The Science of Happiness

How to figure out what makes you happy, plus 4 steps to finding joy joy and inner peace

For over a hundred years, psychology has focused on the negative aspects of our minds: depression, anxiety and psychosis. Recently, however, scientists have begun to change their approach. More and more experts are researching positive feelings and emotions by exploring the psychology of happiness, faith, hope and joy. Within the last 10 years, over 200 so-called “Positive Psychology” classes have sprung up in colleges throughout America. And, although these studies are just beginning, they can already tell us a lot about how happiness works and how it affects our health.

Does money make us happy?

Many people in the world will claim that financial success is the key to happiness. And while it might be true that unhappiness is rife in countries where income and living standards are dangerously low, once you’re able to fulfill your basic needs, getting richer won’t make you happier.

Professor Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University has studied the relationship between wealth and happiness in the US: “Standard of living has increased dramatically and happiness has increased not at all,” he noted. So, although getting a raise at work might make you feel good temporarily, it won’t be the key to long-lasting happiness.

Happiness and family life

Happiness studies tried to find a relationship between happiness and family life. In general, married couples report a higher level of happiness than single people, but the stresses and worries of parenthood often lead to less reported happiness amongst parents. In general, however, the more social a person is, and the wider their network of close friends, the greater their feeling of happiness.

Happiness and spirituality

Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar conducted happiness tests on different religious congregations across America. Her results were interesting. In general, people who consider themselves religious or spiritual also have a higher level of optimism and psychological well-being. This was not limited to mainstream, conventional religions — alternative spirituality inspired similar levels of happiness.

Positive thinking

In our efforts to stay happy and healthy in a stressful world, “thinking positive” is a popular technique. Recently, however, a happiness psychologist has been able to back up positive thinking with hard science.

Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness suggests that a crucial element of our happiness is what he calls “prospection,” accurately predicting and focusing on our future happiness. The problem is, however, that we often get it wrong; we imagine the worst-case scenario and limit our own capacity to be happy. On a positive note, our minds are more resilient than we think — even after a terrible experience, the human mind can make a full recovery and be restored to health and happiness.

How to build inner happiness

For thousands of years, human beings have searched for the key to true inner happiness. For many people, wealth and material goods seem like an easy route to contentment. But recent studies at Princeton University have shown that financial success does not always correlate with inner peace and happiness. The truth is, if you want to feel happy, there’s no quick fix. But these simple steps can help slowly build a sense of serenity, vitality and happiness.

Step 1: Think positively

It might sound like a cliché, but “positive thinking” really can make us feel happier. Stumbling on Happiness suggests that looking forward to a positive outcome in the future has a huge beneficial effect on how we feel. Appreciating that good times are on the way has a powerful impact on our happiness levels in the here-and-now. By just making a conscious effort to be optimistic, we can feel happier and more relaxed in our everyday lives.

Step 2: Target stress

For most people, stress and anxiety are the main obstacles to true inner happiness. Whether you feel pressure from work or from a hectic home-life, it’s important to make time for yourself to be at peace. Eat healthily and get regular exercise; you’ll feel fitter, more alert and ready to deal with stressful situations. Don’t clog your life with needless time-commitments, and try some stress-busting techniques like deep breathing or yoga.

Step 3: Meditate

Meditation is a popular way to deal with stress, but it also restores our inner balance and encourages mindfulness of ourselves and the world around us. With increased mindfulness, we feel more in tune with what’s happening within and around us, and we can cope more easily with situations that might upset our inner tranquility and happiness.

Step 4: Foster your inner freedom

Inner freedom means making calm, measured choices that aren’t disrupted by emotional background noise. It gives us the power to make good decisions for ourselves and those around us, and is linked to the sense of mindfulness associated with meditation. The more we feel in control of our lives and the choices we make, the deeper our feeling of inner happiness and inner peace. Remember: Practice makes perfect, and approaching your journey to serenity with impatience will only delay its arrival.

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