Happiness is our holy grail and our measure of a life well lived—not to mention the topic of countless books, TED Talks, and apps. But what exactly are we searching for? Scientists devoted to answering that question define happy people as those who have a positive temperament, social confidants, and the resources to make progress toward the goals they value. Put plainly, "it's the joy we feel as we move toward our potential," says Michelle Gielan, the author of Broadcasting Happiness and founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, in Dallas.
The good news is we're generally content as a country, but there's room to grow. In the 2018 United Nations World Happiness Report, which asked people in more than 150 countries to assess their life on a scale of 1 to 10 (based on markers like life expectancy, GDP, and social support), Americans rated their lives at a not-too-shabby 6.8. But that's nearly a point behind the top three—Finland, Norway, and Denmark—which rated theirs over 7.5. (PSA: No one, not even Norwegians, can maintain a 10; that would be exhausting!) According to experts, there are clear obstacles in our way of feeling deeper fulfillment every day. Learn how to surmount them.
Happiness Hurdle: Our Primal Brain
There's a little thing called the negativity bias. Thousands of years ago, it gave humans an advantage: We were ever-ready to dodge life-and-death danger. Now it means we're hardwired to notice and store negative experiences more than positive ones. A single critical comment can knock the wind out of an otherwise great day.
Pausing for a minute to appreciate something sweet or beautiful helps us override the negativity bias. To get in the habit, Gielan suggests taking a photo each day of something that makes you smile and laugh, or feel lucky and loving: your sleeping child, an incredible meal, a pink sunset, your funniest old friend. Then, at the end of the week, look at them again all together. Doing so "trains your brain to watch for moments to capture," Gielan writes in Broadcasting Happiness. "It refocuses your attention on the positive, meaningful parts of the day, and shifts it away from stress and negativity." Soon you won't even need to snap pictures to feel that pleasant sensation.
Happiness Hurdle: Going It Alone
Isolating yourself is a surefire way to feel down. The happiest people have rich and satisfying relationships, according to 2002 and 2018 studies by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania; and Ed Diener, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and the University of Utah. While it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum (do joyful people naturally invite more meaningful bonds, or vice versa?), a strong social network is a win-win.
You can overcome this hurdle by reaching out to others. That doesn't mean you have to cram your calendar full. An easy starting point is to try opening conversations with an optimistic comment, a tactic Gielan calls a "power lead." Greet a coworker with "I just listened to a great podcast" instead of "I'm so tired," or ask your kids, "What was the best part of your day?" rather than the rote "How was your day?" The shift is subtle but can foster an immediate positive connection.
Happiness Hurdle: Living in 2021
The ring. The raise. The last seven pounds. We can all fall into the trap of thinking we'll be happy the minute X, Y, or Z happens. "The problem is that this pushes happiness into the future," Gielan says. "When you focus in the present instead, you get your brain to concentrate on what is working in your life."
Instead of constantly thinking ahead, try to stay in the moment. The idea of centering yourself is at the core of mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to increase activity in the left part of the frontal region of the brain, the area responsible for positive emotions like optimism. Ralph De La Rosa, a therapist and mediation teacher, and author of The Monkey Is the Messenger , suggests waking up with a "5-3-1-1" practice. While still in bed, take five big, deep breaths. Think of three things you're grateful for. Smile one real smile, and set one intention for your day. Habits like this pay big dividends. Not only can being more present give you a sunnier outlook, Gielan says, it also may help improve your energy level and your performance at work; it's even been shown to up students' test scores. The other bonus might be the world's best-kept career secret: When you zero in on the good happening now, Gielan notes, you're more likely to excel.
Happiness Hurdle: The Social-Media Vortex
"Compare and despair" is no joke. It's easy to look up from a long scroll thinking that everyone's life is a party but yours. We don't need experts to tell us this habit is eroding our self-esteem, though a 2014 study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture proved just that. Newer research has pinpointed just how destructive it can be. A 2017 study published in Journal of Affective Disorders found that the more time 18-to-22-year-olds spent on social media, the more likely they were to have symptoms of anxiety.
Set aside time daily to disconnect each day. Start with small increments; even 10 minutes counts. Then work up to being phone-free for the first half-hour of the morning, at meals, and during the last hour before bed, since both your phone's lighting and its irresistible pull detract from quality sleep—a must-have for combating anxiety and stress.
Happiness Hurdle: Incoming Worries
Speaking of stress, Americans report feeling more fried than ever. In January 2017, the American Psychological Association found a statistically significant increase in stress levels for the first time in its annual survey's 10-year history. A 2018 follow-up found that we're as anxious about the future of our country (63 percent) as we are about evergreens like money (62 percent) and work (61 percent).
Still haven't put down your phone? Step away: It's one big reason we're all hopped up on headlines. Then think of tangible ways to diffuse what's vexing you, whether it's having a heart-to-heart with your mom or using an app to monitor your spending. If you're still reeling, take a deep breath. Research shows that when our exhale is even a few counts longer than our inhale, the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain down through the neck to the diaphragm and abdomen, tells our nervous system to chill out. Our heart rate drops, our blood pressure lowers, the blood vessels relax, and the whole body physically calms down. Inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale with a soft haaaaaaa sound, until your lungs feel completely empty. (Repeat this 10 times, with a three-second pause between breaths, for an even more satisfying release.)
Happiness Hurdle: Spinning Our Wheels
We all feel stuck sometimes—in an unfulfilling job, a draining relationship, or just a "meh" state of mind. It turns out that means we might be striving for the wrong things. People who shoot for personal pleasures (or extrinsic goals), such as fame and wealth, are demonstrably less happy than those who seek personal growth, relationships, and community (intrinsic goals), per a 2009 University of Rochester study. Researchers asked graduating college students about their aspirations, and followed up two years later. Those who pursued extrinsic goals reported greater anxiety and poorer physical health despite their accomplishments, while the group with intrinsic ones cited greater well-being and self-esteem as well as fewer physical signs of stress.
Topple this hurdle by finding a purpose. Actually, make that plural: purposes. Think of what drives you in various areas of your life—your personal, family, work, and community roles. "We have complex lives," says Victor J. Strecher, Ph.D., a health-behavior and health-education professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and the author of Life on Purpose. "We don't care about just one thing." A multipurpose mind-set helps us prioritize and find balance, he says. When we catch ourselves glued to our email and ignoring our family, we can think, Is this really serving my purpose here? Then we can turn back to things that do—the stuff that truly makes us feel happy.
Kelly DiNardo is the coauthor of Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom Beyond the Mat.
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This article originally appeared on MarthaStewart.com