When you feel happy and content, you exude a radiance that no amount of cosmetics can match. You also tend not to sweat the small stuff so much. The questions is, how can you get more of this beauty elixir, happiness?
People often think that the acquisition of certain things will make them happier. But Harvard psychologist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert, says our brains constantly misjudge what really makes us happy. In fact, studies have shown that it’s the little things that make the biggest difference to how you feel and function.
While being happy certainly takes discipline and daily effort, if you do the work, you reap the rewards! Here’s how to cultivate a self-renewable supply…
Be busy, but not overwhelmed
Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning and in Japan, it’s called ikigai. Hindus call it dharma. Knowing our purpose and feeling needed helps us connect with our communities but sometimes, we say yes to doing more than we can manage. Studies show that people who are time-pressured report feeling less happy, so prioritise things that matter most to you and listen to your intuition – say no to things that ordinarily you would say yes to simply out of obligation.
Move as often as you can
Exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and endorphins that trigger positive feelings and calm the nervous system. Countless studies have proven that exercise makes us feel better, reduces tension, boosts energy and improves body image. Aim for around 150 minutes a week, or five 30 minute sessions. Even squeezing in a quick 10 minute walk when you can is beneficial.
Spend time with friends
While online likes and followers may flush the reward centre of your brain with the addictive neurochemical, dopamine, connecting with loved ones in real life produces the stress-reducing bonding chemical, oxytocin. Face-to-face conversation and physical contact are powerful mind-body medicines that lower heart rate and cortisol levels, boost immunity, relieve pain and anxiety and increase happiness levels.
The link between food and mood
The good bacteria in the gut produce many mood-altering neurotransmitters, including 80–90 percent of the happy hormone, serotonin. To make key neurochemicals, we need a diet rich in wholefoods including complex carbohydrates (from starchy veg and whole grains), amino acids (mostly from lean protein), antioxidants and phytonutrients (from plant foods), vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids (from oily fish, nuts and extra virgin olive oil). The microbes in the gut are also responsible for keeping your gut in balance so it’s important to include an abundance of lacto-fermented, probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kimchi as well as prebiotic-rich foods and soluble fibre as they feed the “good” bugs that live in your digestive system, keeping it robust and healthy. Avoiding sugary, processed foods and hard-to-digest foods – such as unfermented dairy and gluten – can also keep your gut happy.
Sleep yourself happy
Feeling tired can make you irritable and impatient and sleep deprivation can also raise stress levels, increase your risk of depression and lower libido. Conversely, getting 7–9 hours of rest each night boosts immunity, productivity, motivation and memory and helps to stabilise your emotions. One study found that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to experience repetitive negative thoughts, while another found that sleep-deprived people are less able to empathise. Good sleep hygiene requires discipline and practise, so aim to switch off all electronic devices at least an hour before bed, try not to eat a large meal right before bedtime and avoid drinking alcohol for a few hours prior as well as it can disrupt your deep REM sleep. Meditation, a soothing soak and sedative herbal teas like camomile can also help.
Keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to lower pain levels, stress hormones and blood pressure, boost motivation and optimism and improve your sleep, moods and life satisfaction. Start by writing down three things you’re grateful for each night and show your gratitude to others by sending them a card or calling them to say thank you. Being outdoors and appreciating the beauty of nature is also a lovely way to practise gratitude.
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Wellbeing Magazine.