Emotional Health

How to Have a Happy ‘New Year’

How we spend our time, it turns out, is a very effective way to increase happiness. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that people who spend large chunks of their day commuting are disgruntled. But many of these same people could increase their level of happiness by doing some relatively simple tasks each day. Martin Seligman, who is sometimes called the father of positive psychology, has many recommendations in his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman has developed a series of exercises and recommendations that are designed to increase life satisfaction. Based on empirical research and data, he has created an institute for further and study.

There are some fundamental ideas that underlie researchers’ findings. People who have the capacity to live in the present usually report higher levels of satisfaction. This makes intuitive sense. We all know how unpleasant it can be to spend time regretting the past. Worrying about the future is no better. What surprised Seligman most, however, was the capacity for happiness that was linked to skills,   which can be developed and refined. One of the most important skills we can learn is “mindfulness,” defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” This has become an important therapeutic tool in recent years, as we have learned how much staying “present” can enhance our experience of life. Of course, Buddhists have been practicing this technique for centuries, as have yogis, but Western science is catching up and confirming its value through data.

Another “skill” is the capacity for gratitude. People who are grateful for what they have, and better still, remain aware of their gratitude, are happier for it. Seligman and others have found the simple act of writing letters to people we want to thank or feel grateful to, can significantly increase happiness. Similarly, asking subjects to keep a “gratitude diary” shows a marked effect. Perhaps this is one of the factors that contribute to the finding that people who are religious are happier as a group: many religious rituals center on reminding us of our blessings and thanking our creator for them.

Another consistent finding is that spending time with others is beneficial to mood, health, and almost everything else that can be studied. Religious affiliation may help here as well, in that it can provide community involvement and support. But essentially, there are simple things you can do today that reliably work to enhance happiness. The website Happify Daily (happifydaily.com) has five questions you can ask yourself:

  1. What do I have to be thankful for today?
  2. How can I make today even better?
  3. What do I have to look forward to?
  4. Who am I inspired by and why?
  5. How can I best serve the world?

It’s clear how keeping positive and proactive thoughts in the forefront of your mind is important. This can be difficult at first, especially if you are used to being overwhelmed by worries. We all have them, but we also have blessings. Ironically, though being “present” has been found to be so important, some of these techniques emphasize the future — “looking forward” to something. Our present moments are not all worthy of being savored, but if you can take yourself out of that traffic jam by thinking about something good that’s coming up, it can help. People sometimes report that anticipating a vacation can be as enjoyable as taking one.

As more and more work is being done in the field of positive psychology, neurologists are busy looking for the physical areas in the brain that underlie position emotions. Researchers at Kyoto University may have found the “sweet spot”:

“According to Wataru Sato, Ph.D., and his research team at the Japanese university, overall happiness is a combination of happy emotions and satisfaction of life coming together in the precuneus, a region in the medial parietal lobe that becomes active when experiencing consciousness.” ().

Especially intriguing is their finding that people who experience more happiness and less sadness have a larger precuneus. Their “happy area” is bigger — it takes up more real estate in the brain — in other words. It will be very interesting indeed to see if this part of the brain can be influenced to “grow” as a result of our life experiences or skills training. We know that depression can shrink the brain, as I reported last week, so it may be that the reverse is true. Are we physically destined for happiness potential, beyond which we cannot go, as we are in some characteristics like height or eye color, or can brain growth occur and is it possible to enlarge the part of our brains that might be associated with happiness?

Meanwhile, as this is being investigated, you can start today to make this a good day, a positive season and a better year. Actor Michael J. Fox, who has been suffering from Parkinson’s Disease since his 30s, said, “Happiness is a decision.” Instead of hoping to win the lottery, (which is notorious for causing more grief than pleasure,) spend a few minutes each day asking yourself why it’s good to be you, and feeling thankful to the people who helped get you to where you are. Better yet, get in touch with them and others that you love. Make plans for the future — even small ones — that you can look forward to. Appreciate the good moments, small and large. A year is just a series of days, and if we can learn and practice the habits of positive psychology, they can add up to a happy new year.

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