Create Your Own Happiness -- Internal, Natural & Synthetic
One aspect of maturing (pro-aging) is recognizing that we are responsible for our own emotions. No one can make you mad (as hard as this is to accept, how we react to someone else's actions is 100% in our control). I believe this is one of life's most difficult lessons, and for many of us, it's an ongoing challenge. Maybe it's just me?
Occasionally you'll hear the line "just choose to be happy". Hmmm - is that a choice? I suppose at times you can, but there are certainly occasions where it's not that straightforward. This article cites an interesting study of 1000 people who were asked that question. It seems, that you sort of can. Check it out here.
Early in life we often think that once we achieve a certain milestone, goal, salary, or level of freedom in parenthood -- we will finally be happy. We soon learn that none of these external factors make a whole heap of difference! Yes it is true that we are in charge of our own happiness.
Now, let me make a little disclaimer here: After 67 years on earth, I'm fully aware that there are life events that destroy us. As mentioned before on this little site, worrying about our loved ones, as well as many other external events, can wreak havoc with our emotions. Of course a chemical imbalance is a whole other issue. I'm just discussing day to day happiness and life satisfaction here!
Can you look at this image and not smile or feel a little happy?
I was listening to a Huberman Lab podcast, "Science Based Tools for Increasing Happiness", and learned a new-to-me expression: "synthetic" happiness? Have you checked out the Huberman Lab podcast? It is fantastic! They are a bit long (typically 2 hours) and fairly heavy but so very interesting. The host, Dr. Andrew Huberman, is a neuroscientist and professor. In each podcast he breaks down the technical stuff into really manageable bits for us laymen.
According to Dr. H, there are two types of happiness - natural and synthetic. Don't let the word synthetic fool you - it's not 'manufactured' or 'artificial'. Nope - it's the actions we take to increase our happiness level. So if the world is ticking you off or you are feeling a little blue, consider some of the ideas below to take charge of your mood. Like the idea of a toolkit to buffer your natural happiness with other strategies that will fill the gap.
It has been proven repeatedly that the total amount of money an individual has does not equate or define their level of happiness (have you been watching Succession? They are NOT happy people). Once someone gets past the level of income to cover their cost of living, building more income does not build more happiness. So that's not the solution.
To quote Huberman's closing comments in this episode: "Both natural and synthetic happiness require our attention". What I derived from this is that the synthetic activities will help fill the gap when other things don't work out the way you wish. Or when it's rainy and gray for days on end.
Natural happiness is achieved when performance leads to a baseline financial level, plus a buffer to cover unexpected expenses, an increased cost of living, plus the minimum qualities that we need to feel "happy". That minimum could vary among individuals. No doubt many individuals have had to deal with a lack of financial buffer in the past couple of years and it may have affected their "natural happiness" . This is where these other strategies could help.
Interestingly, it's also been shown scientifically that any effort towards a goal enhances happiness, regardless of the outcome. This is where "enjoy the journey" comes into play! Set some goals and don't worrty to much about the outcome. Just go for it!
Here are a few things we can work on to create that additional (or synthetic) happiness factor:
1. Exposure to natural light and time spent outdoors - Huberman attributes exposure to natural light as a factor that improves almost every aspect of our mental and physical health.
2. Social connections - For some people this comes so naturally, and for others it's an effort. I can say 100% that in the busiest, most stressful and financially lean period of my life, social connections at work and hanging out with a good friend and her kids at the park after dinner totally filled my happiness gap.
3. Focus on tasks and activities - This is an interesting one. Studies have show that focusing on any task or activity raises our dopamine levels. AND if you have trouble focusing (I hear you) the simple act of just a few minutes of meditation daily will help with our ability to focus on other activities. Okay another reason for me to work at meditation!
4. Eye Contact - So simple; making eye contact during conversations and interactions increases happiness! That's an easy one; how about really looking at the grocery store employee and asking how their day is going? I know they will appreciate it.
5. Giving money creates happiness, but knowing how that money improved the recipient's life provides a real boost. Sure it feels good to give back when we are able. Sending $50 to a charity is great, but how about sponsoring a child in an underdeveloped country? Receiving their updates and pictures is so gratifying. Another new one I have learned about, in the community in Mexico that we visit: for less than the cost of groceries each month, we can cover the annual cost of primary or secondary school (tuition, books and uniform) for one child. What satisfaction and boost to our own happiness!
So, here's my personal assessment and anecdotal experience: Yesterday I was feeling a little blue and was definitely cranky. I played an hour of pickle ball (outdoors, met one new person) focused on researching and writing this blog, then walked to the grocery store in the drizzle. At the store I went back and thanked an employee (making eye contact!) that went out of his way to be helpful and was so pleasant. Points 1 through 4 above, checked off. I can honestly say that my mood was better, simply because I took action. Why not give it a try and report back? I'd so love to hear your experiences.