My father used to say that everyone has their own “happystat”; kind of a mood-regulating thermostat that returns us to our habitual baseline level of contentment regardless of what’s happening around us.
When it’s warm out, it’s easy to stay comfortable. When things get chilly, the system has to work harder. Either way, we subconsciously work to maintain the same ambient “temperature” year-round.
Now, life is full of challenges, and some of them are brutal. If you are in an abusive relationship, struggling with addiction or illness, or facing serious threats to your stability in your employment or living arrangements, please take compassionate but firm action to shift those things – it’s impossible to feel your best when you are fighting for survival. But even while you work to improve your situation, there are things you can do to push your default settings a little higher and bring more joy into your daily life.
Here are six ways to crank up your happystat.
1. Pretend life is a game, and the rules are tipped in your favour.
Actually I think this is true, but you don’t have to agree. Even acting as-if will have an effect on your mood. Why? Because when you assume there is benevolence around you, you will behave more courageously and less defensively, and you will stop feeding your adversaries. Assuming that you will be successful more often than not will raise your confidence and reduce your anxiety. In other words, it makes you happier.
Mental tip for hyper-rationalists: You might balk at this advice on the grounds that it sounds like self-deception. You don’t want to dupe yourself into assuming that the universe is friendlier than maybe it actually is. Maybe you think that doing so will make you more vulnerable to disappointment, or just soft in the head. But hear this: The people with whom you share the planet are undeniably responsive to your attitude and behaviour. We can’t really prove for sure whether the universe is for us, against us, or indifferent, but if believing that forces around you are conspiring for your good brings about a better experience, why not go ahead and believe it? It’s no less rational than believing that the world is inherently hostile, and you’ve probably been doing that for years. Just try it, for a day, a week or a month, and notice the difference in how you feel.
2. Notice as many nice things as you can.
Nice things are all around us all the time. So are crappy things. Unfortunately, our reptilian brains are wired to pay disproportionate attention to the people and things that we find threatening or unpleasant. It’s rooted in a survival instinct, but it goes too far when it unnecessarily colours our experiences in a negative light.
Here’s an example. I live near a busy urban intersection that is constantly crawling with activity and attracts a lot of down-and-outs. The trash cans are always overflowing, and it’s not uncommon to see people begging from grubby bedrolls on the sidewalk. Those things are wrong, and rightly upsetting. Of course I notice them every time I encounter them. But they’re not the only things happening on the corner. If I let myself fixate on those unfortunate situations I might miss the young mooney-eyed couple sharing an ice cream (or more likely a cigarette, in this neighbourhood), or the elderly lady dressed to the nines at the bus stop.
It’s not about viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses. It’s about taking off the crap-coloured ones, and allowing some of the world’s idiosyncratic beauty to add to the story of your day.
3. Give graciously.
Generosity toward others might be the best magic bullet around for boosting your feeling of well-being.
– You feel good about your own human kindness.
– You increase your sense of plenty while decreasing your sense of lack.
– You send a message to your subconscious that help is available to you too, sometimes coming from the most unexpected sources.
There is need all around us, and many ways to meet it. Contributing financially beyond your obligations – even just a little bit – is a powerful way to put yourself in a mindset of sufficiency and offset any anxiety you might feel around money. You don’t have to put yourself in the poorhouse; just pick up the tab for coffee with a friend, tip well, give your loose change to someone who needs it. If you’re really broke, there is always something you can give: a compassionate ear, help with a chore, an introduction, some advice. It will make you feel more expansive and better off, I guarantee.
Pitfall warning: If you are a chronic over-giver who regularly gives to the point of depletion and beyond, focus on giving to yourself whenever you are aware of a need that’s not being met in your life. If this is hard for you, you can trick yourself by viewing yourself as someone else with the same need. Now move swiftly on to point number 4:
4. Receive gratefully.
Miserly bean-counting, a grabby attitude, a sense of entitlement and the feeling that nothing is ever enough are common ways in which we ruin the natural sense of fulfillment that comes from conscious receiving. If something good is coming your way, appreciate it. Notice it. Feel grateful for it, even – or perhaps especially – if it is something you have earned and might take for granted, like your paycheque. Gratitude puts you in touch with a sense of abundance, support and humility. It’s powerful medicine, and the more you tune into it, the more wonderful things flow into your life.
Those poor, unfortunate over-givers from number 3 can have a hard time receiving at all, and often reject gifts and gestures of support. IF YOU TEND TO DO THIS, PLEASE STOP IT NOW. Rejecting the generosity of others might make you feel proud of your self-sufficiency, but what you’re really doing is cheating the giver out of the joy of performing a heartfelt good deed, which is actually a pretty miserly thing to do. Plus, you reinforce an untrue belief that you don’t deserve anything good.
5. Take care of your body.
Your body is more than a vehicle in which to move through space and time. It is also the corporeal interpreter of our life experience. Emotions and thoughts have physiologic expressions. When you are feeling blissful, angry, or mentally fatigued, it is experienced in your body. It works the other way around, too. When your body is stressed, depleted or full of toxins, its ability to carry the signatures of happy thoughts and emotions is compromised. Exercise discharges pent-up tension and releases endorphins, which naturally elevate mood. Proper nutrition fuels the body for optimum performance, making it easier to excel at whatever you’re doing.
Poor sleep, a junk-food diet and bad posture all put unnecessary strain on your body and make life feel harder and less rewarding.
6. Be in the moment.
Stop waiting for all the ducks to get into a row before your life can begin. It’s already happening, right now and every day. It’s not perfect, and never will be. We all have times of wonderful flow, when we’re on top of the world and everything is clicking. They do not last. But neither do the times of hardship.
You may never live in your dream house or find your dream job. You may never have kids. You may never get to see India. Or you may get everything you ever wanted, and find it wasn’t what you expected; or you may lose it all.
Every moment of every person’s life, regardless of our circumstances, is a complex blend of satisfaction and disappointment, challenge and reward. There are no bottom line successes or failures, but there is always a next moment, in which things will change all over again – until of course the moments come to an end.
Until then, make every moment as peaceful and as joyful as it possibly can be, given your own unavoidable human limitations. Learn and grow as much as you can, and let yourself off the hook for not achieving a static state of perfection. Just embrace your life with all its mixed results. It’s here, it’s happening, and it won’t last forever, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
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