Castanet is happy welcome back columnist Reen Rose, our self-styled happiness maven, after her summer hiatus. Going forward her column will appear every second Sunday in this space.
What do you do when happiness seems to elude you? How do you cope when “fine” or “OK” are the best feel-good emotions you can summon?
It would be great to think being happy is simply a choice. Well, it is a choice, but sometimes it isn’t a simple one.
Life rarely stands still for long. Circumstances change, causing your life to shift and feel unbalanced. When that happens, you may find your level of happiness slumping.
I consider myself a happiness maven, but I spent time this summer struggling to find joy. One day when I was feeling particularly low, the wonderful man I share my life with suggested I spend the day doing whatever made me happy.
It was great advice. The problem, however, was that I wasn’t sure what would make me happy. When a woman who’s spent decades studying positive psychology and weaving the seven precepts for happiness into her life feels like she’s lost her way, there’s a problem.
A couple of health issues resulted in me taking a few months away from writing this column. One has been resolved, the other is ongoing. Please don’t jump to any conclusions. I’m not at death’s door. I’m just trying to navigate an unfamiliar situation.
I’m not sharing that information in a bid for sympathy. I’m writing about it because I know experiencing a life-altering change in circumstances is not unique to me.
The recent wildfires left people homeless. Recent world events resulted in a loss of feeling safe or being able to view the future optimistically. Financial woes continue with the global economy. Health and relationship breakdowns are commonplace.
Few people are fortunate enough to escape major challenges in their lives. When an unforeseen pit opens in front of you and threatens to swallow you up, what do you do? How can you lift yourself out of a funk that seems to have you fully in its grasp?
I can’t give you a definitive solution. But I can help you understand what your brain is doing when your life feels like it’s been turned upside down. I can also give you some tips on how to invite a little more joy into your life.
The major drive for all humans is to survive. When you feel uncertain about the world around you, your brain puts you into survival mode. In that state, you’ll feel hypersensitive to anything that could possibly be perceived as a threat. You’re on the lookout for things that might go wrong, even if the likelihood is slim.
Rather than giving others the benefit of the doubt, you may find yourself reading negativity into their words and actions. Your fight/flight/freeze response is ready to kick in at a moment’s notice.
You may feel a sense of safety. But feeling safe isn’t the same as being happy. In fact, the sense of having survived the day without any major mishap can reinforce prioritizing surviving over thriving.
I spent much of the summer doing just that. Even though both my kids came for a visit from England with their partners, something was missing. My brain was focusing on keeping me safe, not encouraging me to wring every drop of happiness out of each day.
I enjoyed my summer, but not to its fullest.
So, what do you do when you find yourself in a situation like that? To be truly happy, you need to find a way to rise above survival mode. You want to feel like you’re thriving, not just surviving.
The first step is to remind yourself of the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. The purpose of living is to be happy. Happiness is the key to good health. Positive emotions release key neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. These are your natural painkillers, mood boosters, and antidepressants. Being in a state of survival long-term doesn’t serve your physical or mental health.
Here are four steps to help you rise above survival so you can be happier and hopefully healthier:
Set an intention at the start of every day
• “Today’s going to be full of joy.”
• “I’m going to have an amazing day.”
• “No matter what happens, I’m going to find lots of reasons to laugh.”
Your brain’s designed to find examples that support whatever objective you choose. That’s why deciding you’re going to get through the day unscathed isn’t the right attitude to embrace if you want to rise out of survival mode.
Smile, smile, smile
Every time you smile, even if it’s forced, your brain releases “feel good” chemicals. These encourage you to smile even more, boosting your happiness further. I’ve got a grin pasted on my face as I type these words. It’s not because I’m particularly happy or unhappy. I’m just trying to smile every chance I get.
Any time you can, form your lips into the biggest smile possible.
Find reasons to laugh
Laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to happiness and to health.
Norman Cousins, an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate, believed he cured himself of an illness that doctors were unable to help with by watching movies that made him laugh. His research showed the physical movement that occurs when you laugh, moves lymph fluid around your body and helps clear toxins. It also increases the amount of oxygen in your cells and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.
Create a library of resources
You don’t want to search frantically for something to make you laugh when you realize you haven’t chuckled for hours. Create a collection of books, social media posts, television shows, movies, family photos, etc. that make you laugh. Surround yourself with them and schedule time to focus on them. Make sure you have at least one deep belly laugh every day.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to lift yourself out of survival mode, nor by following this advice will you be guaranteed of escaping life’s challenges. But if the Dalai Lama is right and the purpose of life is to be happy, it’s a good place to start.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.