The Pursuit of Happiness Begins in the Brain

Are you happy? Don’t overthink your answer, don’t parse it into happiness in some parts of your life but not others, happy about certain things and not others. These mental gymnastics are clever ways to avoid the central question – are you happy? It’s a simple but profound question about how you show up in the world. Your degree of happiness can have a significant effect on your health, ability to concentrate, productivity, even your love life. According to the latest United Nations World Happiness Report, the opposite of happiness – misery – is on the rise in many parts of the world. If you’re curious about where your home country ranks in overall happiness, you can get a free copy of the report here. By the way, the U.S. isn’t even in the happiness top 10.

Why does happiness matter?

It is well-established that happy employees are better, more productive workers who tend to stay around, yet a recent Gallup poll indicated that only about 32% of American workers report that they enjoy their jobs. As learning professionals, we must care about happiness, because a happy brain is more receptive to learning and changing behavior. An unhappy brain goes into “fight or flight” mode, making it resistant to new ideas.

How can you be happier?

Aristotle said that “Happiness depends on ourselves,” and today we know that our plastic brain is constantly changing, giving us a never-ending opportunity to choose a happier life. Here are a few ideas culled from recent studies:

Throw unhappy emotions away – literally

Your brain cannot tell the difference between a strongly imagined experience and a “real” one, which is probably why the participants in one recent study felt so happy after throwing out descriptions and drawing of their unhappy emotions.

Stop buying possessions; start cultivating experiences

When you buy a thing, your joy of ownership tends to fade over time. However, experiences become more valuable the more times you revisit them in your memory. One study indicated that physical possessions are always being compared to those of our friends and neighbors. Sooner or later, you will run into someone with a better toy, and you feel unhappy about your purchase. But vacations, hikes in the desert, even a quiet moment with someone you love – each of these experiences is completely unique; they defy comparison to others’ experiences.

Give your brain some oxytocin – by giving to someone else

We are hard-wired to be social and part of that social framework is supporting and helping each other. Even very young children will experience the joy of sharing a treat or a toy with a friend. It turns out that helping someone else gives you a “helper’s high,” that floods your brain with neurotransmitters that make you feel great – and support brain health, too.

Meditate

A study of Buddhist monks determined that they are four times happier than the average person. The discipline of meditating helps them control their thoughts, focusing on more positive emotions and eliminating negative thoughts like anger, jealousy, anxiety and fear. Even a few minutes a day spent meditating can make a huge change in your overall happiness.

Happiness is a choice

The U.S. Constitution supports our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But that doesn’t mean happiness is given to us. As Ben Franklin said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

So, let me ask you again – are you happy?

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