Research shows positive emotion that fills you with a sense of wellbeing and contentment is protective when it comes to your health. It strengthens your immune system, makes you less likely to experience depression, reduces aches and pains, protects your heart, combats disease and disability and even means you live longer.
Stress triggers biological changes in our hormones and blood pressure (e.g. feeling upset or angry can raise your blood pressure), but positive emotions seem to undo these effects, helping us recover more quickly, lowering blood pressure and risk for cardiovascular disease. Happiness also defuses difficult emotions – you can’t feel positive and negative emotions at the same time (think of when you’re able to look back at something tough and laugh!).
Having a positive focus is not just good for your health, it broadens your focus and expands your thinking. When you feel happier, you see the world with more possibilities and become more open to what’s around you – it’s like moving to a better vantage point.
Making a choice
Although it might feel like happiness is down to what happens in your life, research proves that only 10% of our happiness is due to our external circumstances. With as much as 40% being linked to our intentional daily activities and the choices we make (the other 50% of our happiness levels is thought to come from our genes).
How we feel is a natural product of all of our choices, but particularly the small choices that each of us make every day. If you want to make changes in your life so that you feel happier, it’s the small steps that really count and the good news is that you can start with them straight away.
The best route to happiness
Although any form of happiness is good, there are some routes to happiness that are more lasting. Research shows we quickly adjust to new life circumstance – for better or worse – and consider it normal. Although the human capacity to adjust can be helpful if things get harder, it also means that we quickly get used to many of the things that make us feel good.
This is called the “hedonic treadmill” – when you chase happiness it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. The good feelings wear off and you end up no happier than you were before. The best route to happiness is not a direct one. It’s like chasing the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow – it keeps moving over the next hill.
It’s therefore important to make your happiness choices wisely. Investing your time in doing things that lead indirectly to happiness (rather than a happiness fix). Where the feeling lasts and builds. For example investing in your relationships, practicing gratitude, exercise, choosing experiences over material items or helping others. It’s these sorts of activities that give the greatest benefits.
What can get in the way?
The trouble is, most of us spend far too much time thinking about what we’re unhappy with. We have evolved to have a threat focus. It takes our brains 12-15 seconds to store positive experiences, but only 1/10th of a second to notice threat and unpleasant situations.
This means we have a negative bias making us focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives and often we end up going over and over these things in our head. Yet we rarely spend any time dwelling on the good things. They are all too often forgotten or perhaps not even noticed in the first place.
Although these reactions are primitive, you can over-ride them to keep a more positive focus. You have a choice in where you focus your attention and you can make a conscious choice to shift your attention so you take in the full picture of your life. This means seeking out and noticing the good stuff rather than dwelling on or predicting the bad.
Noticing the everyday things that make you feel good (rather than the things you’re unhappy with, anxious about or finding difficult) is proven to boost happiness and psychological wellbeing. Experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio (or higher) over negative ones makes us naturally more resilient to adversity and better able to achieve our goals.
Even better, brain scans show these practices can change the neural pathways of our brain so you can train your brain to feel happier.
Try these exercises to put this in to practice:
Three good things: a simple way to redirect your thoughts is to keep a note of anything that goes well over the course of the day so you retrain your brain to look out for the good stuff. If you notice the every day things that make you feel good, it can make a real difference to your mood. Read through it at the end of each day and then at the end of the week for extra good effects.
See your success: write down what you do and all your achievements as if it’s a CV. If something comes into your head, note it down. Don’t question it; don’t allow any excuses to get in the way – for now just put them to one side. All I want to know is what’s happened and your part in making it happen.
• Note down anything and everything that comes to mind
• Your job and responsibilities
• Exams and qualifications
• Job promotions and salary increases
• Compliments and praise from friends, family or colleagues
• Difficult situations you’ve overcome
• Explore every achievement you can think of – no matter how big or small.
Read back through what you’ve written down. See what you’ve accomplished? Imagine if I told you someone else had done all these things. What would you think of them as a person? What if someone else saw this list – what might they think of you?
What would your 18 year old self think of where you are now?
Plan something into your day: what can you do today that can boost your mood? It doesn’t need to be big – choose anything you enjoy doing. If it involves others or a sense of achievement even better. Things like seeing friends, exercise, getting outdoors or music are great as they’re proven to boost your mood, but you can also think smaller – taking five minutes out of your day to sit down for a cup of tea, reading or phone a friend. It doesn’t matter what it is or how small, as long as it gives your mood a boost. Next I want you to plan it into your day – pick a time and set a reminder or alarm on your phone.
No-one feels good all of the time: Finally it’s important to remember that happiness is not a permanent state, no-one feels happy all the time and that we all have a different definition of what happiness is and the things that make us happy. The key is to working out what makes you happy. Life isn’t straightforward and we all have our ups and downs. It would be strange to be permanently happy or to always feel confident. Thanks to my work, I know all the strategies and techniques to use to help me feel my best, but I still don’t wake up every morning and jump out of bed with a smile on my face!
Dr Jessamy is the Team PB psychologist. Dr Jessamy has been working with each of the six members to identify any underlying issues, helping them to improve their self-esteem and recognise their strengths as well as understanding what has been holding them back and help them feel more empowered to tackle their issues head on.
To follow the Team PB members stories, challenges and achievements visit the David Lloyd Clubs Instagram channel and Facebook page. For support and information on how you can go on your own health journey keep checking back to the blog – we’re covering it all!