“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”
-English poet William Blake
Are you a bubbly unicorn or a grumpy cat? I find it interesting how some people are just naturally “happier” than others. There is a reason for this phenomenon. We are all born with an emotional set point that affects our everyday mood and outlook on the world. My set point is a slightly uncomfortable 62 degrees while Ashley, my effervescent coworker, has a toasty set-point of 78 degrees. How do I raise my good-feelings thermostat? Why are we obsessed with happiness? Is there any hope for us folks who seem to always be sitting on a cactus? In search of these answers, I recently read Spontaneous Happiness by Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil is a hippy who got his MD from Harvard and spent most of his career researching techniques to cultivate happiness.
Before we address how to become happier, we need to first look at some unrealistic expectations. America is obsessed with being happy. Every time we greet each other there is an automatic response of “good” “great” or even “absolutely fantastic.” This drives me crazy because I am usually feeling mediocre or just average. Whenever I respond with a “mediocre” the person who just asked me contorts their face in a matter that says, “do you need the suicide hotline number?” America is obsessed with happiness because of many cultural reasons: constant products being sold to increase happiness, the belief that happy people are more productive, America’s preeminence as being the best in every thing – including positive emotions. Happiness is an unrealistic emotion to have at all times. Think of our emotions as a seesaw, they pivot up and down on a fixed set point. This set point is not happiness but best described with the words: contentment, serenity, comfort, balance, and resilience. The Swedish term for this is known as Lagom and means “just right” or “exactly enough.” So our goal is to increase our frequency of Lagom which provides two things: greater emotional balance and the ability to reach spontaneous happiness more often.
So what is spontaneous happiness? Let me give an example. Say I am reading a book under a comfortable blanket and I feel content and at peace. I am not necessarily “happy” but rather in an emotional equilibrium. As I am reading, the doorbell rings and to my surprise it is a free pizza gifted by a fan of my blog ;). This provides me with a rush of happiness and tilts my emotional seesaw upwards. That is spontaneous happiness. How can we cultivate that spontaneous happiness and increase the set point of our contentment?
- Go out in nature: We are designed to be outdoors. When we get more sunlight, fresh air, and exercise we feel better and have a greater ability to avoid negative thoughts.
- Spend time with people who bring you happiness: This one seems like a no brainer but we tend to isolate ourselves and spend a lot of time with our faces on our screens. Happiness is best fostered with people who regularly laugh, joke, and view the world in an optimistic light. Avoid interactions with conspiracy theorists or people who regularly write book reports on Herbert Hoover.
- Foster gratitude: Gratitude is the single greatest tool that can raise your Lagom set point and hurdle you into happiness. It takes practice but start focusing on three things that you are grateful for each night before going to bed. Gratitude and nature also go hand in hand. Walk outside in the cold and when you get home you will be ecstatic to have a warm cup of coffee and blanket to snuggle under.
We don’t need to be happy all the time. The view that we must feel like a unicorn running through a field of ice-cream cones has in part led us to seek antidepressants at a record number – the rate of depression has increased ten-fold since WWII. Depression is complex but it is many times influenced by our expectations that happiness is the norm and our lack of understanding of how to live a content existence. We need a seesaw of emotions so we can appreciate both the highs and lows. If your “thermostat” runs a little cooler than others don’t feel inferior – it is perfectly normal. If you would like to warm up a little bit just practice those techniques – wrapping yourself in a blanket of Lagom and spontaneous happiness.