Happiness is a bit of an elusive concept. As an emotion, it’s clearly open to subjectivity: we all know what we mean by ‘happiness’ but do we all experience it in the same way?
Just as importantly, what creates happiness? Is it entirely driven by our response to external events?
In the broadest senses, probably yes, but not always in the way we might expect. There is a big physiological component to how we feel.
- For instance, exercise is something most of us can do to make ourselves feel happier. It has a profound effect on our wellbeing and for some it may prove to be an effective strategy for overcoming depression. In the right circumstances, exercise rather than medication, can also decrease the likelihood of slipping back into depression.
Of course, you don’t have to be depressed to benefit from exercising. Most of us have heard of endorphins, which are released after exercise, and these natural ‘painkillers’ are well known for inducing feelings of euphoria. Exercise can aid relaxation, boost intellect and improve your body image, even if you don't actually lose any weight!
- Sleep is another key happiness factor. You can read our blog post that explains some of the many benefits of getting a good night’s rest. Specifically, however, sleep can affect how positivity we feel because of the way the brain processes positive and negative memories.
Negative stimuli are processed by the amygdala, while positive or neutral memories are processed by the hippocampus. Because sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala, sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, but hang onto all those negative images, as one study investigating our ability to recall words with positive and negative connotations found. A different study has also demonstrated that sleep can affect our sensitivity to negative emotions.
Meanwhile, the quality of our sleep influences how we feel when we wake – whether we got out ‘on the wrong side of bed’ or not – and has important implications for our performance (and happiness) over the course of a day.
- Most of us know about the beneficial effects of sunshine (in moderation) and its role in
combatting conditions like SAD (seasonal affective disorder) so it comes as no surprise that finding time to get outside on a nice day is another key happiness booster. Time spent outdoors in a natural environment is
beneficial: for instance, patients have been prescribed woodland walks as a way to combat depression, reduce stress and treat heart problems.
One study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only enhances our mood, but broadens thinking and improved working memory.
Meanwhile, 2011 research from the American Meteorological Society studied several weather variables and concluded that happiness is maximized at a temperature of 13.9°C!
- Apparently, smiling can actually alleviate pain and is a well-known mood-enhancer but it's more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to one call-centre study. It found that customer-service workers who fake smile (‘smile and dial’) throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smiled as a result of cultivating positive thoughts – such as a dream holiday – improved their mood and withdrew less.
Other studies suggest smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better, while it can also be an effective way to reduce the distress caused by an upsetting situation, in what psychologists refer to as the facial feedback hypothesis.
- Finally, what about meditation? Aside from its other advantages, meditation can actually improve happiness, with one study demonstrating physical changes in the brain after subjects attended an eight-week mindful meditation course: the parts of their brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, while those associated with stress shrank.
The benefits of meditation – including heightened awareness and empathy – are well documented, but some research even indicates that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.
Feeling good, it turns out, is quite literally good for us. What’s more, the really positive news is that it’s not hard to be proactive in our pursuit of happiness.
Other key happiness boosters:
- Avoid the long commute
- Take a break or enjoy the anticipation of planning a vacation
- Spend time on your social networks
- Enrich your life by helping others – for two hours a week
- Practice being grateful
- Just get older – we tend to get happier as we age