How can we become happier? Perhaps the pursuit is not the goal. At least this is what the sage told Hector in the book, Hector and the Search for Happiness. As old wisdom tells us, perhaps it is the journey, rather than the destination that is most meaningful. Mindfulness theories explain that it is about the here and now. Living in a past we cannot change, and a future that has yet to arrive, the present truly is all that we have. Moment to moment awareness allows us to fully experience life and all the individual miracles that unfold each day.
As millennials, we are often told we can, and most importantly should have it all. The career, the family, the dream house, the list goes on. But scattered energies can often lead us feeling frayed, and as though nothing is ever really getting done. Bits and pieces of this and that seem to hardly amount to anything at all. Then of course, there are the comparisons that are so natural they are almost unconscious. I am fortunate to share a birthday with the Olsen twins. How's that for a yearly reminder of how far I've come? Yet, research indicates that wealth and happiness do not possess an infinite positive correlation. There is eventually a tapering off that occurs, meaning a billionaire is not any happier than a millionaire. Then how do we move toward living a more fulfilled life? Happiness certainly ebbs and flows. If it were not for the lows, we would know less of the highs. One of my favorite quotes from Jiddu Krishnamurti reads:
"You must understand the whole of life, not just one little part of it. That is why you must read, that is why you must look at the skies, that is why you must sing and dance, and write poems and suffer and understand, for all that is life."
In my therapy work, many of my recommendations to clients come back to regaining balance. Often their lives may tip too far in one direction or another. A break-up takes center stage, and little else seems to get done. Or too much work is getting done, but at the end of the day a client is feeling exhausted or even bored. A simple acronym that sums of some of the core components for wellness that is helpful to remember is: E.M.P.O.W.E.R.
E:Exercise. Exercise, nutrition, and sleep are three major elements of physical health that have a direct relationship to your emotional and mental well-being. Many feel that exercise means a hefty time commitment, or imagine significant intensity. Age, medical conditions, mobility, and other factors certainly may impede the amount and duration of exercise in which one may be able to engage. But the bottom line is movement. It can be a short walk during your lunch break, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. While initially it may be tiresome if unaccustomed, small steps can make a huge difference.
Psychological research is increasingly realizing the important link between exercise and mood. According to research by Dr. James Blumenthal of Duke University, epidemiological data suggests that active individuals tend to be less depressed than inactive individuals. Further, his study with colleagues (2007) indicates the effect of exercise to be comparable to that of anti-depressant medication for the treatment of major depressive disorder. In the follow-up to this experimental study, they found that those who continued to exercise experienced less depressive symptoms, indicating that exercise may be instrumental in preventing relapse as well.
The role of sleep and nutrition should not be ignored either. Poor sleep, lack of sleep, and sleep disturbance can lead to irritability, tension, and even depressive symptoms (for more information see Harvard's Sleep Medicine website here). Getting one's sleep back on track is extremely important, and can improve wellness in a myriad of areas. Sleep is also related to key functions such as memory consolidation as well as immune functioning.
We've been taught about nutrition since our elementary school days. The image of the dietary guideline pyramid is one that remains emblazoned in my memory. However, the guidelines have changed, and there is still debate on how accurate the current recommendations are. Yet, some staples remain the same. Including fruits, vegetables, and adequate hydration are important, as is avoiding excess sugars, fats, and alcohol. The effects of a sugar crash or hangover often manifest not only physically, but also emotionally. It is commonsensical that when we are putting good fuel into our system, our bodily engines run cleaner as well.
M: Meditate. Research is increasingly showing the health benefits of meditation for a range of physical and mental concerns. While practiced regularly in many Eastern traditions long before its introduction into Western medicine, its effects are substantial. There are many forms of meditation, ranging from Zen meditation to mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation programs. Though many associate mediation as a form of stress reduction, meditation in its purest form has no goals. It is awareness for the sake of awareness. It is a form of quieting the mind, in a world where our attention is so often divided. Prayer is functionally quite similar to meditation, and most major religious practices have a meditative component. For example, praying the rosary may be considered meditative for some.
P: Positivity. Positive psychology involves working from a strengths-based model, as opposed to a deficits-based one. Instead of focusing on identifying pathology, the intent is to increase overall wellness through a variety of means. For example, there is the idea of an "attitude of gratitude" which may involve keeping a gratitude journal. The simple act of writing down one or two things daily that one is grateful for can increase one's happiness over time.
Among the many topics positive psychology researchers are examining, one is the construct of resilience. Recent research by Dr. Mark Seery of the University at Buffalo SUNY, indicates a potential silver lining to experiencing negative life events. He explains that according to past research, it was assumed that no negative life events were optimal. However, his research indicates that some lifetime adversity predicts better outcomes than high adversity or no adversity at all. Essentially, it suggests the possible benefits of adversity. How's that for glass half-full?
O: Outdoors. One of the most accessible but often overlooked means of improving mood involves getting into the great outdoors. Many of the nation's largest metropolitan areas are increasingly understanding this concept, as urban planners and architects discuss the infusion of "green space" into their designs. While not everyone may be able to run to their nearest beach, rivers, creeks, mountains, and beautiful snowcapped fields can invoke a sense of inner peace. Taking the time to marvel at nature's beauty, wherever you are in the country can be truly awe-inspiring. From leaves and ladybugs, to dew on blades of grass, the closer you look, the more miracles you may uncover.
W: Work. Though potentially confounding at first, as to why work would be on the list, its inclusion refers to engaging and meaningful work. Csikszentmihalyi's pioneering studies on flow theory explains that when engaged in work that blends the right amount of challenge and skill, we are fully immersed in it. It is in such states that we are unaware of the passing of time. Creative energies may increase, and it can be similar to "the zone" that many athletes experience. While it may be ideal to be able to experience flow in our jobs, this may not always be the case. Yet flow can also be achieved when engaging in hobbies such as playing a musical instrument, gardening, cooking, reading, or writing.
Further, research suggests that among those who live the longest are those who work the hardest. Research outlined in the new book, The Longevity Project, makes fascinating conclusions. Co-author Dr. Howard Friedman said in an interview with The Monitor, "People are being given rotten advice to slow down, take it easy, stop worrying, and retire to Florida. The Longevity Project discovered that those who worked the hardest lived the longest. The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves."
E: Enlighten. Dr. Friedman's words about dedicating oneself to causes beyond themselves is in line with the notion of enlightenment. We may have varying understandings and impressions of what enlightenment encompasses. The reality is that it need not be something mystical or otherworldly. I see it as being about self-actualization and improvement. It can involve educating the mind about astronomy, anthropology, geography, or linguistics. It may involve stepping outside your door to help those in need. Whether it is random acts of kindness, or a concerted effort to improve yourself through education, the idea is expansion. Expanding our connectedness to other ideas, people, and worlds. Enlightenment is a broad concept, and can mean different things to different people. Think for a moment what it means to you. How can you integrate it into your own life?
R: Relationships. Relationships can take many forms. Family, friends, partners, spouses, co-workers, and even pets can provide us with empathy, support, and a community network. Relationships can often be one of the first to go when bogged down by daily stressors. Who has time for a leisurely coffee date with a friend when there are a dozen items on the day's to-do list? However, the concept of "social support buffering" is essentially a superstar in psychological research. It could have the psychological equivalent of its own star on the Hollywood walk of fame. It is used to explain coping and resilience in the face of a plethora of stressors and adversities that we may face. Whether it is a divorce, racism, unemployment, or a natural disaster, there is typically going to be a place for social support in mitigating adverse effects. Even positive psychologists have made a nod to social relationships as being a component to happiness and overall well-being. The importance of friendship in happiness is described by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She describes 7 tips for making new friends here.
The notion of empowerment can remind us of living our best lives. The one that is here right now. Not when we weigh 10 pounds less, or when our income is higher, we meet Mr. or Ms. Right. It encourages us to take leaps of faith, and have support whatever the outcome. We can go outside for a run, but meditate in solitude as well. One of my favorite quotes comes from the dancer Agnes de Mille. She said, "living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how...We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark." Who knows precisely what the next hour will bring? Even if we get it right, affective forecasting research tells us that our predictions about our reactions to it may be very wrong. Then let us take a step toward E.M.P.O.W.E.R.ing ourselves today!
References and Further Reading:
Blumenthal, J.A., Babyak, M.A., Doraiswamy, M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B.M., Barbour, K.A., Herman, S., Craighead, W.E., Brosse, A.L., Waugh, R., Hinderliter, A., Sherwood, A.( 2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 587-596.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
Friedman, H. & Martin, L.R. (2011). The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. Hudson Street Press: New York.
Lelord, F. (2010). Hector and the Search for Happiness. Gallic Books: London.
Novotney, A. (2011). The real secrets to a longer life. The Monitor on Psychology, 42, 36-39.
Rubin, G. (2009). The Happiness Project. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.
Seery, M.D. (2011). Resilience: A silver lining to experiencing adverse life events? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 390-394.
Weir, K. (2011). The exercise effect. The Monitor on Psychology, 42, 49-52.