job; when I retire…
No matter how many I’ll-be-happy-whens you reach, it’s never going to be enough. With each one, the satisfaction is fleeting. Think about the last 5 goals you achieved. How long did the happiness last? Did it change your level of happiness at your core?
“I’ll be happy when…” is a myth. Drop it.
Why Happiness is Elusive
Why is it so hard to be happy? Because 2 of our greatest obstacles to happiness – fear and anxiety – have been hardwired in us for eons to ensure our survival. In today’s world, however, that old wiring has become more harmful than helpful. Even though we no longer have to be on the lookout for tigers, we’re still hardwired in the same way: we pay more attention to the negative than to the positive. Our negative experiences stick to us like Velcro, while our positive experiences slide right off like Teflon. Researchers have found it takes numerous positive experiences to overcome a single negative one.
Yet some people enjoy their lives no matter what happens, while others can’t find happiness no matter how hard they try. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Researchers have found that no matter what happens in life, we all tend to return to a fixed state of happiness. Lottery winners are just as happy 1 year later as they were before they won. People who have lost limbs in a tragic accident will 1 year later return to the same level of happiness they had before their accident. Research shows there are only 3 exceptions to this phenomenon: losing a spouse (which can take more than a year to recover from), chronic unemployment, and extreme poverty.
The good news is that with conscious effort, anyone can change their set-point. After studying thousands of twins, research has shown that only about 50% of happiness is genetic, and the other half is learned. Of this 50% we have control over, only 10% is determined by circumstances, such as level of wealth, marital status, and job. The other 40% is determined by our habitual thoughts and feelings, the words we choose to say, and the actions we choose to take in our lives day after day. And 90% of all behavior is habitual. So, deep and lasting happiness is clearly not found by seeking it from the outside world. To become happier, we must look to our daily habits.
Changing Our Set-Point
Happiness can be increased by engaging in certain daily activities that raise one’s set-point. Just making a decision to be happier won’t work, just as much as making a decision to be healthier but doing nothing about it won’t work. Just like consistent exercise can be used to increase the fitness of the body, there are a myriad daily practices that can be used to increase one’s level of happiness.
The study of neuroplasticity has shown that when we think, feel, and act in different ways, the brain creates new neural pathways to reflect these new ways of being. Over time, as we continue to make “happier” decisions, these more positive choices become the new normal of who we are. Meanwhile, the old, unhappy thoughts and actions will feel less automatic as the neural pathways literally become weaker.
Why should physicians care about learning ways to raise one’s happiness set-point? Because happiness improves health. Happiness is a specific, measurable physiological state characterized by distinct brain activity, heart rhythms, and body chemistry. For example, truly happy people tend to have greater activity in their left prefrontal cortex, orderly heart wave patterns, and more of the feel-good neurotransmitters – oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. People who are happy have lower levels of inflammation, lower risk of heart disease, stronger immune systems, less stress, fewer aches and pains, and live longer, just to name a few. Every subjective experience we have is correlated to a state of function in our body.
As Marci Shimoff explains in her book, Happy for No Reason, there are 3 principles shared by deeply happy people: 1) They make decisions based on what makes them feel expansive; 2) They trust that the universe is friendly and out to support them, no matter what happens; and 3) They fill their days with an abundance of thoughts of appreciation.
There are health benefits tied to each one of these principles…
- When our energy expands, we experience great happiness. When our energy contracts, we experience less happiness. Emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and jealousy cause contraction and literally constrict the flow of life energy. Our muscles tighten, breathing becomes shallow, and circulation is restricted. When we choose thoughts and feelings such as joy, love, compassion, and excitement, we experience the opposite.
- Einstein said that the most important question people can ask themselves is, “Is the universe a friendly place?” Research has shown that those who answer this question with a “yes” have better health outcomes. Happy people don’t waste time being victims. When something bad happens, they ask, “What is the lesson for me to learn here; how can I grow from this experience?” When we trust that the universe is always operating for our benefit regardless of the situation, we experience more expansion and happiness. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. It is having the belief that matters.
- Simply said, what we appreciate, appreciates, ie, increases in value. Happy people don’t necessarily have more in their lives for which to be grateful; they simply focus more often on gratitude throughout their day. Try appreciating a friend 3 to 5 times every day for a week. What will likely happen is the value of your relationship will increase. When we focus on the good, we experience more good. When we focus on the bad, we notice more bad. Want more happiness? Make a daily practice of focusing on things that make you happy. It’s really that simple.
Here is an endless number of daily practices for creating more happiness:
- Don’t believe everything you think
- Let go of belief patterns that do not serve you
- See negative thoughts as merely byproducts of the Velcro phenomenon, and just let them go
- Register positive thoughts more deeply and take time to savor positive experiences
- Look into your own eyes every morning and take time to appreciate yourself
- Have the daily intention to seek out and notice all the good around you
- Instead of forcing yourself into positive thoughts that don’t feel true, gently lean your mind each day toward thoughts that make you feel happier
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself
- Turn on the feeling of love in your heart by sending loving energy to any and all people around you, including yourself
- Write a gratitude list
- Upon waking, set an intention to have a great day; this will set the tone for the day ahead
- Let go of anger and resentment
- Practice forgiveness
- Practice compassion
- Commit to laughing 5 minutes every day, even if you have to force it
- Fill your body with white light
- Smile at strangers
- Eat healthy foods
- Stay well hydrated
- Go to bed at 10 PM
- When feeling anxious, take 5 deep belly breaths
- Avoid slumped posture and sit up straight
- Accept all in your life exactly as it is right now and trust the universe is here for you
- Cultivate a feeling of reverence and gratitude for this amazing journey called life
Happiness is akin to a muscle. Any of these exercises, when used consistently, will make it stronger. Doing more than one of these is not even necessary. Just pick the one that calls to you the most and do it daily. Committing to a happiness practice over weeks, months, and years is what makes all the difference. With patience and consistency, anyone can raise their happiness set-point and enjoy a happier and healthier life.
I strongly encourage you to use this information with your patients. Read to them this list and let them pick the happiness prescription that calls to them the most. Prescribe it daily, or even QID.
A Case in Point
Here’s a story that illustrates the immense reward that is possible. A patient with rheumatoid arthritis had been struggling with debilitating pain for years. She couldn’t walk anywhere without her cane, and sometimes even had to climb stairs on her hands and knees to reduce her excruciating joint pain. She was constantly seeking out new doctors, in desperation to feel like herself again. She was put on steroids, which only caused her body to balloon up. She went to naturopathic doctors, changed her diet, read self-help books, and more. But nothing seemed to help.
After being moved by reading a book by the Buddhist writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, she was inspired to visit with a local Buddhist teacher. After she told him her long story of pain and suffering, his reply was simply, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself and start focusing on the happiness of others.” She couldn’t believe it. In objection, she replied, “I’m too sick. I’m exhausted. I can hardly handle my own life.”
Nevertheless, she started to pray for the happiness of others. As she sat at home, she sent love to her friends and family members, imagining them happy, healthy, and at peace. She began to do this for strangers and eventually even to those she actively disliked. Instead of getting upset with others, she started choosing to focus on the fact that everyone inside is fighting their own battles, and sent compassion their way.
She smiled at grocery store clerks and thanked them for doing their job. The unexpected smiles she started to receive created a warmth in her heart that felt good. Finding ways to make others smile became her purpose in life. She started seeking out opportunities to spread even more happiness. She paid for things for strangers, like a cup of coffee or a tank of gas. She volunteered at the Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina.
The more she focused on contributing to the happiness of others, the better she felt. The better she felt, the happier she became. Not only did she become happier, but within a year her health transformed. To her doctor’s amazement, her once debilitating condition had reversed itself. She now works out at the gym 3 days per week and lives pain-free. “I believe my body healed itself as a result of my decision to create a flow of love and happiness all around me. Happiness not only feels great; it’s the best prescription I’ve ever been given.”
Note: To dive deeper into this great work and gain even more valuable tools for how to raise the happiness set-point, check out Marci Shimoff’s book, Happy for No Reason, which is where much of the content of this article was sourced from.
Here’s to your Happiness!
Jody Stanislaw, ND, is a 2007 Bastyr University graduate. She works via phone as a consultant for patients with type 1 diabetes, located anywhere in the world. Being a type 1 diabetic since the age of 7, she is an expert at helping patients achieve optimal glucose control. Her personal experience allows type 1 patients to feel more understood than ever before. Her focus on the mind/body connection is always present. Given the complexity of type 1 diabetes, she often co-manages patients with other physicians. For inquires, contact her via www.DrJodyND.com or via email at DrJody@DrJodyND.com.