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Five Ways to be Happier

Are we doomed to gloom if our genetic predisposition is towards melancholy? As a mental health therapist, I would prefer not to tell my clients that they are just doomed to gloom due to their genes.

Research shows that external factors have very little impact on our overall happiness. Our beauty, income, education and even health do not influence our levels of happiness. A major catastrophic bad event also has very little impact on our overall happiness.

The reason these external events do or don’t impact our overall happiness is because of our brain neurochemistry. Using brain imaging, scientists conclude that when something new happens, they can see neurons firing rapidly to new stimuli and once they habituate to the situation these neurons respond less.

Studies of paraplegics and lottery winners prove the point. After a year of the major life-altering event, their set point of happiness returned to the same level before the big event, which leads one to believe that genetics plays an important role in overall happiness.

Most of us think we would be happier if we made more money. We strive to buy a bigger home or the newest and latest technology gadget. Lyubomirsky reports that we just get used to these new things and return to our original “set point” of happiness before we purchased these items.

My mother-in-law, whom I adored, said to me, “Show me a couple buying a big new beautiful home, and I’ll show you a couple in trouble.” Over the years, I have seen that play out several times in my own personal life. She may have been on to something.

It works the opposite way in daily hassles. Daily strife makes people very unhappy. We never get a chance to adapt to the daily annoyances, which creates an overall sense of unhappiness. These conditions are constantly changing without any time to adapt.

It’s important to understand that a set point of happiness is not our destiny. A genetic predisposition to happiness or melancholy is similar to being thin or heavy. It may be hard at times, but we can improve our overall happiness.

Just as daily hassles can decrease our overall happiness, we can put into practice some daily rituals to improve our overall happiness.

Here are five ways to improve overall happiness.

  • Do Yoga – Be Happy – Research from Boston University School of Medicine reports that yoga makes you happier than walking.  Yoga increases our GABA levels, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain.  Walking did not show a significant increase in GABA levels.  Depression is linked to low levels of GABA. Yoga can do as much as an anti-depressant can in altering our brain chemistry.
  • Meditate – Be Happy – Meditation also impacts your brain’s basic structure. Researchers at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin hooked meditating Tibetan monks up to brain monitors.  The monks left prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is most active when happy, lit up like a Christmas tree.
  • Build on your strengths and don’t try to fix your weaknesses – Be Happy – Use one of your five strengths every day for a week in a different way. It takes a lot longer time to fix our weaknesses and a lot less time to use those strengths to help you fulfill your destiny. List five of your strengths and move towards following your bliss.
  • A gratitude letter, Be Happy – Write a letter to someone who has been lovely to you over the years and thank him or her for the richness they provide to you in your life.
  • Volunteer, Be Happy – We are an ultra-social species. We are happiest when we are fully engaged with something that is greater than ourselves.

My daughter who is 13 had emotions that were on a roller coaster ride. She woke up in tears and said; “I don’t know why I feel so sad right now.” I asked her to attend my yoga class with me. She did and discovered the power of Zen. She began to drag me to the yoga class at 5:30 a.m. before school. Her emotions have stabilized and she is forever grateful to yoga.

Yes, being happy is something we can improve. But, we have all had those melancholy days. What do we do with those?

Buddha suggests that we enjoy them. We need to put on all the sad music and sad movies. It is nothing more than the yin and yang of life. We want to relish in that sadness and realize that tomorrow the sun will rise and it is the dawn of a new day.