Be Happier Now

Happiness. It seems elusive. Perhaps we define it by a set of conditions in our life; love, family, success. But consistent happiness is more a state of mind than a ‘state of the union.’ Finding happiness and staying there on a daily basis is not about having the perfect life but developing resiliency in our current not-so-perfect life.

What is resiliency? The ability to ‘bounce-back’ when life sends obstacles and challenges our way; the ability to see those challenges as learning experiences and opportunities, and the ability to maintain our positive mood and outlook even in the face of the anger, fear, and frustration exhibited by those around us.

Below are five habits that I use to uplift my mood and maintain my happiness throughout my hectic corporate days as well as nights and weekends filled with two adorable, energetic, independent, and sometimes frustrating toddlers.

1 – Strategically use music to lift your mood

Scientific evidence is only beginning to corroborate what many of us have known for most of our lives; music influences mood. Music is so effective at influencing our mood and behavior that it is an extremely powerful, much underestimated (by consumers), marketing tool.

A study from the Netherlands, as referenced in a Psychology Today article from Dec 2012 asked subjects to “identify happy and sad ‘smiley icons’ while listening to happy or sad music. Music turned out to have a great influence on what the subjects perceived. Interestingly, even when a ‘neutral face’… was shown, the subjects often thought they recognized a happy smiley when listening to happy music and a sad one when listening to sad music.”[1]

If you’re not sure what qualifies as ‘upbeat’ music, how about The Romantics’ song, What I Like About You? Or the U2 song, Elevation? An upbeat, energizing song can leave us feeling ready to tackle anything that comes our way.

Listening to upbeat music can really enhance and lift our mood, but what if we’re not in the mood for upbeat music? For example, sometimes I hear one of my favorite upbeat songs and all I can think is Turn that off!

In such a case, the song is too upbeat for our current mood, and we need some help getting there. This is where transitional music comes in handy. What is transitional music? Transitional music starts at a lower vibration[2], or mood, and ends on a higher one.

A great example of a transitional piece is Sting’s Brand New Day. The song starts on an almost mournful note, but by the time the harmonica kicks in, we feel the corners of our mouth start to turn up. Another good example is the Madonna song, Living for Love.

If you’re not a Sting or Madonna fan, that’s okay. The best thing is to experiment with your own music collection as these are the songs you feel the most resonance with; notice which songs lift your mood and which songs lower it.

We have moods that can fit all the music in our collection, by understanding which songs have what effect on our mood we can move ourselves from a low mood to a higher one. This habit can be one way to help us recover from events or circumstances that have a lowering effect on our mood.

2 – ‘Stop & Smell the Roses’

Most of us are probably familiar with the age-old advice to ‘Take Time to Stop and Smell the Roses.’ Well, as it turns out, there may be science to back up why this is such a good idea.

Scientists used to think that when human beings were in a rest state in between active tasks the brain just shut down. It turns out, though, that particular regions of the brain remain active and interact with each other even when our attention is not engaged in anything in particular. This is no surprise to anyone who’s ever daydreamed. These regions, taken as a unit, are called the default mode network.

The default mode network is responsible for such activities as mind wandering, self-reflection, planning or forward thinking, and – as mentioned earlier – day dreaming. The default mode network enables us to reflect on ourselves and others and is therefore a crucial part of our ability to relate as human beings. In fact, little to no activity within this network is associated with autism and sociopathic behaviors.

However, too much activity within this network is associated with depression and anxiety disorders. Logically, this makes sense, too much time spent obsessing over what happened in our day or feeling anxiety about the future takes us out of living in the present. We can’t live in the past or the future – so it’s probably unhealthy to spend most of our headspace there.

Contrast the default mode network with the task positive network. The task positive network activates when we’re engaged in a task that requires our concentration. Such as, you guessed it, smelling the flowers. 🙂 When we take time out to really observe our surroundings; the sights, the sounds, the smells – we’re activating our task positive network.

It’s not that the task positive network is good and the default mode network is bad, but if you notice that you’re spending too much time going over events of the day, it may be time to switch gears and engage yourself in a task that requires active concentration. This can be something as obvious and easy as noticing your surroundings.

If simply observing your surroundings doesn’t seem likely to knock you out of a funk, pick a neutral activity (ie, not related to whatever was causing you anxiety or distress) to engage in for awhile; something like cooking a new recipe or playing a new song on an instrument. Remember – the key here is that the activity require your concentration – if it’s something you can do without concentrating, it’s unlikely to engage your task positive network and switch off your default mode network.

3 – “Plant” things that make you smile or laugh in places where you’re likely to need them most

A study featured in Huffington post in April of 2014 (and surely there are more) provided evidence that laughter and humor don’t just make us feel better, they help us perform better. Participants in a California University[3] study were asked to perform a memory test and then given a break. One group was asked to sit silently and the other group watched funny videos.

While both groups improved their results on the memory test after the break, the “participants who viewed the funny videos had much higher improvement in recall abilities, 43.6 percent, compared 20.3 percent in the non-humor group.” If that isn’t enough, “the humor group showed considerably lower levels of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone,’ after watching the videos.”[4]

I have a co-worker whose desk is filled with all sorts of little toys and gadgets. He has a desk calendar with funny sayings. If your work environment brings you down, you may need to think about where you can put inspirational or funny sayings so that they can help you when you’re feeling worn out and frustrated.

Anyone can hide away on a mountain and be ‘blissfully at one with the Universe’, it’s living and working with other people that challenges our happy, spiritual side the most. Recognize where you have the biggest challenges to your happiness and think strategically about how you can inject humor and uplifting material so that you’ll have it close when you need it; sometimes even having a Dilbert calendar on your desk to flip through after a frustrating meeting or e-mail can help you bounce back.

My husband and I are parents to two beautiful, adorable, and frustrating daughters. While we love them more than life, they take so much attention and time that sometimes it’s just too much. To keep our sanity we periodically read a funny parenting book together (examples; Parenting with Crappy Pictures by Amber Dusick and Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan)

We laugh with each other about the stories in the books and that helps us laugh at our own misadventures. It also helps us grow stronger in our parenting bond, instead of letting the times of conflict (and, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of those) become the defining moments of our parental relationship.

4 – Schedule time-outs throughout the day

After a month back at my corporate job after a twelve-week maternity leave in early 2015, I told my boss, “Every day I come in like a rainbow and leave like a storm cloud, I’d be happy if I could just leave as a light drizzle.” After some reflection, I realized I was expecting too much of myself to maintain my bliss through hours of frustration on a highly challenging technology project.

When I started scheduling little ‘time-outs’ throughout the day to lift and elevate my mood, I found I was better able to face challenges with resiliency. What is a time-out? Well, it can be as small as a three-minute uplifting ‘song’ break (although, if your day has been really frustrating, you may need a transitional song or two first). A short walk (outside if possible!) combined with music could be even better.

If you have a fifteen minute break or time over lunch, use that. If not, even a few minutes spent strategically uplifting your mood will work wonders. Use the time to remind yourself of all the funny, happy, and wonderful things not associated with whatever the current challenge or frustration is.

Take a minute to call a friend or loved one who always makes you smile. If you don’t have one of those (and that’s okay, at times in my life I haven’t had one of those either :)), simply spending a few minutes engaging your task positive network may help give you the space you need.

If you recall from the earlier mentioned study on benefits of laughter – both groups in the study performed better on a memory recall test after a twenty minute break. This suggests that merely taking the break can help us recover from stress. When we plan short sanity breaks strategically throughout the day, and fill them with activities that uplift and empower us, it can make a world of difference in how the rest of the day goes.

5 – Recognize the Impact Diet has on Mood

This section is not going to be a lecture on eating healthy. Honestly, I don’t even know what that means anymore. The advice I have found most beneficial and helpful has been Michael Pollan’s manifesto, “Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants.”

So I’m not going to tell you what to eat and what not to eat, that is a way more political conversation then I want to have with anyone (including my immediate family 🙂 ). However, if you are interested in increasing your happiness and your resiliency on a daily basis, don’t underestimate the impact your diet has on your mood.

Katherine Zeratsky of the Mayo Clinic has this to say, “Depression and diet may be related. Several studies have found that people who ate a poor quality diet [defined by Zeratsky as] – one that was high in processed meat, chocolates, sweet desserts, fried food, refined cereals, and high-fat dairy products – were more likely to report symptoms of depression. The good news is that people who ate a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish were less likely to report being depressed.”

I am not a fan of eating fish and I love chocolate, by the way, just to underscore that I don’t intend the above quote to be a ‘guideline’ on what to eat and what not to eat, but just a reference that draws a link between diet and mood.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for a guideline on what to eat and what not to eat these days, there is an over-abundance of somewhat contradictory information. There is general agreement, though, that skipping meals is a bad idea for our blood sugar, which can be a big influencer of our mood.

From the perspective of this post, however, the advice here is similar to that in section one; pay attention to how foods make you feel 1-3 hours after eating them. When do you feel good after a meal? When do you feel crummy? Let that be a starting point to developing an understanding on which foods make you feel happier and which make you feel grumpy, depressed, or high-anxiety.

Bringing it Home

When we combine all the above habits, we have a number of tools to help us develop and strengthen our resiliency so we can find and maintain our happy place.

But wait – you may be thinking – these all seem a bit more like ‘tricks’ to keep me feeling good, than the sort of happiness I’m looking for. There are two answers to that concern. One is that regardless of our internal state, happiness is a ‘daily maintenance’ kind of experience. We can have deep internal happiness and not be resilient in the face of the anger, fear, and frustration of others.

Thus we let our environment drag us down. (This is the type of experience that makes happy people want to go live alone in the mountains) Rather than lamenting that everyone else is raining on our parade 🙂 or trying to reform them all 🙂 or isolating ourselves (and I’ve done all of those 🙂 ) we position ourselves better for growth and learning by building up our resiliency and improving our ability to uplift our own mood.

On the other hand, it is true that there is a deeper type of happiness felt in the heart (or soul, if you prefer) that can help raise our ‘default’ mood to a higher level. In that experience, provided our resiliency is decent, we can operate from a happy place most of the time.

The downside is that deep happiness is not a ‘quick-fix.’ From my experience, deep happiness can only be found in doing the deep self-work that comes with meditation, communion with the Universe (or the Divine if you prefer), and actively walking the Spiritual Path. If this is something you’re interested in, stay tuned, as there’s going to be a lot more on the blog this year about that.

[1] Quote from psychologytoday.com article The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation, Christopher Bergland, Dec 29 2012

[2] Sonia Choquette often talks about ‘vibration’ which is not the same as mood, but (to oversimplify) operating at a very high vibration would be coming from a place of universal love and goodwill whereas operating from a low vibration would be a place of depression, anxiety, and fear. I believe (although I have never personally spoke to her about it) that Sonia talks about it as vibration because it refers to a state of the underlying energy. If you think about something like the String Theory of existence (that the smallest element of the universe isn’t a particle, but instead a vibrating string) then understanding how energy vibrates and the qualities of vibration become very important. I only understand this experientially and conceptually so I am not a great person to explain it, but if you have further interest it’s worth exploring Sonia Choquette’s work. Incidentally, Esther Hicks (when channeling ABRAHAM) approaches this same concept in terms of discs “high-flying discs” vs. “low flying discs.” In this post I use ‘mood’ because I think it’s something most of us can relate to without having to get into a complicated discussion of the underlying mechanics which don’t really matter to the point of this post anyway :).

[3] Loma Linda University

[4] Both quotes are taken directly from the Huffington Post article, New Study Proves That Laughter Really is The Best Medicine, by Yagana Shah, April 22, 2014

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