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Does Increasing Your Happiness Make a Difference?

Have you ever been around someone who complains all the time? Who only talks about the bad things going on?

And have you ever been that person?

I’ve been noticing this about myself lately. Though to be fair, 2018 had some pretty crappy parts. At the same time it had some great ones – except after complaining, I often don’t get around to talking about the good things.

I also realize I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking, “I’ll be happy when I accomplish X or when Y happens.”

Do you ever feel this way?

A lot of people do, but what’s fascinating is that according to Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage, we don’t actually find happiness by being successful or achieving something.

Rather, being happy is what makes us successful.

Now, he’s not saying that you should ignore real problems, or try to gloss over emotions like anger, grief, sorrow, or fear. The problem comes when those become our defining emotions. Because if that’s where we put our focus, that becomes our reality.

On the other hand, if we have a more positive focus, we’re not only happier but we perform better. As new research shows, “our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best… when they are positive.” (p. 15, Kindle edition)

Also, remember that happiness is very individual. What makes me happy might not be very pleasant for you, and vice versa. And we might even define happiness as something slightly different, but think of it as a pleasant, positive feeling, often with some kind of meaning attached.

With that in mind, since I’m trying to make some changes in my life, I thought I’d try an experiment. For the next couple of months, each week, I’m going to practice something Achor suggests in The Happiness Advantage or another of his books, Big Potential. Then I’ll share how it might apply from a mindful eating perspective, and tell you the results of my experiment. (Note that I may detour for a week here and there.)

For this week, I’m focusing on the first of the seven principles discussed in The Happiness Advantage– a principle with the same name as the book.

What is the Happiness Advantage?

So what is the Happiness Advantage? Achor describes it as the competitive edge we get by letting happiness and optimism drive our performance and achievement.

And in order to put this to work for us, we need to learn how to retrain our brains, so we can capitalize on our productivity.

Note that this doesn’t only help from a work perspective. Happiness also contributes to good health, which isn’t that surprising when you think about the damages stress can cause.

Other research shows that happiness gave our ancestors – and gives us – an evolutionary advantage. If we’re happy, instead of being stuck in fight or flight mode when the unexpected happens or we need to solve a problem, we’re more open to possibilities. Happiness makes “us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas.” (p. 44)

And what I found most surprising? Positive emotions literally help us see more by expanding our peripheral vision. (p. 45)

What does this mean for mindful eating?

I can think of a number of ways that this relates to mindful eating – and you might think of more:

  • Reduces desire to eat for emotional reasons. If you’re focused on more positive emotions and you’re feeling happier, odds are you won’t be as tempted to turn to food for the simple reason that you won’t be as stressed, anxious, lonely, etc.

  • Improves ability to think of other options. In the moments when you dofeel some stress or sadness, you’ll probably be better able to think of other ways of handling it besides eating.

  • Moves you away from negative self-talk. If you’re typically very critical of yourself, or you judge yourself harshly for food choices, becoming happier will hopefully start moving you away from that.

  • Helps recognize when you make mindful choices. You might also start noticing how often you make mindful choices rather than focusing on the times you don’t. In turn, that boosts your confidence and keeps you motivated.

Can anyone improve their happiness?

You might be thinking this sounds good, but you wonder if it’s possible for you. Maybe you feel like you’re Eeyore, someone who’s just genetically set at a lower happiness level.

The good news is, anyone can improve their emotional well-being. As Achor points out, “While we each have a happiness baseline that we fluctuate around on a daily basis, with concerted effort, we can raise that baseline permanently….” (p. 50)

9 ways to boost happiness

Okay, so if you can boost happiness, how do you actually do it?

Everyone has to find the approach that works for them. But Achor does suggest a number of strategies to try – and I’ve added one, too.

  1. Meditate, even if it’s just a few minutes a day

  2. Find something to look forward to

  3. Commit conscious acts of kindness

  4. Infuse positivity into your surroundings

  5. Make time for a breath of fresh air

  6. Exercise

  7. Spend money on experiences, not stuff

  8. Do something you’re good at

  9. (mine) Add humor to your day

Does it really work?

Now, if you’re like me, you might be asking, does this really work? For real people, not just in studies?

I can only speak for myself, but so far, after trying a few of these strategies over the past week, it does seem to be making a difference. Here’s what I’m doing.

In the morning, I take two minutes for silent meditation, just breathing and patting Salem. (I’m a big advocate of lap cats as part of meditation, or just general happiness.)

Then I spend five minutes visualizing what my life will be like once I’ve made the changes I want. When I do this, I imagine it in as much detail and with as much emotion as possible. This is my way of finding something to look forward to.

Also, even before this, I often get outside on most days, but sometimes I’m too caught up in my thoughts to pay much attention. So I’ve been trying to stop for at least a few deep breaths to look around and appreciate nature, even if I’m downtown and the nature is a pigeon.

And I’ve been trying to deliberately include some humor in my day. This could be an episode of a funny show, a YouTube video, laughing at the antics of the cats or the squirrels outside, fun photos, or reading amusing quotes. These ones from P.G. Wodehouse are a good example of what I enjoy.)

And here’s a photo that always makes me smile – blue footed boobies are just funny to me.

The result? I do seem to be happier. I also have to say I was much less stressed about going to work on January 2 than I was on December 26, and I feel like these changes have helped. It also seems like I’m able to focus better, and that actually makes me happier, too.

So – if this sounds even remotely interesting, you could give it a try. Or at least think about how you define happiness, and what makes you happy. What comes up for you? I’d love to hear it.

And next week I’ll let you know about another experiment in happiness.

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