If you ask 10 people on the street what makes them happy, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. For most of human history, nobody knew exactly why some people just seem to be happier than others. But since the early 2000s, research has been ramping up on the science behind positive emotions, including the world’s first academic programs in positive psychology.
It turns out that happiness is strongly associated with how people approach life’s predictable and unpredictable challenges and stressors — both mentally and emotionally.
For thousands of years, mind-body disciplines like yoga, martial arts and meditation have taught practitioners how to cultivate physical strength and emotional balance.
The foundation of happiness, according to mind-body practitioners, is acceptance. It is very different than resignation, which is a passive state of negative defeat and helplessness.
“Acceptance is an active state,” says Tarane Sondoozi, PsyD, CEAP, a Scripps employee assistance mental health provider. “It requires continuous emotional, intellectual and physical engagement with reality, and constant constructive responses to changing circumstances.”
This is not to say that being happy or content in life is entirely a matter of skill and learning. Long-term studies of fraternal and identical twins suggest that the ability to calmly face life’s ups and downs and remain optimistic is roughly half genetic. “Some people are simply wired for serenity,” says Dr. Sondoozi, “while others will always be more naturally reactive due to their neurological wiring and their personalities.”
But the good news is that the other half of the happiness equation is built on a set of skills that can be learned. Following are techniques borrowed from mind-body practices that can help you focus on maximizing the happiness in your life.
1. Compete against yourself, not others.
Struggling to keep up with the Joneses is an almost surefire way to end up unhappy in the long run. You may never manage to run a four-minute mile, win a pie-baking contest, master the king pigeon pose in yoga or be promoted to CEO of your company, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of achieving. Play up your strengths and work to refine them. “Strive to be the best you, instead of a second- or third-rate somebody else,” says Dr. Sondoozi.
2. Practice radical gratitude.
Identifying, cataloging and reflecting on all the things that are good in your life and circumstances can become a form of meditation in and of itself. The next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, instead of giving into impatience and frustration, try tallying up what is going well — in your car, in your job, in your home and in your family. A gratitude journal, in which you jot down these observations, can become a happiness-boosting bedtime or morning ritual.
3. Manage your desires.
Desire is natural, but excessive focus on unfulfilled wants can lead to a nagging, persistent feeling of dissatisfaction. You will always have desires, from small things (a triple-fudge cupcake) to large (a “dream home”). Acknowledge them as they arise without harsh self-judgment, and try to stay focused on what you already have in the present moment.
4. Take care of yourself.
There is a chicken-egg question when it comes to health and happiness; the two turn out to be mutually reinforcing, according to research. Happier people are more likely to eat, sleep and exercise in ways that are healthy, while beneficial wellness practices in turn result in greater happiness. Even on days when you’re having trouble shaking strains and stresses, it pays to stick to habits that reinforce your physical health. They’ll pay dividends on your spirits as well.
5. Try mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques like yoga, meditation and other mind-body practices.
Mind-body practices can benefit your mental and physical health, resulting in overall well-being. In fact, studies show meditation can improve our energy, stress levels, creative thinking and even our success. How? It changes the neural circuits in the brain, making new connections and disrupting old ones.