Ancient Wisdom Teachings for Greater Happiness
There’s no shortage of evidence that happy people live longer, healthier lives.1,2 For example, one study3 found that the tendency to always expect the worst was linked to a 25 percent higher risk of dying before the age of 65. This means a pessimistic attitude can shave more than 4 years off the average lifespan.4
But just HOW to “be happy” is an elusive mystery for many. We all seek it, yet many feel they’re missing the mark on any given day. Part of the problem may be rooted in your concept of happiness. If you rate your level of happiness as being low, consider reevaluating your notion of happiness.
Perhaps you’re subconsciously equating happiness with a certain lifestyle or level of materialism. Perhaps you’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that “when xyz happens, then I’ll be happy.”
A recent article in Time Magazine5 delves into the concept of how to become happier, noting that the clues to a happy life are more apt to be found in classic writings than modern self-help books.
Perception Is Everything
Case in point: Wisdom of the ancients dictate that events are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. What matters when something happens is your PERCEPTION of the event in question.
As such, it is your belief about the event that upsets you, not the fact that it happened. Eric Barker offers the following scenarios to illustrate this point:
“You get dumped by someone you’re totally in love with. Feel sad? God, yes. The world is going to end. Okay, same scenario, but afterwards you find out that person was actually a psychopath who killed their last three partners. Feel sad you got dumped? No, you’re thrilled.
So clearly “getting dumped” isn’t the important factor here … If you lose your job and believe it was a lousy position and believe it won’t be hard for you to get a better job, you’re unfazed.
If you believe it was the greatest job ever and believe you’ll never get another one that good — you’re devastated. Emotions aren’t random. They follow from beliefs.”
Ryan Holiday, author of several books, including “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living,” offers the following clarification:6
“Shakespeare and the Stoics are saying that the world around us is indifferent, it is objective. The Stoics are saying, ‘This happened to me,’ is not the same as, ‘This happened to me and that’s bad.’
They’re saying if you stop at the first part, you will be much more resilient and much more able to make some good out of anything that happens.”
Boost Your Happiness by Changing Your Beliefs
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is an adaptation of this philosophy and teaches you that the negative feelings you experience in response to life events are in fact rooted in your beliefs, most of which are either irrational or flawed.
While seeking the aid of a qualified mental health professional is certainly recommended if you suffer from depression or other mental health issues, for the run-of-the-mill upsets of daily life, you can raise your happiness level by shifting your focus from ruminations about what caused the situation to what your beliefs about it are.
Next, ask yourself whether you’re actually thinking rationally about the issue. Is it true that you can never find another partner after a breakup? Is your life really over because you lost your job? As described by Barker:
“Revise your beliefs and you can change your feelings: ‘Even if they dump me, I can meet someone else. It’s happened before and I got over it.'”
You Cannot Control Everything, So Quit Trying
Control freaks will struggle with this next piece of advice, but recognizing that you cannot control everything and everyone around you can free you up to experience greater levels of happiness.
“Control what you can and ignore the rest” is excellent advice, as the act of worrying about that over which you have no control is no more effective than carrying a fishnet in anticipation of a rainstorm. To quote Holiday:
“The Stoics are saying, ‘Not only are you going to be happier if you can make the distinction between what you can change and can’t change but if you focus your energy exclusively on what you can change, you’re going to be a lot more productive and effective as well.'”
Barker offers the following visual of the process:
Source: Eric Barker, Time Magazine
Accept Reality as It Is
The next tip gleaned from the wisdom of the ancients is to “accept everything.” Holiday explains:
“Acceptance to us means resignation but to the Stoics it meant accepting the facts as they are and then deciding what you’re going to do about them.
The problem is that because we have expectations about how we want things to be, we feel like acceptance is settling, when in reality we have no idea what could have happened instead.
This awful thing might have saved us from something much worse. Or maybe this is going to open us up to some new amazing opportunity …”
So when things don’t go as planned:
- Accept the situation as it is
- Ask yourself whether you have control over the situation
- If you do, then do what needs to be done; if you don’t, and you’re still feeling upset, ask yourself what your beliefs about the situation are. Chances are you’ll find your belief is irrational, in which case you can reformulate your belief into something more positive
Disappointment, especially if you’re constantly struggling with things “not going your way,” can be a major source of stress, and centenarians — those who have crossed the threshold of 100 years of age — overwhelmingly cite stress as the most important thing to avoid.
This does not mean they were blessed with carefree lives. “Avoidance” here really refers to the ability to manage your stress so that it doesn’t end up wearing you down over time. Rather than dwelling on negative events, most centenarians figured out how to let things go.
Prepare for and Reflect on Each Day
The ancient philosophers also prescribed morning and evening rituals, aimed at guiding and improving your mental and emotional state. A beneficial morning ritual will help set the tone for your day, while the evening ritual allows you time to reflect on the day’s events.
“The Stoics thought you should start the day with a ritual of reminding yourself of what you’re going to face,” Holiday writes. “Marcus Aurelius said, ‘Today, the people that you face will be…’ and then he proceeds to list basically every negative trait you could possibly encounter in the course of a day.
That’s not pessimistic, he’s saying, ‘Now that you know this, don’t take any of it personally and try to understand why people might act this way and forgive and love them for that.'”
The Importance of Gratitude
Besides unbridled acceptance of reality, the philosophers of old also espoused gratitude. Today, thousands of years later, the benefits of a thankful attitude have been firmly established through scientific study. According to Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy,8 an expert in brain and mind health:9
“If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.”
Researchers have found that people who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, have more positive emotions and less anxiety, sleep better10 and have better heart health.11 Studies have also shown that gratitude can produce measurable effects on a number of systems in your body, including:
|Mood neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine)||Inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines)|
|Reproductive hormones (testosterone)||Stress hormones (cortisol)|
|Social bonding hormones (oxytocin)||Blood pressure and cardiac and EEG rhythms|
|Cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine)||Blood sugar|
A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.12 This falls into the realm of epigenetics — changing the way your genes function by turning them off and on.
Part of your longevity may depend on the DNA you were born with, but an even larger part depends on epigenetics, over which you have more control. Indeed, research suggests your thoughts, feeling, emotions, diet and other lifestyle factors exert epigenetic influences every minute of every day, playing a central role in aging and disease.13
How to Cultivate Gratitude
Like a muscle, your sense of gratitude can be strengthened with practice. One way to harness the positive power of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal where you write down what you’re grateful for each day. This can be done in a paper journal, or you can download a Gratitude Journal app from iTunes.14
Avoiding getting sucked into bad news is the other side of this equation. You may have to limit your media exposure from time to time if you find it difficult to maintain a positive outlook in the face of worldly horrors. Other ways to cultivate gratitude include:
- Write thank you notes
- Nonverbal actions such as smiles and hugs
- Remember to say “please” and “thank you”
- Express thanks through prayer or mindfulness meditation
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is another helpful tool. EFT is a form of psychological acupressure based on the energy meridians used in acupuncture. It’s an effective way to quickly restore your inner balance and healing and helps rid your mind of negative thoughts and emotions. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for gratitude.
Other Habits That Promote Happiness
In many ways happiness is a choice, and you can create it by following a certain routine. In fact, happy people tend to have habits that set them apart from their sad and stressed-out peers, such as letting go of grudges, treating people with kindness, dreaming big, not sweating the small stuff and much more. The following list includes “prescriptions” from psychologists that are known to boost your level of happiness.17
Make happiness your goal
The first step toward greater happiness is to choose it. You need to believe that happiness is possible, and that you deserve it. (Hint: You do. Everyone does!) Research shows that the mere INTENTION to become happier actually makes a big difference.18
Identify that which makes you happy
If it’s been awhile since you’ve felt truly happy (that carefree joyous state you probably had as a child), you may have forgotten what it is that gets you there. Take time to reflect on what gives you joy (and not just the obvious, like your family, but also little things, hobbies and interests).
Make happiness a priority
If you have a free hour, do you spend it doing something fun? Or do you spend it catching up on housework, tackling an extra work project, or otherwise working? The latter is a “minor form of insanity,” according to happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, Ph.D.19
It certainly will not help you get happier. To break free of this trap, make a point to schedule your weeks around events (or ordinary activities) that make you feel happy and alive.
Savor pleasant moments
People who take the time to savor pleasant moments report higher levels of happiness, regardless of where the day takes them.20 If you don’t already do this, keeping a daily diary of pleasant moments and whether or not you truly savored them, might help.
You might be surprised at how much happiness is to be had in your everyday life. Try appreciating the scent of your coffee, relishing in the feeling of your soft bed, or enjoying the sunrise before you start your day.
Ditch unnecessary and joyless distractions
There’s only so much time in a day, so be sure to protect your attention and time from unnecessary and unproductive distractions. This includes texts, tweets and emails, which take you away from the true pleasures in life. If necessary, turn off social media completely.
Think keeping tabs on your Facebook friends equates to happiness? Think again. Research suggests the more time people spend on Facebook, the more their moment-to-moment happiness declines and the less satisfied with life they become.21
Let every thought be a positive thought
Simply thinking about something positive, and smiling as a result, can make you happier and more upbeat. (Simply fake smiling is actually linked to worsened mood.) A genuine smile includes the facial muscles around your eyes, and can actually prompt brain changes linked to improved mood.
Prioritize experiences over things
Research suggests experiences make us happier than possessions; the “newness” of possessions wears off, as does the joy they bring you, but experiences improve your sense of vitality and “being alive,” both during the experience and when you reflect back on it.
Have a back-up plan for bad days
When you’re having a bad day and your mood is sinking, have a plan in place to lift it back up. This could be calling a close friend, watching a comedy or going out for a jog — whatever works best for you
Identify your sense of purpose
Happiness isn’t about pleasure alone; it’s also about having a sense of purpose. The term “eudaimonic well-being” originated with Aristotle, and describes the form of happiness that comes from activities that bring you a greater sense of purpose, life meaning or self-actualization. This could be your career, or it could be gleaned from volunteering or even taking a cooking class.
Socialize — Even with strangers
Having meaningful social relationships is important for happiness, but even people who engage in “social snacking” report greater happiness. Social snacking describes the little ways you connect with others, including strangers, on a daily basis.
In general, the more you mingle and chat with the people around you, the more cheerful and brighter your mood is likely to be. To learn more about the benefits of striking up casual conversations wherever you happen to be, see my previous article, “How to Talk to Strangers.”
Taking time away from the daily grind is important for helping you recharge. And while even a weekend getaway can give you a boost, a longer trip is better to help you create meaningful memories. These memories can be tapped into later to help boost your happiness. Experts recommend a two-week vacation, ideally, even if it’s to a locale close to home.
Spend more time outdoors
Exposure to bright outdoor light is crucial for a positive mood, in part because regular exposure to sunlight will helps to enhance your mood and energy through the release of endorphins.22 Getting sun exposure outdoors will also help you optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency has long been associated with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as well as more chronic depression.
When people make a point to conduct three to five acts of kindness a week, something magical happens. They become happier. Simple kind acts — a compliment, letting someone ahead of you in line, paying for someone’s coffee — are contagious and tend to make all of those involved feel good.