2020 New Years Resolutions: Recommendations for a Happier Year and Life

What is happiness and how can we get and keep it? Can happiness be pursued, or does it have to do with our inborn temperament, gender, or race? 

It's possible that throughout our history, the primary aim of all men has been how to get and keep happiness, and how to recover it if lost. But why do we know so little about this state of mind? 

Thankfully, we know a lot more today. 

As cholesterol is, in part, influenced by diet and exercise, happiness is influenced by several researched-based ways of being. While cholesterol levels and happiness scores are genetically influenced, to a certain extent, the important thing to remember is that we have control over both of them (Nes, 2010; Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014). The following list is adapted from David G. Myers, The Pursuit of Happiness (1993).

  1. Commit to memory: long-lasting happiness does not come from financial success. The truth is we adapt to any life change by shifting our expectations. Wealth in the form of extra earnings as the CEO--or any other circumstance we yearn for in our career--will not derive happiness. Money brings value to one's life, but only to a certain extent. Hence, the age-old adage "money can't buy you happiness" is ever more important in a world that markets more and more money. 
  2. Do you ever wonder why things marketed on social media are in between pictures of your friends? These are people who make you happy, of course, but don't conflate the two. Only one can truly enrich your life. But if the best things in life aren't things, then what should you purchase? Buy shared experiences. Contrary to what Apple markets, money spent on things does not fill a happiness void. Yet, money spent on experiences that you anticipate, savor, look back fondly on, and bring up buys more happiness than inanimate objects (Carter & Gilovich, 2010; Kumar & Gilovich, 2013). Evidence suggests that this correlation is strongest for socially shared experiences (Caprariello & Reis, 2013). Stated differently, travel by yourself at least once, but make sure you travel with your tribe more often. 
  3. Be in charge of your time. Simply put, happy individuals feel in charge of their lives--they don't feel like they are at the whim of someone else's timeline or a slave to a demanding, thankless job. In order to successfully navigate the 24 hours we are given, set goals and divide them into daily conquests. The amount of time we have in a day is very small when you subtract good quality sleep and hearty meals. We tend to overestimate how much we can actually do in a day, albeit, we also tend to underestimate how much we can do in a year. Happy people know good things take time, and they honor their time by respecting the process. We accomplish a lot more when we do a lot less. Time is everything because it's the most important thing we have and can share with others.
  4. Put a smile on your face. "Acting" happy is easier said than done. Most people don't like “putting on a smile” when they're upset. It works though. When you smile, others smile back. So, think and talk as if you radiating positive self-esteem even if you are not feeling it at the moment.  Believe that your life’s purpose is to spread optimism to every corner of the world as if you are the most outgoing person you know. Your smile will eventually come naturally. 
  5. Use your skill set at work and at play. It should be no surprise that happy people are often involved in challenging, but not overwhelming activities. This is a zone known as flow which can be either active or passive. Watching TV provides passive flow experience than active flow experiences such as socializing with friends, walking barefoot, playing a musical instrument, or speaking a second language.  In other words, seek out work and leisure activities that speak to you and provide active flow experience.
  6. Move. Repetitive physical activity formed a daily part of our ancestors' lives. We now have the luxury to move in ways that we love regularly. Doing something you don't enjoy over and over won't make movement feel as good as it should. Whether you jog, dance, or garden, regular physical exercise in a variety of activities increases serotonin, “our happy hormone” and keeps sadness low (Airan et al., 2007; Ilardi, 2009; Jacobs, 1994). Running for two hours enhances activation of the brain associated with euphoria (Boecker et al., 2008). 
  7. Give your body deep, restorative sleep. Unfortunately, many people wait until everything is done before they go to bed.  The problem is their body often do not have sufficient time allocated to relax and naturally fall and stay asleep. These people are often in a chronic state of sleep debt. Since optimal sleep is critical for engaging in the most intensive cellular repairwork and recharging organ systems, chronic sleep debt leads to poor production of cellular energy.  A person is not fully recharged for functioning at their highest capacity and hence, may experience gloomy moods, foggy brain, fatigue, or other vague physical symptoms. Happy people rarely feel this way since they overcome the sleep debt by setting aside time for renewing sleep and solitude (see number 3). If you give yourself time to relax before bed by just “being” and sufficient time to sleep (i.e., 8 hours), your body will naturally awaken feeling refreshed and ready to live an active and happy life.
  8. Nurture and prioritize your closest friendships. Do not take your loved ones for granted. Intimate relationships help one weather life's hardships. Being vulnerable with and confiding in others heals the soul in ways we don't fully understand. Unlike unhappy people, happy people spend more time engaging in meaningful conversations and less time in superficial small talk (Mehl et al., 2010). In the United States, it's custom to ask "How are you?" to someone you haven't seen in a while. "I'm doing well" is often said as a reflex, even if it's not true, for fear of having to further explain when you don't have the time or energy. We repeat the same question back and get the same answer. Then we go on our merry way. But what if our custom were different? The northern Natal tribes in South Africa greet each other by saying, “Sawa Bona,” which means “I see you.” Their response, “Sikhona,” means “I am here.” I see you. I am here. Through this exchange, they tell each other "when you see me, you bring me into existence. I am fully present. I am here because I see you." Imagine if we went about our day with this personal validation from everyone we encountered--validation for being seen for who we are. These are meaningful words. Honor others with the kind of warmness you would like to receive, affirming them, sharing with them, and playing with them. Build a community where everybody is somebody.
  9. Focus beyond self. A happy person does not think “me, me, me” all the time. Happy people reach out to others in need and perform acts of kindness. Why? Because happiness increases helpfulness. In other words, those who feel good do good. The reverse is also true: doing good also makes us feel good.
  10. Count your blessings, and write it down. Research shows that keeping a gratitude journal noting positive events and how they came to be heightens well-being (Emmons, 2007; Seligman et al., 2005). When something good happens bask in the experience (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2012). 
  11. Care for your spiritual life. For many people across the world, faith provides something no pill ever could: a supportive community, a reason to focus beyond self, and a sense of purpose, hope, and a greater understanding. This clearly explains why those active in faith communities report greater-than-average happiness and often cope better with crises. 

 

These suggestions show how any of one of these simple lifestyle interventions can brighten your mood and enhance your life satisfaction. If these recommendations seem incredibly general, it’s because they are. 

Take time to consider how you can alter your mindset. We can all start somewhere with making small steps that feel good to us. 

References

Airan, R. D., Meltzer, L. A., Roy, M., Gong, Y., Chen, H., & Deisseroth, K. (2007). High-speed imaging reveals neurophysiological links to behavior in an animal model of depression. Science, 317(5839), 819-823.

Boecker, H., Sprenger, T., Spilker, M. E., Henriksen, G., Koppenhoefer, M., Wagner, K. J., ... & Tolle, T. R. (2008). The runner's high: opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cerebral cortex, 18(11), 2523-2531.

Caprariello, P. A., & Reis, H. T. (2013). To do, to have, or to share? Valuing experiences over material possessions depends on the involvement of others. Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(2), 199.

Carter, T. J., & Gilovich, T. (2010). The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(1), 146.

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ilardi, S. S. (2009). The depression cure: The 6-step program to beat depression without drugs. Cambridge, MA: De Capo Lifelong Books. (pp 550,600).

Jacobs, B. L. (1994). Serotonin, motor activity and depression-related disorders. American Scientist, 82(5), 456-463.

Kumar, A., & Gilovich, T. (2013). Talking about what You Did and what You have: the differential story utility of experiential and material purchases. ACR North American Advances.

Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness: Mechanisms underlying the success of positive activity interventions. Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides, 473-495.

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on happiness: Well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations. Psychological science, 21(4), 539-541.

Myers, David, G. (1993). The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering the Pathway to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy. William Morrow Paperbacks.

Nes, R. B. (2010). Happiness in behaviour genetics: Findings and implications. Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(3), 369-381.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). The challenge of staying happier: Testing the hedonic adaptation prevention model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(5), 670-680.

Author
Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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