So, you want to be happy, and you want science to help you? Seems reasonable. But what exactly should you do to give yourself the best chance for a happy life?
Happiness occurs in the mind on two levels, the physical and the (for lack of a better word), spiritual. In fact, most psychologists find it’s about a 50-50 split – half of your happiness is due to how you feel about your life, and the other half is the physical mental process in your brain.
Today, we’re going to examine the physical half of happiness. If you’ve read the previous instalment in this series, you’ll know that we can learn a lot about the physical component of happiness from examining our cultural legacy. If you haven’t read it, the basic recap is this – our brains have barely changed in the last 200,000 years, but our environment has changed beyond measure. We’re living in a strange world which doesn’t make sense to us. We’ve are maladjusted to the new reality. However, we can use that knowledge to our advantage. In this blog, we’ll use that information to extrapolate practical tips that you can use to maximise your happiness. So, here are 10 tips you can use to give yourself the best chance of feeling good:
1) Focus on immediate goals – One major change in our culture is the shift from what is called an Immediate Return Environment to a Delayed Return Environment. The former basically works on the grounds of “we want, we take”. We seek to immediately gratify desires, and immediately solve problems. In the latter, which is the world we live in now, we have to work towards long term goals. We need to save money for retirement, we need to think about career progression, we need to study for exams. Worse still, there’s no guarantee that it will pay off. We could fail the exam, or get fired from our job. The problem arises from the fact that our brains haven’t fully adapted to this. We have created existential anxiety, a novel concept to our Palaeolithic brain. Instead of thinking about the long term, like passing an exam, think about the short term, like what you’ll study that day. When you’ve finished, think about what you’ll study tomorrow. Take each day as the totality of your concern. A day is manageable, and the timeframe that our brains are developed to understand.
2) Do more with less – Sometime in the 1980s, the idea of “having it all” entered the popular lexicon, and has hung around like a bad smell in a carpark stairwell ever since. Too many people are driven by the idea that they need to live a certain kind of life, that they need to have achieved [random goal] by [arbitrary date] or they’ve failed at life. While we are a materialistic society in one sense, we also consistently fail to value the materials we have. We have six pairs of wearable shoes but still covet a new pair that’s currently in vogue. We drive a perfectly serviceable car but feel discontent because it’s not a Lamborghini. Instead of fixating on the things you could have, or the way things could be, look at what you do have. Chances are that you’re not maximising the potential of your current life. Don’t waste time pointlessly fantasising or ruminating when you could be out doing things that you’ll enjoy.
3) Make time for leisure – Our hobbies are often seen as guilty pleasures, minor things that fill the gaps between our main purpose of working. We’re scorned for “goofing off” and doing things that don’t seem to have a purpose. This is perhaps one of the most harmful misconceptions to have come out of Western society. Playing isn’t a childish thing beneath the dignity of adults, nor a personal indulgence of the lazy. Play, whether it be a board game or a sport or messing around with a pottery wheel, has proven benefits for time management, attention, memory, spatial abilities, and problem solving. People who give equal weight to study and leisure time tend to do better on exams than those who spend all their time studying. This all helps you function better in the world, which directly makes you happier.
4) Introduce novelty – How many of us are stuck in routines? We get up, we go to work, we go home. Maybe we go to the gym once a week. It’s the routine. But routine isn’t good for happiness. Routine deadens the part of the brain that stimulates dopamine, because we’re not engaging our full mental faculties. By doing different things, finding new experiences, you introduce an aspect of novelty to your mental processes, and activate the creative part of your mind. This engages your higher consciousness and makes you feel more active rather than reactive to your environment, which makes you feel more alive. Even just taking a different route to work in the morning can have a positive impact. Go out for a walk without knowing where you’re headed, and just follow the road. You may discover a new place you didn’t know existed. You may meet a new friend. If you do the same thing every day, the odds are that nothing will change.
5) Do meaningful things – It’s the weekend; what are you going to do? Spend an hour listlessly flicking through the films on Netflix, before reluctantly settling on one that looks like it might not be entirely terrible? Lie on the sofa and scroll through your phone for the thousandth time? Sure, it might keep you distracted for a bit, but it won’t make you feel good. Do things that make you feel like you achieved something at the end of it. It doesn’t have to be spectacular – anything like reading a (decent) book, gardening, baking, and doing arts and crafts, can be something that feels meaningful.
6) Get out in the wilderness – Humanity has an intrinsic connection with the wild landscape. Sure, it can represent danger and scarcity and an obstacle to overcome; but it is also the boundless reality of the natural order, the manifestation of the physical intertwining with the ethereal. It is where we feel at home. Make time every so often to go for a walk in the woods, or failing that, the local park. Maybe even go camping. Also, oppose logging and fracking.
7) Adopt good posture – You know the expression, “keep your chin up”? You should take that advice literally. Our mind is tied to our body in a very strong way. Certain mental processes trigger reflexive physical movements. In primates, dipping the head down and hunching the shoulders is a reflexive act in the face of a challenge from another member of the troop. This happens because it’s more protective; hunching your shoulders and curving your spine slightly is a move to protect your vital organs, while the dipping of your head means that a thrown punch will likely connect with the solid bone of the cranium rather than the delicate jaw or nose, lessening the potential damage. This action is triggered by a chemical change in the brain, which also generates panic and distrustfulness. What’s particularly interesting is that it works both ways. If you adopt this posture for long enough, the brain triggers that anxiety in response to your body. The way we stand can directly affect the levels of cortisol and testosterone in the brain. Next time you’re feeling worried or sombre, something simple as standing with your head up and your back straight can be helpful. Also, pushing your shoulders back opens the airway, allowing you to take deep breaths which can help fend off panic attacks.
8) Cultivate close relationships – How many of us sit there smugly looking at our Facebook page with our 5,000 friends, when in reality we haven’t gone to meet them or even spoken on the phone in months? It’s easy to do, but fundamentally bad for us. We depend on close relationships with people who care about our wellbeing, and vice versa. This issue slightly disguises itself, because many of us see people every day at work, or when we’re out and about, so we don’t always consciously feel that sense of isolation. We talk to lots of people, so it feels like we’re socialising. But how many of these people could you count on during a crisis? That barista you exchange idle chatter with probably isn’t going to donate a kidney when you need it. Whether it’s friends or family, we all need to know at least one person has our back on when it hits the fan.
9) Do something that scares you – Do you know why the horror movie industry makes billions every year? Or why theme parks and sky diving trips aren’t going out of business any time soon? It’s because people thrive most when exposed to low level of danger. Most of us (in the Western world, anyway) don’t face life-or-death situations on a regular basis, which is undeniably a good thing, but we have evolved to expect a certain level of adversity. Facing threats (and, crucially, coming away unscathed) is good for us. It kicks us out of the stupor that modern life breeds. Do something that makes your heart race, or makes you jump. Some people try to avoid danger and unpleasantness at all costs, but that’s not helpful. Facing danger in small doses builds resilience for when you have to face more serious hardship, and you’ll deal with it better.
10) Limit time spent on social media and news – We’re naturally drawn to the extreme, weird things that happen around us, because our brain is designed to give attention to anything that could be a threat. It’s why true crime is a thriving business. The news plays on this. It feeds us stories of the latest mass shooting, or terrorist atrocity, or moral panic, because we eat it up. Social media is the psychic needle that delivers this nightmarish torridness via a hot injection straight into the amygdala. The thing is, your brain can’t distinguish vicarious danger from actual danger, and treats it all as an actual threat. Seeing stories of bad things happening creates a growing sense of unease. We aren’t built to shoulder the burdens of the entire world. We’re only supposed to have to deal with things that directly affect us. Do you ever watch all this with a growing sense of panic, and then look out of the window and notice it’s perfectly calm outside? That’s your answer – turn off the computer, put down your phone, and go out for a walk.
And point number 11 – Remember that you don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s perfectly fine to be unhappy sometimes, even without a reason. There’s something cathartic about a moment of anger, about directing an invective towards somebody you don’t like. Life is frustrating, and refusing to acknowledge when something has triggered a negative emotion will just lead to the pressure building up. Sometimes, being happy means letting the world know exactly when you’re not happy.
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