Making Happiness Happen

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I recently attended a Science of Happiness workshop. I was so inspired that I thought to capture the essence of it in this month’s blog. Let’s start by clarifying the science bit which has to do with the neurochemical in our bodies that impact our happiness. This by the way, was the biggest eye-opener for me:

Serotonin is the happiness chemical found in many anti-depresssants
Oxytocin is released when we feel love
Dopamine gives us the drive to do and achieve things
Adrenaline is the stress hormone released when danger is perceived
Cortisol is the more dangerous stress and anxiety-related chemical.

The question is, how do we naturally alter these five chemicals in our bodies to create balance, good health and happiness?

Adrenaline and Cortisol are clearly stress-related and impact negatively on our happiness levels, which is why we want to minimise stress-inducing situations in our lives to restore healthy balance.

Even the good happiness chemicals need to be kept in healthy balance. This was a major insight to me. I may have high Dopamine levels and feel driven to do and achieve things, but do I have enough Oxytocin and Serotonin to feel love and happiness?

So how do I go about increasing the good happiness chemicals in my body?

There are four key steps to happiness:

  • Gratitude
    A key practice, gratitude activates Serotonin and Dopamine and increases neurons in the prefrontal cortex; the higher mind.
    – Start a happiness journal and capture 3 things a day for which you are grateful. This simple practice increases Serotonin levels by a significant 10% after 3 weeks according to research.
    – Find happiness in everyday things like being grateful for warm water.
    – Practice meditation. Take an attitude with gratitude into a mindfulness meditative practice. Reflect firstly on a person you are grateful for, secondly an event you are grateful for, thirdly something about yourself you are grateful for. In your meditation (Podcast here), focus on the feeling of gratitude – not the story.
    – Express gratitude to somebody. Research found a 4-19% increase in levels of happiness when gratitude is expressed to a person.
  • Thought Labelling
    You are not your thoughts.
    – Standing back from your thoughts allows you to observe them, not be rules by them.
    – Listen to your own thoughts. Some thoughts drive emotional states:
    – Shoulds or musts or ‘why didn’t I/they…’ create frustration.
    – Always and never (this always happens to me) create anger.
    – Catastrophising (expecting the worse) creates anxiety.
    – All or nothing/black or white (nobody loves me/everybody hates me) thoughts create depression.
    Ask yourself:
    – Does this thought help me or harm me?
    – Would I say the same thing to my best friend?
    – Instead of giving yourself a hard time, bring compassion to yourself. Your journey is to become your own best friend.
    – Savour positive experiences. Relive a happy memory for 30 seconds, feeling it in the body, develops happy neural pathways.
  • Good Enough Decisions
    Brain science has shown that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety. It doesn’t have to be a perfect or ‘right’ decision, just a ‘good enough’ decision. Being a perfectionist can be stressful. Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control. You don’t have to prove anything. You are already enough just by existing, because of your own uniqueness. Once a good enough decision is made and even marginal steps taken in that direction, relief and happiness sets in.
  • Connection
    It’s a basic need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t, it is literally painful. Disconnection and loneliness creates pain. Research has shown that perceived rejection goes down the same pathways in the brain as physical pain.
    – A key way to release Oxytocin is through touch – even a handshake or a pat on the back.
    – 5 hugs a day is shown to raise Oxytocin significantly.
    – Massage reduces pain, increases all the happy chemicals and decreases cortisol.
    We are essentially social beings and cultivating positive interaction is essential for our happiness.

A last thought
Happiness doesn’t happen to us. It is something we make happen. Nurture positive relationships, build on your own strengths, exercise choice, savour positive experiences and practice gratitude – often.

Resources
You are already awesome, get out of your own way – Ted Talk
Greater Good Science Centre
Martin Seligman – Authentic Happiness
Mindfulness

Healing and Transformation Meditations – we have just added the Gratitude Mindfulness Meditation here for you

The Little Book of Hygge; the Danish way to live well – Recently recommended to me (thanks Tash) and full of practical inspiration.