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Finding the blue bird of happiness

Early during 2016 I read the book “The happiness project” (Rubin, 2009) in which the author went in active pursuit of happiness. In this book she chronicles her adventures over the course of a year in which she “tested” the wisdom of ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about being happier.

 

According to current research, in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics account for about 50%; life circumstances (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation and religion) account for 10% to 20%; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts.

 

Should “being happier” be a New Year’s resolution? Perhaps not. We all know that New Year’s resolutions seldom stick. Research showed that only 8% of people who make resolutions succeed in keeping them, with 75% of resolutions being kept during the first week of the year, but with only 46% making it past the first half of the year.

 

Seven reasons why New Years’ resolutions do not last:

  • They are often based on what you think you should do (such as other people’s expectations or opinions expressed in magazines) and not what you really want to do.
  • They lack meaning and personal relevance you. You might start out all eager, but your interest will quickly dwindle. If you do not have confidence in your resolution, you will struggle to keep the motivation and commitment going, and will not be prepared to do the hard work to keep them.
  • They are often focused on changing behaviour and objects outside of ourselves, instead of focussing on inner change and lasting transformation.
  • They are unrealistic. It is far better to succeed at a smaller, more manageable resolution (e.g. to exercise 30 minutes a day) than to fail at a larger, loftier one (e.g. to lose 30kg in 6 months).
  • The timing is wrong. Returning from holiday and being confronted with the realities of “real life”, our resolutions may suddenly appear irrelevant or mundane. Why decide on something on the first day of the year, when 364 other equally important fertile days for decision-making lay ahead?
  • You make too many resolutions. This will cause you to feel unsure as to where to start, will lead to procrastination, inaction, or even to quit.
  • You embark on your journey without support. Verbalising your resolutions to others creates accountability which enhances your chance for success.
  • You have no action plan. People set themselves up for failure because they commit to a resolution, fully knowing they have no plan in the first place to actually achieve it.

So instead of merely setting resolutions, such as “to be happier”, first reflect on the past year. Some of us are naturally inclined toward introspection and reflection, especially during this time of year. We need to step back, press “pause” and consider where you have been, where you are, and where you want to go. Our years may be filled with losses and challenges, but we are often also more blessed, with many more reasons to be grateful and to celebrate. In the Japanese Naikan method of reflection, you ask three simple questions to yourself about your relationships, your travels, objects, the environment, difficult situations, and accomplishment: What have I received from…?, What have I given…?, And what troubles and difficulties have I caused…? This reflection will increase your awareness, which can then help you to take responsibility, and then, the most important, to set realistic resolutions with an actionable plan to achieve them. So now you are able to identify what brings you joy, satisfaction, and engagement, and also what brings about negative emotions such as guilt, anger, boredom and remorse.

 

Now is the time to make your resolutions towards “happiness” – i.e. concrete actions that boost your happiness. You cannot expect to experience joy, if you do not do something that has the potential to give you joy! Your resolutions should be based on what you have learned from your reflections. Be careful to avoid the eight resolution-busters mentioned above!

 

Six resolutions to boost your happiness:

  • Boost your vitality and physical well-being through regular exercise, a healthy diet, a good sleeping routine, and acting more energetically (even though you are feeling drained).
  • Invest in your relationships. Quit nagging, give proof of love, do not expect praise or appreciation, and always avoid Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (i.e. stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, and contempt). Do not neglect your friends (research has proven that each deep meaningful relationship you have with someone of the same gender, increases your happiness by 9% – plateauing to 40% with four friends). Remember small acts of kindness!
  • Advance your career and professional life. Challenge yourself, continue to learn, ask for help, do not fear failure and work smarter.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously and be serious about play. Lighten up, and have fun. Laugh, sing, and dance! Create, treasure and celebrate happy memories. Pursue your passion!
  • Buy some happiness: a modest “splurge” on something useful, joyful, or beautiful to treat yourself, or someone else, can create some happy moments.
  • Be mindful, grateful and nurture acontented heart. Gratitude is important in the pursuit of happiness and has many benefits such as leading to  improved relationships, better physical health, increased happiness and amplified coping skills. People who experience gratitude, it seems, experience more positive emotion and are better equipped to deal with negative situations. Gratitude brings freedom from envy, because when you’re grateful for what you have, you’re not consumed with wanting something different or something more.

The feeling of control and autonomy, i.e. being able to choose what happens in your life, or how you spend your time, is crucial for happiness. Identifying and following through on resolutions make you feel far more in control. However, the real challenging part about resolutions is keeping them. It takes a huge amount of mental discipline, self-control and time! People are more likely to make progress on goals that are broken into concrete, measurable actions, with some kind of structured accountability and positive reinforcement.

 

Six tips for sustainable resolutions:

  • Instead of making a resolution for the entire year or proclaiming a major life change from here to eternity, name a change you will make for a specific period of time. Keep it short, specific, and realistic. Write down you specific, simple and actionable plan!
  • Get support. For certain resolutions a buddy system works well (e.g. a gym partner). Verbalising your intent to a friend or family member and asking them to check in with you regularly increases the chances of you sticking to your resolution. Life change is easier and happens best in groups.
  • Sometimes you realise your resolution is a bigger time or emotional commitment than you’d originally intended. Instead of trying to accomplish it all in one day, break it up into small steps. Take a small step EVERY day. A series of small steps constitutes a journey.
  • Never say never. Giving up the things we love and enjoy is punishment. Why give up entirely the things we enjoy and bring us pleasure if it’s not harmful to others or ourselves? When we make resolutions containing the words “never” or “forever,” we are more likely to fall short of our goals and expectations. This leaves no room for balance and flexibility, and will make us discouraged.
  • Belief alone doesn’t make things happen, but dreams become reality in our lives when we believe in a possibility and work toward it. When we keep our intentions as our focus and take action from a place of gratitude, we open ourselves up to the people and opportunities to bring us to the change and intentions we desire.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A small slip is not a failure. Breaking a resolution does not mean you need to abandon it. Rather acknowledge the effort you have been putting in, be kind to yourself, and get back on track!

Working towards happiness is not a selfish goal. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.  And the only way you can  make other people happy is to be happy yourself. Be mindful and grateful. You will not be happy unless you think you are happy – and by pushing yourself to be mindful of your happiness, you can truly experience it. You will find the bluebirds nesting on your doorstep.

 

Wishing you much success for a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!