Only a healthy body can host a healthy mind. This is something we learn in our early years. However, what we are not taught is that it goes the other way around as well. While a healthy body is important in maintaining mental well-being, being happier has a significant and positive impact on your health as well as success as we know it. Research has shown that being happier reduces your chances or heart and problems related to blood pressure as well as your chances of being diabetic. It is also beneficial for people already diagnosed with any such problem. It reduces your stress levels, improves your physiological health and can increase your overall life expectancy. With all these benefits, however, we generally lack the understanding of what brings happiness and how it generally works. Below I have compiled seven habits to make you happier you can improve your happiness level with simple explanations to gain a better understanding of how it works.
Change your happiness formula
This is more of a lens through which we see the world and ourselves than a habit. Traditionally, what we believe is that we need to work hard to be more successful and once we become more successful, then we will be happier. This is how most people think, and growing up, this is how we are raised. However, this formula of success and happiness is flawed and scientifically invalid.
What we need to understand is that happiness comes from within, and not from something external. Shawn Achor, an esteemed scholar, and a Harvard Graduate and Ph.D. write in his book, The Happiness Advantage, that looking at all the external factors surrounding a person such as a successful career and how much money one makes, it is only possible to predict 10% of their long-term happiness. The rest of the 90% depends on how they view the things that they have and the world around them.
The problem with our traditional formula for success is that when we think that success, or other external things, bring us happiness; but we can never achieve it. We tend to raise our targets once we reach our goals, whether it be money, a successful career, or better grades, hence we keep chasing the ever-increasing standards. We put happiness on the other side of something that we keep pushing backward.
The good news is that our brains work in a completely different way. Dopamine, the same hormone that is responsible for our happiness, also opens all the learning centers in our brain. This means that if we are happier, our brain learns, adapts and performs better, in turn making us more successful. This is the exact opposite of what we are taught all our lives. Therefore, it is important to free ourselves from the notion that other things bring us happiness. We need to remove preconditions to our happiness and be grateful for the things that we have now. Only then we can be happier and in turn more successful in life.
The list of gratitude
Carrying on with the theme of reengineering the concept of happiness, this little exercise can help you rewire your brain and the way you look at the world as a whole. Now that you have realized that your happiness does not come from the things that you may or may not achieve or acquire in the future, it is time to start understanding what you have in life and what brings joy to your life.
The exercise is simple. Every day you wake up, make a list of 3 unique things that you are grateful for. It may be your family, your job, your friends or the simple fact that you have been given another day in this world. The list will differ from person to person however, the impact of this exercise is uniform. Do this exercise for at least 3 weeks and it will start changing your perspective. Making the list of gratitudes will prove one of the best habits to make you happier.
Once you start your day listing the things that you are grateful for, it immediately provides your brain that boost of positivity that will keep with you throughout the day. Over a longer period of time, it will start changing the way you look at the things you have and will automatically reprogram your brain to see the positive in other people and things, allowing you to be happier and bringing more joy to your life from the things that you already have.
Exercise is not just for your body. Studies have shown that people who are more active, apart from reaping physical health benefits such as lower chances of developing diabetes and conditions related to the heart, also have a much lower chance of going into depression. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins into your brain. The function of endorphins is to reduce the perception of pain from the exercise. However, the same chemicals also trigger a positive feeling in the body, keeping you more active, relieving stress, and boosting your general level of happiness. Exercise makes your body healthy for a long time and it is one of the proven habits to make you happier.
The problem with exercise is that we usually associate it with hard work and gym memberships. However, it does not necessarily have to be that way. If you are someone who struggles, like most other people, to incorporate exercise into your routine, there is an easy way around it. Find a way of physically exerting yourself that you really enjoy doing. This can be activities like rock climbing, dancing or competitive sports that you can enjoy with other friends. This will not only provide you with some physical exercise but will also let you enjoy that activity, doubling the benefits as it does. You can also find communities of people who enjoy that same activity, giving you a further chance to socialize, engage with other people, and making new friends.
Broaden your comfort zone
One of the interesting things that I realized living abroad, during my university years, was that going out of my comfort zone was challenging at first, but the more I did it, the happier I got. This was something new and counterintuitive for me but is as true today as it was back then.
Our comfort zone includes all those activities that are easy for us to do, that feels natural to us and everything that we are used to. Our minds are always trying to keep us in our comfort zone as much as it can, making a false sense of insecurity, or the fear of the unknown for the things outside our comfort zone. However, it is not an indicator of whether something is good or bad for us.
By keeping us inside our comfort zone, our minds create inertia towards many things that, among other things, are potentially good for us. These activities may include things like exercise, learning a new skill, or simply making an extra effort towards eating healthy. However, by overcoming that inertia (which only exists in our minds), we can achieve two things. First, we can broaden our comfort zone to include things that are beneficial to us in the long run. Second, by overcoming that make-believe fear that our mind has created, we get a sense of achievement, releasing dopamine into our system and improving our general level of happiness.
It goes without saying that smiling is a universal indicator of happiness. And the smile is one of the habits to make you happier quickly. However, while we all know that happiness causes us to smile, it also goes the other way.
Research has shown that our body language has a strange connection to how we feel. Some gestures are universal expressions of specific feelings. When looking at the Paralympics, we see that the winners in a race of people without sight always make the same gesture at the end of the race with their arms raised and face towards the sky, even if they have never seen someone else doing it in their lives. This is a clear indicator that some form of body language is connected to how our brain works.
Amy Cuddy, an established researcher on body language, took the concept a bit further and what she found was very interesting, to say the least. She found that while our moods have a great impact on our body language, it also goes backward. If we sit in a more confident posture, it induces more confidence, and if we smile more, it does make us happier.
A strange thing that I observed is that I have always felt more empathy towards others when I was at the low points of my life. Later on, I learned that it is because of a mechanism built into our minds that help us in coping with such low points in our lives. When we help others, it is not only the one at the receiving end of the help that benefits. Helping others also benefits us in a lot of ways.
First, by helping others, we become less self-centered and more aware of the problems of others. It helps us gain a better realization of the fact that we are not the only ones with problems in this world, and that there are other people with bigger problems. This makes us more grateful and more appreciative of the things that we have.
Second, by helping others, we become a part of something bigger than ourselves. We develop a sense of purpose and belonging. Becoming more than just oneself, and a part of a community helps us develop stronger friendships and more meaningful relationships. It helps boost our self-esteem and in general help, us become more optimistic and happier.
Always keep learning
Human beings are unique in a way that curiosity is inbuilt in us. Once I finished my studies and started focusing full time on my career, I started feeling something missing from my life after some time. Over time, I realized that it was my brain craving for more knowledge and learning opportunities because my job was not providing me those opportunities.
Scientists have found that people as old as 90 who actively seek to learn and develop new skills retain their ability to learn. These people have generally happier and healthier minds as compared to those who stop learning. Research has shown that subjecting yourselves to challenging scenarios that provide learning opportunities are good for developing healthier and happier minds. It also reduces the risk of developing a number of mental illnesses in the later years of your life.
Incorporating ways of developing new skills and acquiring more knowledge into your routine helps you to be more productive as well. It broadens your knowledge horizon and improves your problem-solving skills by enhancing creative thinking. By developing more knowledge, you gain a sense of achievement. You become more confident and your general level of happiness improves over time.
A good way to incorporate learning into your routine is reading. It can include reading anything from books to magazine articles. You can start with learning about things that you have a keen interest in. Once you get into the habit of learning, you can also start developing skills that will help you in your career development. This way you get dual benefits out of this habit: the increased skills leading to a more successful career, and an improved level of mental activity leading to a happier self.
Spend time with real people
In this digital age, we are too busy with our day to day lives, overwhelmed with too much to do and too little time. Where technology has changed many other aspects of our lives, one of the most pronounced changes in our lives that it has brought is interpersonal communication.
It started with the telegram and the telephone connecting people from across the world. However, with the advent of social media, the rules of the game have changed. We spend more time communicating with others through our computers and smartphones than we do in person. All this is good when it comes to practicality, but the importance of real human interaction stays irreplaceable. The selection of real people is one of the best habits to make you happier and keep yourself away from stupidity.
One of the four hormones that are responsible for happiness is called serotonin. Serotonin is released when we make physical contact with our loved ones. It is responsible for that thrill when you see the love of your life, and the joy you feel when your child gives you a hug.
Research has shown that while social media interaction can be a trigger for dopamine (another happiness hormone), it does not release any serotonin to your brain. This leaves you high when you get all those likes on your Instagram photos, but with a general feeling of emptiness towards all those “e-friend” that you have. In order to build more meaningful relationships, it is important to spend time with them in real life, in person. You should deliberately take time to unplug yourself from all the electronic media and go meet your friends more often. Go to a bar, meet new people. Find others who share your interests and plan activities with them. Nothing can compensate for real human relationships.
Follow a routine, but do not be afraid to break it
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” This is one of my favorite quotes by the famous Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Although it focuses solely on the destructive side of following a routine day in and day out, a general structure to your life is also beneficial.
Starting a day and knowing what you are going to do all day has a certain sense of comfort to it. It helps you be more organized as well as more productive. As long as you wake up excited for the day ahead, it is all good. However, following a fixed routine for a long period of time brings an unwanted rigidity into your life. It starts making you more agitated and irritable and after a certain period of time. Therefore, it is important to break free from the structured life once in a while.
I remember the days when my friends and I would all go out for a long drive in the evening after work, all calling in sick the next day after finding ourselves in towns unknown to us hundreds of miles away. Such unstructured life is not good if you are doing it too often, but once in awhile, it is important to have an empty space in your plans. To travel, not knowing where to. To order something that you cannot even pronounce. To try new things that you have never tried. While structure brings comfort, such activities provide more joy to life.