Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” ~Abraham Lincoln
Although I’ve hammered the topic of happiness enough on this blog, any discussion of happiness isn’t complete without a sharp focus on it’s inherent spiritual nature. I thought the best way to do that would be to share 13 distinct practices advocated in the best-selling book of all time and one that has stood the test of time: the Bible.
Being an avid Bible reader all my adult life, the 13 “Laws” or practices of Happiness that Dr. Henry Cloud lists and expounds upon in his book The Law of Happiness: How Spiritual Wisdom and Modern Science Can Change Your Life weren’t news or surprising to me. However, what’s been intriguing for me is how research in the field of positive psychology and Marti Seligman’s work in particular have confirmed and provided rich detail and insight to much of what has been revealed to us for a for a long time.
I think Victor Frankl’s preface to the 1992 edition of Man’s Search for Meaning is a great summary of the key perspective related to happiness (and success for that matter): “Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and in America: “Don’t aim at success— the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.” He goes on to emphasize that “in the long-run, happiness and success follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about them.” So true.
The following 13 practices, know to us for thousands of years now, put “legs” on the perspective
articulated so clearly by Dr. Frankl. After all, happiness isn’t a destination location, it’s something that we experience in the journey. It’s a by-product of what you do and who you become in the process. And the good news is that we’ve been created in a way that has wired us for happiness!
Here are 13 Biblical Practices of Happiness Confirmed by Science:
- Give- give in a way that stretches you but doesn’t break you; you always get more back, and often different and better.
- Pursue that which has meaning- intentionally pursue and contribute to something larger than yourself; focusing only on you assures you’ll be unhappy.
- Be in the moment- all you really have is this moment, so live in it intentionally; taking a “I’ll be happy when……” assures you’ll never arrive.
- Pursue goals- pursue meaningful, intrinsically motivating goals you are committed to, follow through on and give you major momentum; otherwise you’ll just drift.
- Fully engage- find your passion, what gives you “flow” and then pursue it as hard and as often as you can; do what matters and do it with a whole heart.
- Connect Relationally- we were created for relationship and it fuels us. Simply driving toward accomplishment leads to misery of the worst kind…success without fulfillment.
- Don’t compare- you’re unique and any standard other than your own potential is like comparing apples and oranges and ultimately will always disappoint.
- Guard your thinking- our decisions and ultimately our destiny is the direct expression of your thoughts and decisions; make them good ones.
- Be grateful- it’s hard for negative emotions to set up camp when you intentionally express gratitude.
- Establish Boundaries– set limits on what…and who…you will and won’t allow in your life.
- Forgive- the evidence is overwhelming: when you forgive others you’re the biggest beneficiary. Unforgiveness will keep you locked in a prison.
- Find your Calling- take the time, explore and experiment until you find your powerful “Why”; it makes every reason listed here that much easier to do.
- Have faith- both our experience, evidence and the wisest among us know how important this is. Challenge your faith to answer the essential questions of origin, meaning, morality and destiny so it can stand strong when the winds of adversity blow….and blow they most assuredly will.
We have all the information we need to know to be happy and we’ve had it for a long time. In addition, we live in a time when current research in this area has provided us with more granularity on specific exercises and tools we can can leverage to increase the happiness of others as well as our own. It’s all there- the perspective, the practices, and the knowledge that people need to be happy.
Why then do so many today seem to be unhappy? Because to know and not do, is to not know.
What do you need to start, stop or change in order to experience the happiness you want? Please leave a comment and share what’s been working (or not) for you.
You must learn to translate wisdom and strong feeling into labor” ~Jim Rohn
I think Henry Cloud hit the nail on the head the wrote the following in his book The Law of Happiness: How Spiritual Wisdom and Modern Science Can Change Your Life– “We are wired to experience happiness, but we keep hitting the wrong buttons in our efforts to turn our happiness on.” Simply put, humans are created and wired in such a way that when properly “turned on,” they get happier!
The good news is that the “wiring” is something we can get a grip on, and includes our physiology, psychology, emotions and spirit. The other news? We often don’t know where the buttons are. Instead of intelligently looking for them, we just keep pushing the wrong ones, hoping happiness will be a click away.
I’m not sure of the exact moment I first experienced the hedonic treadmill effect, but it was early on in life and I knew I didn’t like how it felt. Given society’s material bent coupled with our natural desire to always be wanting more, next, or new, just about everyone has experienced “Hedonic Treadmill fatigue” at some point in their life. What about you?
The real question is how do you get off that treadmill….and stay off?
More good news: there are plenty of powerful, evidenced-based practices and “hacks” to help you get off. Even better, once integrated into your life, these practices bring the very happiness and fulfillment most of us were looking to the treadmill for in the first place. The other news? Two things are required on your part: 1. shift your mindset and 2. you gotta go do something!
For the first four, I’ll go “old school” and look at what the ancients were saying back in the day (the Stoics, of all people):
- Ask “What’s the worst that could happen?”- It takes effort, but doing this helps you put things into perspective very quickly. Is what your experiencing really that bad? Most times not. Thinking about how it would be to lose the people and relationships you love most can dial you back to reality in a hurry. It also makes you more appreciative…and happier.
- Do “as if”- Be determined to work on your emotional fitness. When your negative emotions begin to dominate you (especially anger), think of how you want to be instead and start acting that way on the outside; often, the inside soon follows.
- Make it a treat- Intentionally go without something you like for a short time. Denying yourself makes you appreciate it more once you have it again. This works just as well when done by choice instead of out of need or necessity. It also builds self-discipline and will-power, which practiced long enough can become a sustainable habit.
- Forgive yourself- Yes, you are human and will fail at times. When you start “should-ing” on your self or are getting pummeled without mercy by your inner Ronda Rousey, make a mental shift. View life as a process and events as “mini experiments” and not as something that’s pass/fail. Take the long-view and focus on what you’re learning instead.
The next 3 come from contemporary research:
- Ask “What’s the best version of me”- You’ll have to set aside some time and give it intentional thought, but this one is worth it….both for you and everyone else. One of the best ways to do it is simply imagine yourself 10, 20, or 30 years in the future as if all your goals have been accomplished. If someone were video taping your life and playing back for you, what would be seeing? Once done the pay-off can be huge as you gain clarity on what you value, what’s missing and where you want to go with your life.
- Make your experience new, different and surprising- Hey, the reality is that we adapt to just about everything (and everyone) in our life start taking the familiar for granted. It’s just a fact of life and can serve us well at times. When that process isn’t serving you so well, then a little tweak is often all it takes to get the spark, novelty and enjoyment back. In addition, adding a little spice in the way of gratitude and savoring can also work magic.
- Ask “What would I do if this were my last month?”- Jolt your system to full attention by asking yourself this question when faced with a decision to do something. In addition to perspective, you gain inner motivation that can fuel you to get off your rear and actually do something. To me, this is a version of Andy Stanley’s “best question ever”, or “what is the wise thing to do?” Even if you can’t get into thinking its’ your last month, the reality is that you do have a terminal appointment and the number of marbles you have left is limited; go ahead and use that fact to your advantage now.
While the 7 action steps listed here can get you off that dreaded treadmill, there are many more. Next, I’ll list ones that are more distinctly spiritual, which Dr. Cloud expounds on in his book on Happiness. Like the 7 listed here, contemporary research supports these also and the scriptures have been telling us about them for a long, long time.
How would you rate your happiness factor on a scale of 0 – 10? If it’s less than you want it to be, what’s the next best step you’ll commit to taking in order to make some forward progress?
It’s a journey for everyone so please leave a comment and let me know how it is or isn’t coming along for you.
The greatest source of unhappiness comes from the inside.” ~Jim Rohn
Have you ever found yourself thinking or saying “I’ll be happy when……”? If so, it’s likely you’ve been on the Hedonic treadmill. Unlike a real treadmill, we usually don’t recognize when we are pacing on the hedonic treadmill.
What the heck is a “hedonic treadmill”?! The hedonic treadmill effect is the tendency of people to quickly return to their baseline level of happiness despite getting a small win (“I beat the traffic light before it turned red”) or a major score (“congratulations, you won the lottery!”). The good news is that it works both ways and we naturally rebound from negative events as well. The bad news is that it becomes insidious when we stride on that treadmill “to get more” and “be happy when……”. Because even when you get what you’re after and were you want to go, you just never quite seem to arrive.
I know I’ve been on that treadmill before. How about you?
In his excellent book “The Law of Happiness: How Spiritual Wisdom and Modern Science Can Change Your Life” Henry Cloud points out at least three reasons why thinking “I’ll be happy when I get…….the new house, the new job, the new relationship, the bigger bank account, etc.” and other circumstantial things is a treadmill mindset that will not make you happy:
- External circumstances do not have the inherent power to bring us happiness- a lot of the desires and wants we think will make us happy just don’t have the staying power to fulfill. They are simply temporary “states” we find ourselves in. The associated emotion fades once “it” is achieved or obtained or your circumstances change. Return to set point. Ironically, the very thing or achievement can then become a source of angst if we begin to worry or fear losing it.
- Circumstantial happiness doesn’t last– circumstances are just that: circumstantial. Not only can they change, they most definitely will. In addition, circumstances typically only account for 10% of our happiness. I could identify with his comment that whether or not he was called Henry or Dr. Cloud, his happiness had more to do with whether he was practicing the laws of happiness than with the fact he had a degree. I had a similar experience. In fact, it was made even more poignant by the way my grandmother proudly introduced me to her friends shortly after I earned my Ph.D. She said “….he’s a doctor now, but not the kind that can really help anybody”. I knew she meant to say that I wasn’t a medical doctor. However, it was a little humbling and deflating non-the-less. Return to set point.
- We ignore things that can boost our levels of happiness when we chase the ones that can’t- Just like your body needs certain nutrients to make it healthy, your heart, mind, and soul need certain practices to stay healthy. There are too many to list, but some include self-regulation, confidence, novelty, relationship, intentional worship, giving, personal growth, and making steady progress in the pursuit of meaningful goals.
I think Jim Rohn said it best when quoting his mentor Earl Shoaf: “Jim, I do hope you become a millionaire one day. Not because of the money you make, but because of the person you’ll become in the process”. True happiness is more about what we are becoming and who we become than about what we get.
It’s always good to step back and reflect not only on what we are doing, but why we are doing it as well as who we are becoming in the process. As you look down, what’s telling you you’re on firm ground and not a treadmill?
Please leave a comment, sometimes the obvious is anything but and your perspective can help.
Back to the topic of happiness here. Do you ever wonder why true happiness eludes so many people? Everyone seems to be looking for it so it seems more people would be finding it. While most in the developed world report being reasonably happy, only a minority of Americans say their “very happy”. At the same time, the majority of Americans report being unhappy at work. Maybe the bigger question is “what’s at stake” in the pursuit of happiness? As you’ll see if you read further, a lot more than most imagine.
Star gazing makes me happy. I love to look at the stars, especially when it’s pitch-black. That’s when you can see small, distant dim stars that don’t show when the moon is out or with high levels of ambient light. Those stars are still a challenge to see under the best of conditions. But oddly enough, the best way to bring a dim star into focus is using a technique my dad taught me when I was a kid: focus on something else nearby instead (thanks dad, your still the greatest!).
Happiness, like gazing at a dim star in the night sky, seems to disappear when you focus on it. On the other hand, when you pursue positive experiences and activities that give you engagement and meaning happiness can come into into view . Victor Frankle’s comments are helpful here for putting happiness in context: happiness is something that ensues not something that you pursue. In other words, the explicit pursuit of happiness will leave you empty handed but when you pursue the right things, happiness comes home to roost.
Just as happiness is a by-product of what we do and who were are becoming, so are the benefits it brings…..and there are many:
- Better Health– for both minor and major illnesses, as well as for now and in the future …..even independent of other things that negatively impact health like smoking, inactivity, alcohol consumption and age. In fact, the Director of Public Health at Dumfries and Galloway NHS says happiness might be as powerful a predictor for health as smoking, diet and physical activity….if not more so! He also reiterates the fact that happiness is not a destination but something that ensues. Yes, our level of happiness is also something we can do something about. Two of the most powerful, evidence based activities for long-term happiness, according to Shawn Achor, are exercise and meditation (even if just focusing on your breathing for 2 minutes!).
- Less depression. This makes sense since depression and happiness are polar opposites. Prescribing activities known to boost happiness should be the intervention of choice in many cases, not mind-numbing drugs, which is current practice.
- Longer Life– The classic “nun” study is truly amazing. A large percentage of nuns who were happier (expressed more positive emotions) lived longer by age 80 than their less cheerful peers. They also had less disease and lower mortality rates (didn’t die as often when they were sick). What’s even more telling is that they also seemed to have a natural immunity against Alhzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, those that did have anatomical findings of it on autopsy didn’t exhibit the symptoms!
- More success– In their scholarly paper “Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect (2005)”, Lyubomirsky, King & Diener discovered that success across all life domains is preceded by emotional flourishing, not the other way around.
- Improved work productivity– Up to 12% in one study.
- Better performance (great TED talk, btw)- If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, their brain experiences what has been called a “happiness advantage”. That simply means your brain at performs significantly better when in a positive rather than a negative, neutral or stressed state. Your intelligence, creativity and energy levels all rise. People are 37% better at sales and doctors 19% faster as well as more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when they perform with the “happiness advantage”.
- Greater earnings– A one point increase in life satisfaction at age 22 has been associated with almost $2,000 higher earnings per annum at age 29. In general, a happier kid becomes a wealthier kid. HOWEVER…it’s not about the money. Numerous studies show the opposite isn’t true; greater wealth doesn’t lead to great happiness.
Clearly, being a happy person brings along with it more life impacting and life altering benefits than you can imagine. If you want to read more, the article “Why does happiness matter?” is excellent and has a TON of great links.
Another side benefit of happiness is that it is contagious. In a large study conducted over a 20 year period, Fowler and Christakis convince demonstrated that happiness is similar to an emotional contagion in that it can be transferred directly from one individual to another. As it turns out, our own level of happiness is influenced by the happiness of those with whom we are connected.
What benefits of being happy you most in need of right now? Perhaps a better question is what positive experiences and activities that give you engagement and meaning do you need to pursue so that happiness can ensue?
Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it.