You may have noticed this about yourself or the people around you, but being happy can be a bit of a challenge. Sure, there are moments of joy and elation, but they do not seem to last very long and then we go back into, well, “normal” life.
Why is this? Better yet, once we know why this is, how can we benefit from this knowledge to become happier?
I am so glad you asked…
First, an introduction to human sensory perception (relax, this is the end of big words, except one). Think about a time when you stepped out of your warm home and into a cold street. At first, the feeling is sharp – your face, your ears and your nose seem to drain heat out of your body and pour it out. Then, you start feeling the cold in your fingers and feet. You shiver. Your muscles tighten.
But then, the strangest thing happens. As time goes by, you feel the cold less and less, until you can stay outside as long as you like. Although the temperature does not change anymore, it seems to be going UP for you, because you feel more and more comfortable.
Turns out the human nervous system mostly notices changes – a drop or a rise in temperature, more or less pressure on the skin or joints, the presence of a chemical in the nose or on the tongue, the presence or absence of a particular sound and the presence or absence of light in a particular color. Scientists call this “excitation”. When the temperature, pressure, chemical concentration, sound or light stays the same, our system gets used to it. Scientists call this “habituation”, from the word “habit”.
To test this yourself right now, fix your eyes on something that is bright white, like one of the lights on the ceiling. Count to 10 and then come back here.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
What you probably see now is a dark spot in the shape and size of the light but in “negative”. If you blink, you will see the light again when your eyes are closed and the “negative” when they are open.
This happens because as you stare at the light, the cells in your eyes “get used” to the light and become less sensitive to it. When you look somewhere else, it notices all the other colors, but not the color of the light until some time has passed.
The same happens with our emotions and especially with happiness. When something really great happens to us – we bump into someone we like, somebody buys us flowers or our kids give us a hug – there is a difference between our degree of happiness before and after, so we feel very happy very quickly. We get excited.
However, as times goes by, the effect of that encounter, those flowers and that hug fade, our emotional system gets used to them and we blend them into the background until we are back. We become habituated.
It actually gets worse, oddly enough.
Research on porters at a loading dock measured their physical response to going in and out of cold storage. The difference in temperature was 40 degrees Celsius (72 Fahrenheit). Experienced porters adapted so quickly to the temperature changes, they hardly noticed them anymore.
So what happens when you work around people you like every day? What happens when you get flowers every week? What happens when your kids hug you a lot? We get used to it. It becomes a habit and no longer excites us.
This can become a challenge in very common situations, like marriage, parenting and work. The hunt is over, we got the girl/boy, we even have kids together, no more romantic excitement, now what? Kids do well in Math, keep bringing home those good results, nobody gets excited anymore, now what? Work is great and fulfilling, then stops being new, we already know what happens next, now what?
The solution is a combination of variety, gratitude and updating our emotional position in life (our “normal” state).
More variety for more happiness
It is easy to see that a boring life leads to unhappiness. Therefore, it is also easy to see that making changes spices life up and leads to happiness.
Changes can be very small, like rearranging the position of the furniture in the living room, putting flowers on the dining table, switching from plain white napkins to colorful ones, drinking in special glasses for a week and so on.
Changes can be bigger, like painting a room, clearing the garage, doing up the garden or dining at a restaurant. Really big changes might be getting a new car, moving house and changing jobs.
Whatever you change, as long as it is OK with everyone, the level of happiness around the house will increase for a while. If you keep changing things from time to time, you will generate more happiness.
When you plan your changes, watch out for negative reactions, like worrying about the effects on your finances of buying a new car. Start with smaller changes, get everybody on board and gradually notice together how your happiness increases until you like making changes and can make bigger ones.
More gratitude for more happiness
There is a limit to the things you want to change. A few obvious ones are your family members and most of your physical features.
What you can do is feel grateful for the good things in your life. Make a list of them, read your list every day, express your gratitude to the people around you who make you happy and watch your happiness grow.
Here is a list of things many people take for granted, at least after a while. See if it makes you any happier to notice that you have them:
- Having a home
- Being healthy (even mostly healthy)
- Having access to the Internet
- Living in a free country where you are not afraid of the government
- Being able to send the kids to school for 12 years
- Living in peace
- Being able to buy food in abundance at the supermarket, rather than hunting, gathering or growing all of it
Feeling any better?
How to raise your emotional position
There is a girl we know, who was a school captain, who is a truly fine performing artist, playing violin and percussions, singing and dancing, and who always, always smiles.
We have seen her in stressful situations, being in the middle of a mess and organizing her friends with a big smile on her face. We have seen her playing music, singing and dancing many times with a big smile on her face. She comes from an large family and we know she did not always have all the equipment she needed. To our family, this girl is the ultimate role model.
Smiling takes you to a happier place. As simple as it may seem, smiling works miracles. It is a chemical thing.
Yes, now. Come on. Smile.
Feeling any better?
Keep smiling, then.
When you smile, you do things better, quicker and you think they are easier. Then, you get better results and this makes you happier.
When you smile, people tend to smile back at you, making your world a happier place, full of smiling people. Then, it is easier to smile more and you become happier.
When you smile at people, they are far more willing to help you, so you have less friction and more cooperation. Being “on the same wavelength” with others will make it even easier to smile and keep you happier longer.
Not a smiling person? Remember the movie Hook? Grown up Peter Pan needed a happy thought to lift his spirits so he could fly. Think of your kids. If they are no longer cute and cuddly, think of them when they were cute and cuddly and SMILE. Feel the tingle in your ears and neck, show your teeth, raise your cheeks, imagine yourself holding your kids for the first time, throwing them up in the air with excitement, bouncing with them on a trampoline or swinging with them at the playground.
Does this feel good or what?!
Now, do this first thing every morning and your whole day will start on a positive note. Things will go your way, you will be pleasantly surprised and your happiness will keep growing as you smile your way through the day.
Have a happy day,