What makes one person happier than the next? It's not money. It's not the circumstances into which they are born. It's not even what happens to them in this uncertain world. Positive Psychology, often referred to as "the science of happiness," generally suggests that happiness is largely dependent on learnable habits.
Our brain changes with experience, and we get good at what we practice. The neural networks that you exercise become stronger, and eventually the thought patterns and mental habits that are being represented by those neural networks get stronger and become effortless and automatic.
The most powerful way to change your brain is not actually medication, it’s behavior, because that’s what it’s designed to change in relation to — not just any behavior, specifically mental behavior or mental habit. William James called habit “the basic structure of mental life.
This Happiness Map is my own elucidation of some of the habits and principles espoused by Positive Psychology.
Notice the starting point. It's mindfulness. That's the first step to happiness. Once you've developed a habit of mindfulness, there are three tracks to follow to reach authentic happiness: gratitude, self-care, and altruism.
Learn These Happiness Habits
Mindfulness is the single most important happiness habit. Research shows that contemplative practices, such as mindfulness meditation, can literally change the brain. Bringing focus and awareness to your behavioral patterns is a prerequisite to making different choices. Whether you choose yoga, meditation, journaling, or some other mindfulness practice, just be intentional and stick with it.
This article on the habits of supremely happy people cites the appreciation of simple pleasures as one of the key indicators of happiness. An attitude of gratitude will help you find joy in every day. Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, has demonstrated that gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds, and our relationships.
In his article, "Why Gratitude Is Good," he writes, "Gratitude journals and other gratitude practices often seem so simple and basic; in our studies, we often have people keep gratitude journals for just three weeks. And yet the results have been overwhelming. We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits."
Writing for Psychology Today, self-compassion expert Kristin Neff says, "Most people ... feel compelled to create what psychologists call a 'self-enhancement bias' — puffing ourselves up and putting others down so that we can feel superior in comparison. However, this constant need to feel better than our fellow human beings leads to a sense of isolation and separation."
So how do we get off this treadmill, conquer this perception that we need to feel superior to feel better about ourselves? In her TEDxTalk video, The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion, Neff declares that self-compassion is the answer.
In an insightful article called The Difference Between Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem, Grace Bezanson makes these important points:
- Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not linked to self-evaluation. You should feel compassionate towards yourself because all human beings deserve compassion.
- Self-compassion frees us to be ourselves. It "removes all the veils that hide the parts of yourself that you do not like, allowing for clearer, big picture-thinking and the recognition that you are only human."
Here are some key benefits of self-compassion:
- Since self-compassion does not depend on external circumstances, it is always available, even in the midst of personal suffering and hard times.
- With self-compassion, we need not fear failure. And failure can be a good thing.
- Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation.
- Self-compassion makes us stronger, happier, and more generous. Being kind to ourselves can counteract depression, anxiety, and stress.
"People who engage in kind acts become happier over time... When you are kind to others, you feel good as a person ― more moral, optimistic, and positive."
Virtually every leading psychologist agrees: When it comes to pursuing activities that can boost our happiness, helping someone else is a surefire strategy.