Post No.: 0037
If one describes a person who exercises regularly then you can probably guess that he/she will be generally physically fit, and vice-versa if a person does not exercise regularly. And so if one describes a person who practises positive daily mental habits then you can probably guess that he/she will be generally mentally happy, and vice-versa if a person does not practise positive mental habits regularly. In other words, happiness science is not wishy-washy or airy-fairy – there are some strong patterns in the data.
How I personally define it is that there’s happiness or positive affect, which is our experiential feelings from one moment to the next (i.e. how we feel when we’re not consciously thinking about how we should be feeling), and life satisfaction, which is how we feel when we try to consciously and directly think about how we should be feeling (e.g. whether we’ve found meaning in the bigger picture and long-term in our lives). For instance, you can feel happy sensing the warm sunlight caressing your skin, but then start to consciously think about the stress of the job you have right now but don’t enjoy; or you can feel unhappy the moment your favourite coat gets torn, but then start to consciously think about how lucky you are that your family are all fine. Both of these come together to make up our subjective well-being, which is strongly related to our health, and seeing life as comfortable, pleasant and free from distressing events.
All scientific data for happiness is essentially self-reported i.e. a personal subjective perception of one’s own state, but this is unavoidable. It’s like data for pain – it cannot really be externally and independently observed e.g. some paper cuts feel like nothing but then cannot be ignored once we notice them, even though the paper cut itself hasn’t externally changed. In the context of measuring pain, all that matters is how much we feel the pain or not, not really the size of the wound. The same with trying to measure happiness, which cannot be reliably or universally measured via e.g. our bank balances. And therefore there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to finding happiness; although there are patterns.
Positive emotions make us more open-minded, able to see the bigger picture, able to see interconnections between things more easily (thus helping creativity), they make us more optimistic, compassionate, cooperative, trusting, and they make us want to be more socially connected and content to put in more effort for someone or something (so bosses should always try to keep their staff happy e.g. random gifts of kindness will likely make your employees work harder and perform better). It becomes a positive feedback mechanism for success and more happiness.
Unfortunately the opposite is also true – negative emotions can spiral into depression because negative emotions can make us avoid social situations, be destructive in our relationships and destructive to ourselves (e.g. seeking addictive ‘short-term fixes’ or misguided self-medications such as alcohol or recreational drugs) hence unhappiness doesn’t tend to self-correct on its own. Positive emotions/experiences in one area can also rub off in other areas in your fluffy life, and vice-versa with negative emotions/experiences (e.g. resilience in your relationship and therefore resilience at your work).
Although all pain is essentially in the mind, it doesn’t make pain any less real or less serious – after all, the human brain is one of the most complex physical machines we currently know of, and the mind is a/the result or output of this physical brain (which should arguably make broken bones or joints seem relatively trivial compared to some severe mental disorders). Mind and body, body and mind, are intrinsically as one – yet this doesn’t mean one can literally do anything to one’s body just by believing it (the laws of physics will not be broken!) but one’s mind can absolutely affect the health and function of one’s body in meaningful ways. For example, our cortisol levels are partly affected by our conscious thoughts, and our conscious thoughts are partly affected by our cortisol levels, in a bi-directional relationship. So it should give us all hope that, with just a change in thought, perspective or some practice, we can potentially considerably change our mental well-being for the better! Woof!
Self-help books vary enormously in their quality and empirical support for their recommendations hence one cannot generalise them. Regardless, many people do buy self-help books and may agree with what they say – yet then ultimately fail to apply what they’ve learnt(!) It’s as if people are really praying for some quick-fix, effort-free shortcut instead, or they think their medicine should be ‘take once and you’ll be cured forever’ rather than as a constant ongoing practice and change of lifestyle (some things genuinely require ongoing practice, such as getting regular physical exercise, eating a varied and balanced diet, getting a sufficient amount of sleep, brushing your teeth, etc.). Such wishful thinking is fallacy – happiness-capacity-boosting practices such as mindfulness and gratitude require scheduling into one’s daily life, just like physical activities, mealtimes and washing. It’s like learning about eating lots of fruit and vegetables is great – but you’ve still got to do it! So we must actually practise what we learn about happiness via mental welfare science, and stick with them long enough to master them and reap their benefits! The more we practise them, the easier they’ll also be to do when we’re feeling stressed and when it matters too.
Cell renewal is one hypothesis why it takes a few months to learn something new and make it stick – our emotions also shape our cell renewal process (gene and environmental interactions shape our body, and our brains are physical too and in need of constant cell renewal, and these are affected by our life experiences – where our thoughts and feelings are fundamentally physical processes too). Ageing is a function of both one’s genes and the accumulation of all of one’s life events.
Just like some people naturally incorporate enough physical activities in their daily life so they’re physically fit without needing to purposely dedicate time to physically exercise (e.g. because their work and home life is physical enough) – some people naturally incorporate enough positive mental activities in their daily life so they’re happy without needing to purposely dedicate time to mentally exercise (e.g. because their work and home life is personally meaningful and fulfilling enough for them). But many or most of us can benefit from some dedicated practice.
If one’s brain is impaired then it’s difficult to use this impaired brain to fix itself though. This is why we also often require the love and support of others to improve each other’s well-being, especially those with diagnosed mental health disorders (after all, everyone is a part of everyone else’s environmental factors). Those with mental health disorders may also need specialist guidance too. So not all happiness exercises are suitable or efficacious for everybody, especially for those with more severe conditions like depression or anxiety. The analogy is similar to physical exercise though – all of us, even if we don’t have a diagnosed physical problem, will benefit from regular physical activities, but those with specific physical problems may need the dedicated support of a trained physiotherapist to improve their conditions rather than general guidance or exercises. Nevertheless, whether we need to consult trained specialists or not for our individual cases – the fact that happiness can be improved with the right daily mental habits is true.
This is only the beginning of our exploration into the scientific field of maximising happiness. It’s still arguably a relatively nascent field with a lot of theories evolving, refining, combining or getting superseded as more and more studies and data are gathered on the subject, and it’s important to note that there are no ‘one size fits all’ or ‘single magic bullet’ exercises or solutions, but it’s definitely worth exploring right now because surely we live to be happy furry creatures :3.