Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Habits of Happiness


the following was written on January 4. (See previous post to understand why it's being published today.)

Now I'm back in LA after the Seasons Conference. (It was transformational.)

More on that later, GOD WILLING.

In the meantime, 

here's Part 2 on Happiness...

(Please read Part 1 here, if you haven't already.)


Our Very, Very Imperfect Christmas Mug Shot, 2012.

Let’s face it, folks:

 It’s just NOT the most wonderful time of the year!! for everybody.  Nor the happiest.

I have many friends who consider Christmas the most difficult time of the year. They speak of “just trying to get through the holidays.” (I’ve written of my own feelings about it previously. At least I didn’t post any Grinch pictures this year.)

 But the “holydays” (??) are over now. Ours were perfect(ly imperfect.) There were moments of joy and laughter sprinkled through times of tears and turmoil. There was drama. There were hugs. There was sadness. Fun. Exhaustion. Inspiration. Closeness. Chaos.

And there was love. (Which hopefully covered a vast multitude of sins.)

I’m wiped out. We’ve just returned from visiting my husband’s family in Florida to face a house still fully adorned for Christmas. Dead greenery is depressing. I’m going to deal with it slowly. I will be gentle with myself as I shift into this new year.

Things happened over the holidays that made me very unhappy.

Perfect! I thought, after the initial reaction. Now I’ll really be able to test out the new happiness habits. I’ll conduct a personal experiment.

As I wrote here, the latest research in the field of Positive Psychology indicates that 40% of our “Happiness Quotient” is up to us. (50% is determined by genetic predisposition; only 10% is actually determined by circumstances.)

I’ve long believed the maxim that “Happiness depends on what happens to you, while joy is not dependent on circumstances.” I still wholeheartedly believe the second part, but I’m not discussing Christian joy here. I’m just talking about plain old earthly, biochemical happiness. Well-being. The newsflash is that it turns out that happiness does not depend only on what happens to you, after all. I’m glad to find that there is truth in the Abe Lincoln quote, “Most people are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”  (This from a man who suffered from severe, debilitating depression before there were effective pharmaceuticals!)

So, what are the “happiness habits” that come up most frequently in research? What intentional life practices or activities might we adopt or intensify in our pursuit of happiness?

1.)  Pursue Variety:

Evidently it is the spice of life. Humans get stuck in ruts. We tend to adapt to our circumstances and fall into mindless, habitual ways of doing things. But in order to break the “hedonic treadmill,”* it’s important to ‘mix it up.’ Vary what we do and how we do it. We need to expose ourselves to new and different experiences in order to keep those brain chemicals hopping. It can be something as simple as running (walking!) your usual path in the opposite direction. Trying to write with your left hand if you’re right-handed. Going to a strange new restaurant, studying a new language, traveling to a place you’ve never been, listening to a different genre of music. We human beings need to change, grow, and continue to be shaped by new experiences throughout our lifespan.

2.) Exercise:

Trust me. This isn’t my favorite part. I do it because I have to. I developed osteoporosis, degenerative disk disease, arthritis, and fibromyalgia before menopause. (And I have scoliosis.) It’s genetic. So unless I want to undergo 6 or 8 spinal surgeries, as my father did, I have to hit the gym a couple of times a week. I don’t love it, and I rarely get any kind of exercise “high.” But here’s the thing: the research shows that we lose dopamine synapses as we age. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is commonly associated with the reward system of the brain. It affects emotions, movement, and sensations of pleasure and pain. Low dopamine levels are associated with depression. Exercise increases dopamine concentration and the number of dopamine receptors as well. So we need to get out there and move it! In a variety of different ways… two birds with one stone.

3.) Get “In The Flow”:

‘Flow’ is the enjoyment derived from being engaged in an activity that is challenging, but not frustratingly so. It’s an activity so intensely fulfilling that you forget yourself in the process, yet experience a sense of well-being and excitement when the goal is finally reached. Of course, experiencing “flow,” or being “in the zone” means different things for different people. Some might experience it while gardening or knitting. Some from cooking or cleaning. Try to think of times you’ve experienced the sensation. I have felt it when I’m teaching. Sometimes I experience it when I’m writing. (I’ll think a few minutes have gone by, but it’s been an hour.) I feel it when I’m behind the wheel of a boat. When I’m serving others in a new way. I’ve felt it when I’ve pushed myself to do a sports activity that’s outside of my comfort zone, such as horseback riding or water skiing. I love that feeling of being so in the moment that you lose all sense of self-consciousness. Bliss.

4.) Set Goals:

According to Dr. Cloud, happy people set and reach goals. They have a plan. Of course, things don’t always turn out as planned. But it is psychologically rewarding for human beings to establish reasonable goals and attempt to accomplish them. Dr. Cloud reminded us that God has created us to be purposeful creatures. We are created in the image of the Creator Himself, who imagines things that don’t exist and brings them into reality. We have this nature within us. It requires vision and tenacity to live a life of purpose. Because of my health issues and life circumstances, I’ve learned to set little baby goals. The years of carrying around a legal-pad-sized To-Do list are long gone. For instance, my goal for the day could be working out. Or going to the grocery store. Reaching out to a friend who’s hurting. Today, it’s to finish writing this blog post, by golly!** Anything I accomplish over and above the primary goal is gravy. (Of course, it’s also critical to set long-term lifetime goals. I do this, and then pray If it’s Your will, please help it come to pass.) Who knows? Maybe I’ll write that book one day.

5.) Connect:

It is not good for man to be alone.” (God.)  “Or woman.” (Kim.)

We are created to be in community. Social interaction is programmed to be intrinsically rewarding to humans. We need connectedness with other people in order to survive and thrive. As Dr. Cloud stated, “Happy people connect in a way of exchange. Relationships create transformational experiences. We need life to flow into us. There’s no such thing as a “self-made man.”” A sense of community focus makes people happier. We need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. To care about others as much as we care about us. The dopamine release from cooperating rather than competing with other humans is “just as good as drugs,” according to researchers interviewed on the Happy movie. Ironically, depression creates a cycle of isolation. The more depressed (and/or stressed) a person feels, the less likely he is to connect. (“I don’t want to inflict myself on anyone when I’m like this.) That is the time to push yourself out there. Pick up the phone. Neuroscience reveals that isolation actually suppresses the immune system. We don’t want to be sad AND sick, do we? Not moi.

6.) Give:

This one is huge. If I make only one change this year, I hope and pray that it will be to become more giving. It is astonishing what the act of giving does to both brain and body. Studies have shown that an act of intentional compassion causes brain waves to come on fire. The left prefrontal cortex lights up. There is a change in the gross structure of brain. God wired us to be givers, in imitation of the Ultimate Giver. I think it is actually our ultimate purpose: to give from the store of whatever we’ve been given. Random acts of kindness are the most effective in firing up the happy hormones… when there is absolutely no expectation of reward or recognition. Dr. Cloud shared that the amount of dopamine released in the act of giving is the same as in food or sex. Wow. Putting change in a stranger’s expired meter might save you a pound or two! Let’s try it. Seriously, we all have something to give… whether it’s money, time, a kind word, a shoulder to cry on. A smile. As Dostoyevsky said, “If all you have is an onion, then give an onion!”

       7.) Count Your Blessings:

This one is so trite.  And so very, very, very true.

Sad to say, enumerating my blessings is not usually my first impulse. It is a spiritual discipline that must be developed by repetition until the muscle grows. Ann Voskamp has been hugely influential in my thoughts on this. She also experienced a terrible tragedy as a child. As in my case, it changed the colors of her world growing up. Shades of gray and black might waft in at any moment, like a trail of dense smoke in a Carolina blue sky. A spirit of fear… actually, a spirit of dread… could invade the merriest day without warning.

As an adult, she has (she and God have) unlocked the secret of being thankful in all circumstances. The practice of eucharisteo is setting her free. I gave myself her One Thousand Gifts Devotional book for Christmas. The practice of writing it down in black and white is bearing rich fruit. (If you haven’t read the original book, put it on your bucket list.)

To see the effects that gratitude has on the brain, please click here:

(I’m getting tired of writing.)

Okay, so wind it up, Mama!

I wonder: Why are Americans so unhappy when we have so much?

We live in a sick society that increasingly emphasizes self-aggrandizement. I fear for this generation of First World children, growing up in a world of burgeoning social media self-promotion. It’s all about image: “Look at Me! Notice Me! Envy Me!!!”  On Facebook. Twitter. Myspace. Instagram. YOUtube. Facetime. Whatever-they-come up-with-next-week-as-a-vehicle-by-which-to-display-yourself-to-the-world.

Stagnating self-absorption is toxic. Yet so many of us are unable to see beyond the tip of our own noses. Difficult life circumstances, daily stresses, hard adversities may keep us so focused on survival that we forget to really live.

Pursuit of happiness not wrong; it’s just that we think the wrong things will make us happy. We pursue the things that don’t satisfy… accumulating more and more of them until we drown in them. Yet still we feel empty.

This new information on the Neuroscience of Happiness is useful to me. We are not merely victims of either genetics or circumstances. We have a choice to pursue the things that will make us truly happy. And, of course, they are not things.

Because we are all interconnected, I believe we have a responsibility to others to practice the cultivation of happiness. There are skills we can develop that can help us to restructure our lives into new patterns. I believe that change is possible at any age. (Even mine!)

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But I’m putting Being Happier at the top of my rather flexible To-Do list. Although there’s no rigid formula for developing new Happiness Habits, these are some of the things I’m going to chant to myself in days to come:

Get out of your box. Get out of the house. Get out of yourself. (Get over yourself.) Get involved, engaged, connected. Make a difference. Pursue your dreams. Work hard. Play hard. Love hard. Learn hard. Give extravagantly. Choose a different path. Try something new. Transcend. Expand. Open. Appreciate.


Really live.



Don’t you just love it when modern science “discovers” what God’s words have told us all along?


I'm fascinated by this idea of "Flow." Have any of you experienced it? If so, how?

"Give up yourself, and you will find your real self."

 C. S. Lewis



Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. It might sound corny, but I experience "flow" when I hang out with dogs. They are so in the moment themselves. I will take a look at some of the authors you mentioned, because I don't know them all. Take care!


Anonymous said...

This was very helpful to me. Thank you.


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The Retarded Mother said...

Boy, have I missed your writings and musings! And one of your random acts of kindness absolutely put a new spring in my step! I am still floored about that.
I experience "flow" when I get trying to carry the boat on my back---and actually sit down in it and let the current take me where it leads. This is hard because I so often want to paddle upstream when that is clearly NOT where I am meant to go. And yes...I think that happiness is a choice in almost all situations. And, sometimes it does not occur to me right off the bat that it is even an option.
Love to you and thank you for being YOU! Marianne

The Retarded Mother said...

Where is my auto-correct when I need it? The above should say, "When I STOP trying to carry the boat on my back..."
I bet you already figured that out ♥

Anonymous said...

Your family remains in my prayers, Kim. How proud you must be to have Miss Katherine chosen for the stroke awareness campaign. She looked beautiful, as always. An early Happy Valentine's to you and yours. Em

Karen said...

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