Happiness is not a destination; it is a way of life. I have this ‘pearl of wisdom’ on a large wooden piece of art on the wall of my home office. I see it, read it, and think about it daily. I don’t have to try hard to be happy as I am a gregarious guy. My wife calls me the party closer. We will typically be the last ones to leave any party, with my wife saying, “Well, you did it again; you closed the party, nobody else for you to talk to, so I guess it’s time to go.” I may follow that up with, “Dang, you’re right. I hope I had a chance to talk to everyone.”
She will laugh and say, “Oh yeah, I’m sure you did, several times over.”
I reflect on happiness as I stare at the Happiness poster. It then brings me to another favorite quote, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the Key to Success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” By Albert Schweitzer. I have this hanging in the bathroom in my clinic. Why, may you ask? Well, don’t ask. I am doing what I love, treating patients a couple of times a day when visiting the bathroom. Now don’t think that my home and office is full of those wooden signs with the catchy phrases on them like the Saturday-night-live sketch of Aidy Bryant accepting nothing but these gifts from her friends. However, they do create a great deal of laughter. I feel blessed that I decided to become a physical therapist back in 1976 when I was a high school freshman playing football. An injury led me to a life of studying rehabilitation. Thirty-eight years of helping people find relief from pain, improve function, and get back to work have been rewarding. The most rewarding part of my work is the people I work with. I have built a team of like-minded people to deliver successful healthcare in the clinic. From my office staff to the PTs who provide the healthcare to the aides that help with patients, I feel grateful they are all happy working together each day.
In last month’s column, I wrote about the healing powers of nature and how spending time in nature makes most people feel good in so many ways, and how our body systems function better. If nature can heal AND make us happy, then it is only fitting to spend more time outside enjoying our parks, trails, lakes, and rivers.
The research around happiness and wellness is linked very closely. Let’s dive in a bit more here. During the history of psychology, this branch of science studied disorders such as anxiety, depression, and violence. The clinicians’ goal was to treat patients’ states from negative to normal. After World War II, positive psychology developed as a new area. Positive psychology includes such contents as Happiness, Life quality, Optimism, and others. For decades, researchers have tried to study and understand happiness predictors. Some researchers believe that happiness is due to genetic and inherited factors, and others believe that happiness is caused by environmental factors like high income, education, and being active. The results of many studies suggest that just one or two factors do not cause happiness, but they result from several factors. Two general factors influence emotions in individuals. Happiness as an emotion is a widespread interaction between internal and external factors.
In 2014, psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, launched an online course designed to teach students how to become happy in just eight weeks. It worked. Thousands of students took the class: Science of Happiness. The students learned about the science of connectedness, compassion, gratitude, and mindfulness. Most importantly, the students completed a series of simple activities that research suggests increase happiness. The students that fully participated saw their positive feelings increase each week. They reported less sadness, stress, loneliness, anger, and fear. At the same time, they had the positive effects of the activities by feeling more amusement, enthusiasm, and affection, and a great sense of community. Students’ happiness and life satisfaction increased by about 5% during the course. That improvement lasted up to four months after the class ended. Therefore, we can change our emotions with activities that have been proven to do so. Teaching happiness and positivity has marked changes in people’s attitudes for decades.
Here is a list of science-based activities/exercises that can help you become more positive and, therefore, happier.
1. Enhance your social connections
The research is overwhelming that close relationships with spouses, family, friends, and community members are the most significant factor in keeping people happy. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, stated, “Good relationships keep our bodies healthier and help us live longer.”
2. Engage in random acts of kindness
This is a favorite of mine. I love doing random acts of kindness. A simple compliment to a cashier or stranger in the store or opening a door for someone can make someone’s day. By activating your brain’s reward system, you feel good that you made the other person feel good.
3. Express gratitude
While taking a few writing classes in the past, I was taught to express one to three things I was grateful for each day when journaling. Many writers use gratitude writing to mine for their muse. This activity trains your brain to orient itself to the good parts of your life instead of directing your attention to stressful or irritating things.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Meditation teaches your brain to focus on the present instead of the past or future. One can increase feelings of self-acceptance. Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, states, “Don’t judge your emotions, but recognize them.” I find the repetition of prayer to work for me as that can be meditative.
5. Practice self-compassion
This exercise can be a tough one for many. There are three parts to self-compassion, which are closely linked to mindfulness. Be present in the moment rather than worrying about the past or being anxious about the future. Understand that setbacks are part of being human and very normal, and all people experience them.
The holiday season is here. We have choices. We can just get through it, or we can play an active role in being a participant in some of these activities that can create happiness. Since you are reading this column in the ‘healthy’ Tuesday section on election day, I suggest turning off the TV and radio. I think you’ll feel a lot happier.
John Seivert is a doctor of physical therapy and he has been practicing for 34 years. He opened Body Logic Physical Therapy in Grass Valley in 2001. He has been educating physical therapists since 1986. Contact him at bodylogic2011@ yahoo.com