How to Make Yourself Happy
By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
LA JOLLA, California — Yes, it’s possible to make yourself happy even when you’re not feeling it. Some things you should know:
• Contrary to popular opinion, satisfaction with life increases with advancing age.
• On average, men and women experience emotions similarly, even though women have more fluctuations between positive and negative moods.
• Married people are happier than unmarried people, but people in unhappy marriages have lower levels of happiness than unmarried or divorced people.
• Most people who face a serious tragedy, such as an illness or loss, return within a year to their former level of contentment.
• Conversely, people who win the lottery or have a successful experience revert to their former level of satisfaction. Studies show that we are genetically programmed to live within a fairly narrow range of possible happiness. An inherited positive attitude will help a person in dire circumstances to deal with these events in a more positive way.
This said, we are not stuck in that range for life, just as many other genetic tendencies are influenced by our environment, so is our potential for feeling and expressing negative or positive emotions. In other words, the same news may impact me positively, you negatively, and someone else indifferently. However, if my life is made up of mostly good events and a supportive environment, even if I’m programmed to look at the down side of life, I will be able to overcome this to a certain extent.
Even though there is much that is not within our control, there are significant variables we can influence. That is, we can learn to control our thoughts and feelings; we have control over how we feel over the past, the present, and the future.
1. The past: Do you dwell on past grievances? Can you forgive the transgressors who caused the pain? Can you move on from past injustices?
Visualize the negative events while taking deep breaths and try to understand the perpetrator’s point of view. Create a story he or she might tell. Decide to forgive and move on. Sometimes writing a letter forgiving the person can help, even if you don’t intend to mail it.
2. The future: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you always dwell on the worst-case scenario? The difference is that pessimists believe bad events are permanent while optimists think they are temporary. Also, pessimists overreact to adversity; expecting the worst makes them experience events as worse than they are. Optimists tend to see the world in positive outcomes and are able to get over negative events quicker. They are also more tolerant of their own foibles as well as those of others.
3. The present: Do you enjoy the moment, grateful for the sunshine, the good friends, the good meal, the good book you’re reading? Take a few minutes each evening to write three things from your day you are grateful for. Mine for today are my granddaughter called, I read a good book, and I walked on the treadmill for twenty minutes. Do you live fully today, not worrying about past misdeeds nor being anxious about an unforeseeable future? Of course we learn from past mistakes and prepare for the future, but it’s important to appreciate the moment.
Meditation calms the brain and physical exercise reduces stress. Adequate sleep and good nutrition are important factors in our feelings of well-being. If you feel cranky and out-of-sorts eat a piece of chocolate to boost your serotonin; peanuts, bananas, and turkey contain tryptophan, which has a calming effect. And, finally, laugh more—be with jolly people, keep funny things around, send jokes so that you will also receive them.
“Put on a happy face” is not an old wives’ tales. Research has shown that by changing your facial muscles you set off different physiological changes that will in turn affect your mood. Even when you don’t feel cheerful but you smile, the blood flow to the brain increases production of the neurotransmitters which make you feel happier.
So, if you can’t laugh, then smile, and if you don’t feel like smiling, fake it. Your brain won’t know the difference, and it will send you a message that something pleasant is going on. You might just believe it and feel better.
Josefowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla. Her column appeared previously in La Jolla Village Voice.