Find Long-Lasting Happiness With One Simple Act

Learn how to increase your feelings of contentment, satisfaction and joy each day.

Medically reviewed in August 2018

Happiness is a choice that is clearly within reach if we practice it like a habit. And the ability to make that choice rests, in part, with a sense of optimism that prevails even when things around us are far from perfect. In his book, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, Paul Loeb includes an essay by activist-historian Howard Zinn on the power of optimism.

Zinn writes, “An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, courage and kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Is There a “Happy” Gene?
Past research has centered on the work of geneticists who assert that we are each born with a happiness set point. This is much like a metabolic set point that predetermines our natural body weight. This theory states that regardless of what we do, or what happens to us, this set point will always take us back to a certain level of subjective well-being. It implies that some of us are just born more cheerful and others of us more pensive.  But is that really true?

Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, co-authors of the book, How We Choose to Be Happy, set out on a three year exploration to investigate and uncover the habits of happy people. They wanted to determine whether a happiness set point was set in stone. They studied over 300 subjects from all over the world, ranging from a mother in Seattle balancing career and family, to a holocaust survivor in Amsterdam and a hardware store owner in rural Alabama.

As a result of their findings, they determined that adopting behaviors such as setting intentions, fostering accountability, practicing appreciation and being of service, among others, created happiness, contentment and an elevated quality of life.

They concluded that we can choose to learn these happiness-yielding behaviors regardless of our genetic make-up, personality or background. Happiness, they assert, is a choice that is clearly within reach if we practice it like a habit.

Two Types of Happiness
Researchers describe two kinds of well-being: eudaimonic and hedonic. Eudaimonic well-being results from a sense of purpose and service to others. Hedonic well-being comes from enjoying personal pleasures. A life in balance would include both. One can argue that taking care of one’s own health and well being through a healthy diet, exercise, stress management and social/emotional connections also boosts your happiness quotient. 

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author and psychology professor at University of California, Riverside notes that performing deliberate acts of kindness, nurturing strong social relationships, becoming a better listener and learning to forgive are all strategies that boost eudaimonic happiness. In her book The How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky writes, “Working on how to become happier, the research suggests, will not only make a person feel better but will also boost his or her energy, creativity and immune system, foster better relationships, fuel higher productivity at work and even lead to a longer life.”

Discover the Secret Source of Happiness
Our intentional focus on increasing happiness in our daily lives can be just the counterpoint we need to the constant bombardment of media messages that tell us we don’t have enough stuff, that we aren’t smart enough or rich enough and that there is more bad in the world than good.

Consciously slowing down in order to drink in and be lifted by life’s simple, momentary treasures that touch our hearts can greatly increase our feelings of contentment, satisfaction and joy.

In his book Hardwiring Happinessneuropsychologist Rick Hanson demonstrates how we can learn to “rewire”our brain so that we can respond to the world receptively, contentedly and peacefully. We do this by focusing our sustained attention on a positive experience. This creates a lasting impact by re-sculpting the neural structure of the brain. “When we consciously practice gratitude we increase the flow of beneficial neurochemicals in the brain,” he writes. “If we focus on what we resent or regret, we build out the neural substrates of those thoughts or feelings. But if we rest our attention on things we’re grateful for, we build in very different neural substrates.”

Savor the Sweet Moments
I have a vividly memorable example of this principle in my own life. When my daughter was 3-years-old, I took her for a swim at our local pool. It was early afternoon and unusually so, we had the pool all to ourselves. She was leaning on me, her back up against my chest, my arms wrapped around her as I gently swirled her back and forth through the water. Her little body became heavy and she actually nodded off to sleep. In that simple and sweet moment I felt like we were both wrapped in the arms of contentment and peace. It so moved me that I told myself I was going to freeze that moment within me so that I could take it with me the rest of my life. Sustaining my attention there created a permanent file of happiness that I have downloaded from my memory and into my heart countless times in the past two decades.

In our daily lives, it only takes a moment to feel the delicate warmth of the winter sun on your face, to revel in the contagious belly laugh of a child or to soak in the delicious aroma of a home-cooked meal. Developing the habit of being on the lookout for these simple wonders of contentment can enrich us, delight us and restore joy to our awareness.

It’s so hopeful to realize that, right in the midst of the harder realities of this life, happiness is never out of reach. It’s right here, right now in both the small and large choices.

Learn more ways to live your healthiest life with tips from Dean Ornish.   

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

Photo Credit: Derek Bruff, via Flickr Creative Commons

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