Updated 01 December 2015

Be instantly happier

New research shows that finding bliss is surprisingly easy – if you know where to look for it.

Happiness – genuine happiness – can be divided into two categories, according to psychologists.

The first is moment-to-moment happiness, or the small spurts of joy you get from everyday occurrences, like digging into a dessert or receiving a compliment from your boss. These incidental experiences are easy to take for granted, but they "have a cumulative effect on our happiness that's more powerful than the big events we think will wow us," says Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

Sure, those big emotional "pow!" moments, such as walking down the aisle or getting a huge promotion, are pretty rewarding... for a while. But the highs are hard to sustain because of something psychologists call "hedonic adaptation" (our natural ability to adjust to new circumstances in our lives).

"Humans are good at rapidly becoming accustomed to changes, especially positive ones," says Lyubomirsky. "But because we adapt to them so quickly, the high is short-lived."

Small daily pleasures

Even the euphoric thrill of winning the lottery is fleeting: when researchers surveyed big-cash winners, they found that after the initial rush of buying a McMansion or a Mercedes, the newly rich reverted to exactly how happy they were before hitting the jackpot.

That's because, unlike most things in life, quantity trumps quality when it comes to happiness. Small daily pleasures keep us emotionally afloat, balancing out life's lows.

"Happiness is about the frequency of positive emotion, not the intensity," explains psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, author of Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. "And that's good news, because it means there are countless opportunities to increase your contentment."

All you have to do is notice and appreciate them.

"We're so busy racing from one thing to the next that we don't let things set in," says Biswas-Diener. "Taking the time to stop and focus will help momentary pleasures sink in."

Instead of stressing about what you have to do tomorrow, concentrate on what's happening right now: Brothers & Sisters is on and you have a big bowl of popcorn on your lap. What's not to be happy about?

Reflective happiness

But savouring those moment-to-moment pleasures is only half of the equation. There's a second type of happiness called reflective happiness. This is the deeper satisfaction you feel when you examine your life as a whole and are content with the way it's going.

Reflective happiness isn't something you think about every day, but it can help buffer you against the stress of your daily grind.

"When you consider how the little moments in your life are coming together to create a bigger picture, it helps you put a more positive spin on everything – including the stuff that's making you unhappy at the moment," says Dr Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness.

Look at it this way: you may be putting in long hours at work or changing a dozen nappies a day, but if you love your career or your family, the drudgery will likely fade away when you step back to reflect.

And your life doesn't have to be going according to "plan" in order to benefit from reflective thinking. Looking at the big picture means being proud of your accomplishments and feeling as if you're working towards something meaningful.

"What you pay attention to plays a huge role in how happy you'll be. So when you're gleaning that big-picture perspective, focus on the positive," says Biswas-Diener. "If you realise that, despite some bright spots, certain aspects of your life aren't meshing with your goals, use it as an opportunity to reroute to a more direct path to where you want to go."

How to boost your bliss

To a certain extent, happiness is genetic. Scientists say each of us is born with our own personal happiness set point. Some may register at a seven on a scale of one to 10 (cheerful most of the time), others at a four (often moody). But no matter where you fall, there are ways to bump up your happiness level.

Have an attitude of gratitude

Take a few minutes out of your day to think about everything that has happened recently to make you smile. Yup, it sounds a bit self-helpy, but according to Lyubomirsky, it works: "When you have to keep coming up with answers to the question 'What am I thankful for?' it forces you to see how the little things you might have overlooked or taken for granted play a role in your happiness."

Banish the comparisons

Happy people take pleasure in the successes of other people rather than using those successes as a yardstick to measure their own lives. "You can't feel good about what you have if you're constantly calculating how you stack up to others," says Lyubomirsky. The irony is that in order to become less competitive (and a lot happier), you need to drop out of the race. That's not to say you should abandon your goals – it just means you need to start running at your own pace.

Find meaning in your work

A study of a hospital's cleaning staff found that those who described their jobs as bettering the lives of others were more satisfied than those who considered their jobs less worthwhile. Experts also say that those of us who believe we're doing what we're destined to do feel more immediate and long-term happiness. Even if you're not amped about your current job, consider how your actions contribute to the common good. Or relish how it gives you the means to participate in pleasurable activities outside of work.

Hang with happy people

A study done by the University of California and Harvard Medical School revealed that "happiness can spread from person to person to person in a chain reaction, through social circles". On average, every happy friend you have increases your chance of being happy by nine percent. Now if happiness is contagious, don't you want to put yourself in a position to catch it?

This is an article from Women's Health SA.

- (Photo of happy woman from Shutterstock)


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