In this episode, we’ll talk about some things I’ve learned about how to be happy and why it’s relevant to productivity.
Happiness and making a life that matters
The topic of happiness has been on my mind a lot lately, especially because of how life has been over the last year. We’ve dealt with the pandemic and all that’s come from that, as well as other world changes. It can affect our happiness and how productive and healthy we are. Today I thought I would go into more detail on the subject of happiness.
What does it mean to be happy?
Dictionary: hap·py| ˈhapē | adjective (happier, happiest)
1. feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
(happy about) having a sense of confidence in or satisfaction with (a person, arrangement, or situation): I was never very happy about the explanation | I can’t say they looked too happy about it, but a deal’s a deal.
According to Wikipedia:
The term happiness is used in the context of mental or emotional states, including positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. It is also used in the context of life satisfaction, subjective well-being, eudaimonia, flourishing and well-being.
Since the 1960s, happiness research has been conducted in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including gerontology, social psychology and positive psychology, clinical and medical research and happiness economics.
I don’t believe we should expect to feel happy every minute of every day. After all, we live in the real world. Hard things happen. Sad things happen. We need and choose to do things that aren’t fun.
And the truth is, happiness only has meaning in a world where we experience sadness and disappointment and anger and all the other emotions.
So when I talk about being happy, I’m not talking about creating a world where every minute we feel bouncy and upbeat and joyous. I’m talking about creating a life in which our baseline is happiness, where when hard or sad things happen we’re able to process them, feel those feelings, and rebound back to that baseline happiness, where generally we find joy and peace and contentment in our day-to-day lives.
“happiness isn’t something that just happens to you. Everyone has the power to make small changes in our behavior, our surroundings and our relationships that can help set us on course for a happier life.” (from a New York Times article, How to Be Happy)
Why is happiness relevant to productivity?
Happy people are more productive! In this podcast, we talk a lot about getting things done, but we also talk about ordering our lives in such a way that we have a positive impact on the world and defining our lives in a way that is important to us. Our life will be more meaningful and matter more to the extent that we are happy in our lives. If we are happy, we are able to accomplish more.
“probably the best way to be more productive is to just be happier. Happy people accomplish more.” (from an Inc. magazine article, 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy)
How to be happy–things we can do
1. Learn to understand and accept who you are.
Trying to be someone you’re not is the surest way to be unhappy at a deep, permanent level. This doesn’t mean you can’t recognize your weaknesses and flaws and try to improve, but learning the difference between personality types and flaws is important. For example, introversion is not a character flaw (check out Susan Cain’s fascinating book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking).
Get to know yourself. What makes you tick? What motivates you? What makes you smile? Figure out those things, and build more of them into your life. Create an environment that honors who you are and make your space a place that is perfect for you. Establish routines and habits that feed you and surround yourself with people who love and understand you.
2. Let other people be who they are
Expecting other people to be like us or to change is a source of frustration, anger, and deep unhappiness. This is true of changing behavior, opinions, attitudes, etc. When we try to insist that other people change their thoughts, beliefs, etc., to match ours, I think it comes from unconscious insecurity about our own beliefs–a fear that if others don’t think, believe, or do as we do, it says something about what we think, believe, or do.
I became much happier when I accepted the fact that other people can think what they want, believe what they want, and do what they want, and it means absolutely nothing about me. I have to remind myself of this often. I can interpret another person’s actions as they saying something about me. In the past, for example, I would think “If he loved me, he’d __________.” I learned that this simply wasn’t true, it was not a reflection on me.
This doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries, or that you have to accept behavior or treatment that’s not acceptable to you. You can allow people to be who they are and choose not to have them in your life. But learning to recognize and manage our expectations about other people might be one of the most important things we can do to be happier.
3. Practice being present – finding the good in the present moment
It is hard to enjoy, much less find happiness in, the present moment and its activities if our mind is elsewhere. Dissatisfaction and unhappiness can result when our minds are consumed with the future or rehashing the past.
Future – This could be in the form of worry about what might happen or thoughts of “I’ll be happy when X happens”.
Past – reliving the pain, anger, embarrassment . . .
I saw something on Facebook today that speaks to me in this area:
“We all have a past. We all have made choices that maybe weren’t the best ones. None of us are completely innocent, but we all get a fresh start every day to be a better person than we were yesterday.”
This is something I need to remind myself of when I start to go down that path of beating myself up over things I’ve done in the past that I regret. Give yourself permission to be happy now, rather than waiting for the “someday”. We can give ourselves permission to be happy now instead of waiting.
As another part of being present, learn to slow down a little. We sometimes sacrifice happiness for efficiency, moving quickly through everything we do to get it done and get on to the next thing. Instead, slow down, be very present, savor each experience, even if it’s something as simple as folding the laundry. Let yourself be happy in that moment.
4. Stop comparing
Teddy Roosevelt is often quoted as saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” In a Psychology Today article, Amy Summerville, PhD, says “Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind.”
We often go through our days comparing ourselves to other people. Our appearance, accomplishments, actions, homes, cars, clothes, kids, jobs, . . . We almost always feel we fall short in some areas. But we can learn from each other without measuring ourselves by each other. (This goes back to giving yourself permission to be who you are . . .)
Choose to live a life consistent with your own values, rather than letting others’ lives define yours.
“When you start to explore yourself and your values, you may discover that you’ve known all along what would make you happy, but you’re just not doing it. To be happier, get clear on your values, so that you can live your life autonomously, according to your own principles and values.” (from How to Be Happy: 23 Ways to Be Happier on PsychologyToday.com)
5. Surround yourself with people who have a grateful, positive approach to life
There isn’t much to be said about this…if we are surrounded by negative, critical people, we will tend to mirror that same perspective. If we want to be happy, we need to have an uplifting and positive view of life. With these kinds of people around us, we will mirror that same attitude.
6. Take care of your body
It’s hard to be happy and content if our bodies are not well cared for. Be sure to get sufficient sleep. A lack of sleep affects our mood, our outlook, our willpower, and more. Research shows sleep-deprived people are more sensitive to negative emotions and sleep helps us process our emotions.
“Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories yet recall gloomy memories just fine.” (from 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy, quoting Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children)
Here are a few tips to help you build a better sleep routine (quoted from Healthline article on How to Be Happy):
- Write down how many hours of sleep you get each night and how rested you feel. After a week, you should have a better idea how you’re doing.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends.
- Reserve the hour before bed as quiet time. Take a bath, read, or do something relaxing. Avoid heavy eating and drinking.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
- Invest in some good bedding.
- If you have to take a nap, try to limit it to 20 minutes.
- If you consistently have problems sleeping, talk to your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder requiring treatment.”
When it comes to taking care of our bodies, getting adequate exercise is important too. As that same Healthline article reminds us:
“Regular exercise can help to reduce stress, feelings of anxiety, and symptoms of depression while boosting self-esteem and happiness. Even a small amount of physical activity can make a difference. You don’t have to train for a triathlon or scale a cliff — unless that’s what makes you happy, of course. The trick is not to overexert. If you suddenly throw yourself into a strenuous routine, you’ll probably just end up frustrated (and sore).”
Go for a walk if weather permits–the fresh air and sunshine can help, too! Plenty of studies showing those who spend time in nature get a boost in their overall sense of well-being and happiness.
Be sure to eat quality food. Fueling our body well affects our mindset and certain foods contribute to mood. The writers of the Healthline article on How to Be Happy note that:
“Carbohydrates release serotonin, a “feel good” hormone. Just keep simple carbs (foods high in sugar and starch) to a minimum, because that energy surge is short and you’ll crash. Complex carbs, such as vegetables, beans, and whole grains, are better. Lean meat, poultry, legumes, and dairy are high in protein. These foods release dopamine and norepinephrine, which boost energy and concentration. Highly processed or deep-fried foods tend to leave you feeling down. So will skipping meals.”
7. Guard your mind–be intentional about what you feed it
Social media feeds discontent and unhappiness, which we’ve talked about many times in the past. All we see on social media is the highlights of someone’s life, which can lead to discontent and comparison.
Make time each day for some kind of uplifting content; a book that inspires you or a movie that makes you laugh.
Avoid participating in negative gossip or complaining sessions.
8. Do kind things for other people–they get the benefit of it, but so do you.
Studies have shown that people who volunteer for the benefit of others are happier.
“In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives: ‘…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.’” (quoted in 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy)
Look for opportunities to compliment someone else (for example, if you’re in an elevator with another woman and you like her sweater or shoes or whatever, say so instead of just thinking it). Create a habit of doing something kind for someone each day–whether someone in your household or a stranger.
9. Understand that your happiness is entirely within your own control
I spent many, many years believing my happiness was dependent on things outside myself: how Mike treated me, how my kids behaved, what other people thought of me, what kind of house I lived in, what job I had. It was a revelation to me to learn the truth: my happiness (or lack thereof) is not created by my circumstances, but by my own thinking. This was a huge relief and incredibly empowering because while I cannot control my circumstances, I can control my own thinking. (I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s far more doable than changing my circumstances or other people.)
Joshua Becker, on his Becoming Minimalist blog, said it this way:
“The most important thing to realize about happiness is that it is not an outcome of current circumstances. Just the opposite, happiness is a choice. Is this easier on some days than others? Absolutely. But if you get caught in the trap of thinking your circumstances need to change before you can be happy, you’ll never, ever get there.”
Don’t forget to practice gratitude.
Daily, practice looking for the positive in all things; practice thinking kindly toward others and yourself.
Pay attention to your self-talk and learn to be aware of the stories you tell yourself about events and what they say about you.
For those of us who feel like we’re pessimistic by nature, these things might be hard, but we can create new habits and new neural pathways, that lead toward happiness–we can retrain our minds to think in ways that produce happiness.
What do you think?
Resources and Links
- How to Be Happy: 25 Habits to Help You Live a Happier Life
- How to Be Happy – Well Guides – The New York Times
- Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy? | Psychology Today
- 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy | Inc.com
- How to Be Happy: 8 Ways to Be Happier Today
- How to Be Happy: 23 Ways to Be Happier | Psychology Today
- 14 Tips to Live a Happier Life – How to Be Happy
- How To Be Happy: 20 Ways To Be Happier Today
- The Burden of Better: How a Comparison-Free Life Leads to Joy, Peace, and Rest, by Heather Creekmore (our guest on episode 45)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
- The Minimalist Home, by Joshua Becker
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