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By Julie Braciszewski, Ph.D.
In the New Year we enter a transition and brief period of self-reflection. Reflections often turn into New Year’s resolutions, always made with the best of intentions. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we rarely follow through. This isn’t because we are lazy or unmotivated; it’s because many resolutions are based on restriction, deprivation, or forcing ourselves to do something we don’t actually, truly want to do. We often strive to better ourselves by pursuing things that in the long run will reap wonderful results, but in the short-term are actually quite difficult. By refocusing on building happiness habits, we build toward long-term, deep, and abiding contentment.
The wonderful thing about happiness habits is that we can start really small and the result can spread to have a dramatic impact. The human brain is wired to develop habits, which are really just automatic behaviors that get us what we want or need as efficiently as possible. When we get what we want or need, we get a reward. The reward, in its simplest form, is a release of ‘happy chemicals’ in our brain. When a habit is formed, our brain is actually rewired. The brain moves the processing of the behavior from the front of our brain responsible for goal setting and planning, to a deeper area of the brain associated with rewards and emotions. Once automatic, the habit overrides less rewarding behaviors, spreads to include other behaviors, and squeezes out habits in our lives which are less effective in creating happiness.
One fundamental truth can help us in this endeavor; happiness is not accidental. Of course, events, circumstances, and interactions cause us to feel brief, transient experiences of happiness. Sometimes these situations even culminate into a ‘great week’ or even ‘great month’. But, if you’ve ever had to re-enter real life after a fantastic vacation, you know that transient, situationally-based happiness doesn’t last long. Although our memories hold a luster of the experience, situational happiness fades and doesn’t often produce a deep, fundamental sense of well-being. However, there’s good news, because sustained, fulfilling happiness is something we are more in control of creating than we may think. Long-term happiness is grown like anything else; it starts out small, develops over time, and requires a bit of consistency. What we find is that we can purposefully develop small habits of happiness in services of the deeper and abiding sense of content, delight, and thrill.
So, how do we develop happiness habits? First, we begin by changing our view of happiness. Happiness is not simply an emotional state; rather, happiness is a skill we develop. Happiness is a set of practices, or routines, which we must purposely select and pursue. Secondly, you must identify something in life that makes you feel happy and links to a longer-term goal. This might be growth in faith, closeness with family, relationship health, physical health… the list is as varied as we are. Next, consider, ‘what is something I could do on a daily or weekly basis, that I might accomplish in just a few minutes, that would place steppingstones to this goal?’ Don’t think about what you won’t do, instead consider what you WILL DO, what you CAN DO. For example, if you identify that you desire a deeper connection with your family, you may find that more face-to-face interaction and daily experiences might add up to this goal. You might consider that technology use is a barrier to these face-to-face interactions and mistakenly focus on reducing your or a loved one’s screen time. Although not an inherently bad idea, reducing screen time isn’t likely to actually place the steppingstones to happiness. Instead, what is something you WILL DO to create more face-to-face interaction. Will you choose to leave a board game out and play for 10 minutes each day, keep a sketch pad in the kitchen and doodle and chat for 10 minutes every other day, play a video game together several times per week, commit to several meals together? And finally, to accomplish these seemingly small feats, at first you may need to quite literally schedule them; set reminders on your phone, write them on sticky notes, tell a partner or friend your plans. Reminders and accountability are an important force in following through.
Happiness habits are short, easy, naturally rewarding and accumulate in a meaningful way over time. Hopefully next year, during this reflective time, we can look back and no matter what life has pushed our way, we can feel the accumulation of these routines and know that we have placed steppingstones along our path of happiness.
About Julie Braciszewski
Julie Braciszewski, PhD is the owner and director of Monarch Behavioral Health. She experiences great joy in providing treatment and testing services for children, adolescents and adults experiencing a wide range of mental health issues or difficult life events.