The pursuit of happiness is age-old. Thinkers from Aristotle to Epicurus to Freud philosophized about it, and Thomas Jefferson considered it a right so inalienable that he included it in the Declaration of Independence right up there with life and liberty.
In modern America, we seem to take pursuing happiness to an ever higher level (often with an ever higher price tag). Authors like Stephen Covey make millions penning tomes on positive thinking, 10 percemt of Americans take anti-depressant medications, and life coaches charge up to $300 an hour to become partners in “defining a better future”. Many of us are obviously eager for the secrets to a happy life.
I’m sure I can’t end this seemingly universal human quest. But if you’re hoping to make this year a little happier than last, here are some things you might try:
1. Face fear
Americans can be an anxious bunch. In his book The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner writes:
Some people say we live in a culture of fear. Terrorists, Internet stalkers, crystal meth, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food: New threats seem to sprout like poisonous mushrooms. Climate change, carcinogens, leaky breast implants, the “obesity epidemic”, pesticides, West Nile Virus, SARS, avian flu, and flesh eating disease.
Most recently, the globe seemed to succumb to near hysteria about the H1N1 flu pandemic. In “Killer Fear,” Peggy O’Mara, the editor of Mothering Magazine writes, “Not only is fear bad for our health, it colors our perception of reality.” She explains what fear does to the brain, and offers several antidotes here.
When scientists mapped the brain of a meditating Buddhist monk with a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, the left pre-frontal cortex of his brain, the part associated with happiness, joy, and enthusiasm, did not just light up. It was off the charts.
In another study, participants were randomly assigned into two groups. One received mindfulness meditation training and the other served as a control group. Like the Buddhist monk, the meditating group had more activity in the left pre-frontal cortex of their brains. They also had significantly better immune function than the control group.
Why does meditation make us happy? Taking time to sit silently is undoubtedly good for us, especially in our busy society. Moreover, observing our thoughts and emotions for 15 to 20 minutes a day shows us how transient they are, which helps us to not dwell as much on the negative ones when they arise.
Of course, the paradox is that while meditating is simple, it can be incredibly difficult. You can learn different methods by taking a class or getting a guided audio-recording.
3. Slow down
Recently on To the Best of Our Knowledge, Steve Paulson interviewed Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk and follower of Ghandi. Kumar writes books, teaches at a college, gives lectures around the world, and edits a magazine, but he says his life is entirely stress-free, and his secret is taking life at a walking-pace.
Whatever work I am doing, editing a magazine or lecturing or whatever other work I am doing, I never hurry. I say, there’s plenty of time. The quality of your work is more important than the speed of your work. … If we seek fulfillment, we’ll have no stress. If we seek success we’ll have stress.
(You can listen to that interview and several others about the pursuit of happiness here.)
The irony about slowing down is that it can actually help us to get more done. Erin Hayes explains how doing things quickly often eats up time in her article, “Slow Down to Get More Done” and concludes with:
Sometimes faster is really slower, and doing less can help you accomplish more. And sometimes, the most productive way to schedule our time is to leave a big, blank space in our itinerary … and let our brain fill it in.
4. Use your hands.
In her book Lifting Depression, neuro-scientist Kelly Lambert, PhD argues that when we cook, garden, knit, sew, build, or repair things with our hands and see tangible results from our efforts, our brains are bathed in feel-good chemicals. She writes:
In our drive to do less physical work to acquire what we want and need, we’ve lost something vital to our mental well-being—an innate resistance to depression.
Want to learn more? I wrote about it here.
5. Seek out good news
Some days it seems like the headlines can sour even the rosiest mood. How can you counter-balance all the bad news? Scout out some good news. Reading YES! Magazine, Ode Magazine, GOOD, and Shareable.net makes me feel more hopeful about the world. And joyful distractions, like reading a good novel or looking at photographs of adorable creatures, probably couldn’t hurt either.
6. Lower your expectations.
Denmark ranks as one of the three happiest countries in the world on surveys. Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, attributes the Danes’ happiness to their low expectations. On the New York Times Opinionator blog, he explains that we humans tend to get on hedonic treadmills. We want something, but when we get it, the joy from it wears off quickly, and we want something better … and then better … and then better. All this wanting often just leads to disappointment and unhappiness. The notion of simple living can be freeing.
How do you pursue happiness?