The other night I watched a charming documentary on Netflix called “Happy.” It’s directed by Rocko Belic, Oscar nominated director of “Genghis Blues,” who travels the world interviewing both average joes and respected scientists trying to figure out just what it is that makes us, well, happy.
The scientific research in the film features the work of Ed Diener and Richard J. Davidson, two prominent psychology professors who specialize in researching the science of happiness. Through their work, they’ve actually discovered that there is a “happiness center” in the brain, located in the left prefontal cortex, that enlarges when a person is happy. And, with further research, they’ve been able to decipher which things–which values, activities, and circumstances–in our lives cause these changes in the brain to create a state of happiness.
Surprisingly, happiness doesn’t come from what you might think.
The research, as well as the personal anecdotes from people the director connected with on his journey, showed over and over again that it is our values, moreso than status or success, that have the most to do with how happy we are. For example, practicing compassion regularly does more to stimulate happiness in the brain than making a lot of money.
It’s easy, in our day to day lives, to get caught up in the grind and to lose sight of the small things that really and truly makes us happy, but finding the time to experience joy is so important to our overall well-being. Ed Diener’s research even shows it can help us live longer! It’s vital that we make it a point to focus as much on our mental and emotional health as we do on our physical health. Here are a few easy ways to do just that:
- Keep a gratitude journal: Once per week, write down 5 things you’re thankful for. It can be anything, from having a few extra dollars in your pocket to having a deeply loving and supportive partner. Just taking stock of what’s good in your life can vastly improve your overall satisfaction.
- Commit random acts of kindness: When you focus on what you have that you can give to others, you stop focusing on the things you don’t have. Plus, kindness is contagious, and who doesn’t want to spread more love?
- Connect with friends: Plan a get together with your pals. It can be something simple, like a walk at the local park or a potluck where everyone brings a dish and helps out with each other’s kiddos. Just taking time to appreciate the people in your life will deepen your relationships and increase your joy.
- Make time for family: Love them or hate them, they’re the ones who will always be around. “Happy” points out that people with family ties tend to feel more satisfaction in their lives overall. And it’s not even necessarily about unabashedly loving all of your relatives. It’s just about being supportive and respectful of one another. So, go call your mom!
- Exercise: You’ve heard this one a million times, but that’s because it’s true: people who get some kind of physical activity in their day tend to be happier; however, this doesn’t mean you have to spend an hour at the gym or go train for a marathon. Take a walk, play basketball with your kids, or put on your favorite album and dance around the kitchen. Movement doesn’t have to mean punishment. Do something you enjoy!
- Pick up a few hobbies: In a world where we spend so much time fulfilling obligations, it’s important to take time every now and then to do things that make us feel relaxed and happy. Make time for what you love, no matter how busy you get.
- Try new things: It’s hard to be happy when you’re bored out of your mind. Spice things up! Try a new recipe, take the scenic route home from work, or try a different park with the kids. Novelty doesn’t have to mean doing something crazy. Just find new and creative ways to do the things you already love.
Of all our occupations, the most essential is our joy. Don’t be afraid to make yours a priority.