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A therapist's guide to happiness


A quick internet search of the word “happiness” gives you more than a billion hits. It’s something we all wonder about. What does it mean to be happy? What makes us happy? What are the keys to happiness? Happiness can often feel elusive, particularly in an age when depression and anxiety run rampant. And so it is that most of us are really trying to figure out if happiness is something that we can actually lean into, something we can have some control over. Fortunately, the answer is yes!

It’s not the what, It’s the who

Back in the pre-pandemic year known as 2017, Harvard concluded the longest-running happiness study ever conducted. Following a large group of adolescent males from 1938 until they were in their late 90s, the researchers made some interesting, though not shocking, conclusions about the ones who survived. Basically they found that the biggest correlate to happiness was having close, connected social relationships. The men who had meaningful relationships scored higher on every positive health outcome. And they were the happiest. This isn’t surprising. Most of us have our warmest memories around shared joys with those we love. It is the reason we celebrate the occasions that bring us together.

And if you need more evidence of this, consider the data that Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychology professor who studies happiness, found: Marriage produces happiness. Assuming the quality of the marriage is good, both men and women receive a boost in happiness thanks to those two little words, “I do.” (Interestingly, the boost in happiness is much greater for men, and this is assumed to be because women have a greater number of connected relationships and support outside of their spouse.) But it goes to show that having a close, stable, intimate relationship produces happiness.

Gratitude is the attitude

Mental health professionals have long been aware of the correlation between gratitude and happiness. Meaning, it was well-known that there is a relationship between being thankful and feeling happy. But the problem with a correlation is that you don’t know which one is the cause. In this case, is it that grateful people are happy? Or is it that happy people are just more grateful?

Luckily science was able to answer this question. And fortunately for us, it’s the former: the act of being grateful produces happiness. In fact, another Harvard study found that “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

There are lots of great ways to cultivate gratitude. Write a thank-you note for a nice gesture. Keep a journal to write down the things in your life for which you are thankful. Do a kindness for another person as a way of saying thank you.

It’s the small things

Because happiness is such a big concept, it can feel like it needs a big solution. Many of us imagine a life in which money is no object, and we can spend our lives in pursuit of whatever pleasure we desire. Maybe we imagine ourselves as famous. Certainly we picture ourselves as just “more.” More wealthy, more beautiful, more successful, more fit, more whatever. And we think that happiness is tied to achieving that more. But it turns out that happiness is much more about the small things. Here is a short list of options to increase your happiness:

  • Spend time in nature. Walking, particularly outside, helps decrease depression and anxiety. It gives your mind time to wander and relax, and a chance to be present and mindful.

  • Speaking of being mindful, meditation is also found to increase happiness. It calms our minds and allows us to see things from a better perspective.

  • Pay attention to the small pleasures. Life can be full of negative distractions, so you have to make yourself aware of the good. Whether it’s a beautiful sunset or the smile of a small child, intentionally savouring those moments will increase your happiness.

  • Volunteer. It’s extremely difficult to feel bad when you’re helping someone else. And bonus: The act of giving back in midlife has the greatest effect on happiness in late life. So you’re doing yourself a service, too.

  • Get absorbed in an activity. Find something that really engages you in the present. It’s called finding flow, and those who spend time in it are happier. It can be exercise, cooking, playing music. Doesn’t matter. Just find something that you’re so into that all the other chatter is quiet for a bit.

Start small and know when you need help

You don’t need to implement every idea on this list. Take one or two and really commit to them. See if they work. If they do, keep doing them. If they don’t, try something else. Figure out what works for you. The good news about all of this is that happiness isn’t a secret code: It’s simply a mix of intimacy, mindfulness, altruism, and kindness. It’s being present in the present, intentionally finding joy in the people and places around you. And if you can’t get there, seek professional help. There may be more going on that needs to be addressed, and depression and anxiety are both extremely treatable. So take some time to reach out to someone you love, do something fun, or just sit quietly and observe your surroundings–and see if you don’t just get a bit happier

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The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.