Happiness is dependent on the meaning we assign to our stress.
For many months now, I’ve taken to heart the wisdom and findings of Harvard happiness researcher and author Shawn Achor and put into practice his simple advice. It appears a good time to share some of it, with happiness seemingly in short supply.
During the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have dramatically increased, and 40% of Americans report struggling with a mental health condition (including anxiety, depression and trauma). Women are twice as likely to suffer than men in their same age group. Younger adults, minorities and those most directly affected by COVID (frontline workers, survivors, the unemployed, etc.) have experienced disproportionately worse outcomes.
Happiness is a choice. At least, science says so. According to the research, external factors such as wealth, physical environment, educational, marital and family status account for only 10% of the variability of happiness between any two people. Ninety percent of our happiness is predicted by how our brains process the external world. This 90% is exactly the part we can change.
First, some distinctions: happiness doesn’t equal pleasure. While pleasure is a temporary, active, emotional state largely derived from external circumstances, happiness is internal. It is based in joy and a deep sense of peace. You can experience joy without pleasure, and it can even coincide with fear or pain – think: childbirth, a new adventure, taking risks you believe will have positive outcomes, etc. Achor defines happiness as “the joy you feel moving toward your potential.” Defined this way, we see the substance of happiness.
Happiness also doesn’t mean being blind to suffering. Sugar-coating things doesn’t make them better. Blind optimism, in fact, divorces us from reality, contributes to poor decision-making, and delays problem-solving. While pleasure-seeking and blind optimism can curb ambition, joy does the opposite. Joy turns on the brain to its highest levels of functioning: it increases problem-solving abilities, triples creativity, raises intelligence and memory, and increases business, educational and health outcomes. As a bonus, when we raise happiness levels for ourselves, a ripple effect changes the lives around us for the better.
Happiness isn’t freedom from stress. Happiness is dependent on the meaning we assign to our stress. Seen through the right lens and in the appropriate context, stress can have positive effects on our physiology and our sense of self. The most meaning in our lives is created, almost invariably, from high-stress situations and the resiliency and creativity we apply to manage it. We are most powerfully shaped by the stressful circumstances we survive and even prevail. Finding the meaning in stressful situations changes them from a negative to a positive experience, and can alter their outcome and physiological impact.
We can transform stress by doing the following:
- Acknowledge the stress. (See it and name it.)
- Connect the stress with meaning. (Why do you care about this thing in the first place?)
- Take the energy of the stress response and channel it toward the meaning. (See the experience as worthwhile and allow it to increase your motivation, determination, sense of purpose and passion.)
Applying a mindful pause to our discomfort can be the magic required for transformation. While these steps don’t dissolve the stress, they diminish its negative impact. Stress is inevitable, but its effect on us is not, and our mindset is the mediator.
We tend to think genes plus environment equals potential. This is problematic because it leaves us at the mercy of things over which we have no control – what we are born with and what happens to us. While genes and environment set the initial baseline for happiness, applying small positive changes to our daily patterns changes the trajectory of our happiness, no matter our circumstance. The more consistent our practice, the greater the reward. It’s the lens through which we view our reality that changes us and our confidence in shaping it.
Five Actionable Paths to Happiness: Four of these take two minutes a day; the fifth takes more.
- Gratitude. Every day, share or write down three NEW things for which you are grateful. Strive to make them different each day and give details. List the WHAT and the WHY. Remembering small things can have more impact than big things.
- Experience. Take two minutes to journal one meaningful experience that’s occurred in the past 24 hours. Write down three details about it. As you recollect the details of an experience, your brain doesn’t differentiate between past and present (actual experience and visualization). You then commit that positive experience to deeper long-term storage and double its impact. By attaching meaning to one event, your brain judges your entire day through a lens of greater meaning and creates pattern-habits of positive perception.
- Movement. Studies show that 15 minutes of cardio just three times per week is the equivalent of taking a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. Exercise also seems to be a “gateway drug” that leads to other positive changes and the motivation to undertake them.
- Meditation: Follow your breath for two minutes. This simple action significantly reduces stress and anxiety while increasing concentration and access to joy.
- Connection: Take two minutes to write a text or email praising, thanking or encouraging one new person each day. This can create an ecosystem of happiness that not only strengthens our connections to others, but our relationship to ourselves. The greatest predictor of long-term happiness is our social connectedness and how deeply and meaningfully we feel connected to others. Social connection is as predictive of our longevity as obesity, hypertension and smoking.
Twenty-one days of these practices will turn them into habits.
In addition to these actionable steps toward happiness, naturopathic medicine offers a wide compendium of natural pharmaceuticals and approaches in the field of naturopathic psychiatry. For those needs, please see me at Aspen Integrative Medical Center in downtown Flagstaff. I’m here and so very willing to help. FBN
By Dr. Kären van der Veer, NMD
Dr. Kären van der Veer has more than 20 years of experience as a physician, acupuncturist and educator. Her career has been defined by her passion for and devotion to serving others. She currently teaches at Northern Arizona University and sees patients at Aspen Integrative Medical Center, located at 323 N Leroux, Suite B, in Flagstaff. For more information, call 928-213-5828.
Originally Appeared On: https://www.flagstaffbusinessnews.com/accessible-happiness/