Social media is filled with inspirational quotes, videos and photos meant to encourage us to be happier. But are some people just born happier than others?
It’s an interesting question, to be sure. But even the researchers looking for a possible “happiness” gene agree that genetic factors are only one piece of the puzzle.
That means a closer look at the role of our environment and social relationships may hold the answer to why some people are happier than others — and why even those of us with a cloudier viewpoint can improve.
What Does It Mean to Be Happy?
Tal Ben-Shahar, an author who has lectured in psychology at Harvard University, defines happiness as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning ... a happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving his or her life as purposeful.”
For those of us who don’t quite fit that definition, is happiness truly attainable? Advances in psychology, neurology and chemistry suggest that it is.
A developing field called neuroplasticity offers evidence that the brain can change for the better. A related field, positive psychology, uses two major goals to promote “optimal human functioning.” One is to measure and understand human strengths and virtues — hope, wisdom, creativity, perseverance and satisfaction. The other goal is to build these strengths and virtues.
Other research suggests those with a higher sense of purpose may live longer and experience less illness. A 2007 study found that participants who had a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance also had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
4 Steps to Being Happier
So what is the secret to improved happiness? Studies point to these four factors:
- Be social. Spending time with family and friends may help you keep a positive outlook and slow down your biological aging. Studies have shown that as we age, loneliness leads to higher rates of depression, health problems and stress.
- Meditate. Try taking 20 minutes a day to practice mindfulness. Learn to quiet your mind and focus your attention on the present. Ban disruptions that spoil your concentration.
- Exercise. Regular exercise can boost your physical and mental health and help you cope with stress. Being active may also improve your body image. A study from the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised felt better about their bodies even when they didn’t see any physical changes.
- Sleep. Sleep helps our bodies recover from the day while helping us to focus and be more productive. And a lack of sleep can affect our ability to be positive. A 2012 study showed that sleep-deprived people couldn’t remember happy memories, but they could recall unhappy memories.
Do you need help?
Although it’s possible to become happier with lifestyle choices, there are times when you should seek help. If you feel a sense of hopelessness, a loss of interest in activities, persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings, or have thoughts of self-harm, please talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Sources: The biology of emotion—and what it may teach us about helping people to live longer, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2011; 7 ways to boost your happiness, CNN.com, Jan. 19, 2015; The Power of Concentration, The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2012; Why Does Exercise Make Us Feel Good? Scientific American, July 1, 2012; Nocturnal Mnemonics: Sleep and Hippocampal Memory Processing, Frontiers in Neurology, May, 2012; 6 x 40 mins exercise improves body image, even though body weight and shape do not change, Journal of Health Psychology, Feb. 9, 2012; Families Are Changing, But Still Key to Happiness, U.S. News & World Report, April 2, 2012; The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, Bruce Feiler, 2013