What is happiness, really?  And, how do I get there?

What is happiness, really?  And, how do I get there?

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As we all know, life has its ups and downs, its sideways, a few reverses and its beautiful, peaceful pauses. One thing I know for sure is the power of community and connection. Together we can celebrate the amazing, support each other through the awful and make the ordinary more extraordinary.  
As my oldest child finishes his final year of high school and prepares to leave the nest, I am filled with ups and downs and wanting more pauses. There are moments of excitement, sadness and nervousness (and the full rainbow of human emotions). When we chat about what he may want to do next with his life, I come back to my heartfelt wishes for him - that he will be happy and healthy, and create a meaningful and fulfilling life. 
A friend (thank you Elizabeth!) sent me this cartoon recently that really made me think about the advice and examples we set for our children and made me wonder - what is happiness really, what makes us happy, what makes a fulfilling and meaningful life?  

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Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, studied the relationship between happiness and success at Harvard. He found that, contrary to what most of us were taught, success doesn’t bring happiness, rather happiness brings success. Achor's funny and informative TEDTalk is worth watching and really made me think about what really makes me happy. His talk presents great food for thought and conversation, and some valuable parenting advice can be found there as well!  

The biggest takeaway from Achor's talk is that we need to debunk the myth that our external word is predictive of our happiness. We often see others who appear to "have it all" and we ask ourselves, "What could they possibly have to be unhappy about?"  As Achor explains, embedded in that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness, and the more common misunderstanding that happiness comes from our external world.  

In his talk, Achor says that we have been looking at happiness and success all wrong. We have been taught that if we work harder, we will be more successful. And, if we are more successful, then we will be happier.  Yet, in his research Achor found that 90% of our long-term happiness is predicted by the way our brains process the world around us and not by our external world. Instead, happiness is an inside job, shaped by how we choose to view the world and ourselves.  If we change our understanding of happiness and success, we can change the way we see the world and we can learn to be happy now, rather than make our happiness contingent upon some future success.

What are the predictors of success?  

Interestingly, Achor found that 75% of career success is predicted by three things:

  1. Optimism level
  2. Social support
  3. The ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat

He discovered that when the brain is in a positive state, it performs much better than when it is in a negative, stressed or neutral state. The good news is that we can cultivate all three of these in our lives. Through neuroplasticity, which is the ability to change the way our brains work through mental exercise, we can rewire our neural pathways to be more optimistic and to approach stress in a healthier way.  

How can we flex our mental muscle and use neuroplasticity to our advantage?

In The Happiness Advantage, Anchor gives these three inexpensive and easily accessible tools that can change our mental patterns in just a few minutes each day.   

(1) Practice Gratitude - Create a daily habit of listing three things each day that you are grateful for.  Buy a small journal or make a gratitude log on your phone.  Set a time each day and make your list. The time commitment is minimal but the result can be quite extraordinary. This simple practice "turns on" the positivity pathways in your brain and will rewire your brain for more optimism.

(2) Meditate - Creating a habit of meditation each day will help you develop the mental "superpower" to stop your unhelpful mental ruminations and constant distractions that keep you stressed, imbalanced and unfocused. Just a few minutes each day will help you train your brain to focus on what is actually happening and give you a break from the unhelpful tornado of thoughts that whisk you away into stress and worry. Take a class, upload an app and give it a try.  

(3) Random Acts of Kindness - Write a note of thanks, pick up the phone and call a friend, or simply open the door for a stranger. Performing acts of kindness each day will help you cultivate a positive mental state, increase your daily dose of happiness and keep your brain functioning optimally. 

It's a new year full of endless possibilities, so why not make this a year of happiness and success through these simple steps.

For more information on meditation and mindfulness classes, click here.