Read the latest discoveries, and share them with your family.
The word "happy" gets used a lot at this time of year, when the pressure is on to be joyful and upbeat. But let's get real. How many of us want to walk around in a state of total bliss? I would never get anything done if I didn't feel at least a little uneasy. In fact, scientists say that some restlessness is necessary for survival. But we also need enough optimism for us to approach daily tasks with enthusiasm and pleasure. Happiness seems to be based on a balance and influenced by many factors, some of which are in our control.
Research tells us that our feelings of happiness are linked, in large part, to brain chemistry. Greater activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex is associated with positive feelings. For instance, smiling is associated with left prefrontal-cortex activity, so smiling can positively influence our mood. We also use the prefrontal cortex in planning. When we write that "to-do" list with a view toward the future, we are also triggering optimistic feelings.
While people differ in their biological makeups, there are things we can all do to jump-start our brains and bodies to feel better.
Exercise, sleep, and healthy eating really do influence happiness.
Exercise lowers cortisol levels and boosts serotonin levels—both correlated with feelings of well-being. Sleep is essential. (We've all experienced how fatigue negatively affects mood.) Seven to eight hours of shut-eye per night are recommended for adults, and more for kids.
If you or your kids are feeling down, take a walk outside together. Avoid concentrated sugars, and include proteins and slow-metabolizing carbs (whole grains, for instance) in your meals. And make sure to get enough rest!
Much of happiness is based on how we view the world . . . and especially our own lives.
When difficulties arise, it's important to avoid labeling ourselves or our kids as lazy, stupid, or failures. Instead, we can examine what we can do differently next time and then come up with some positive steps. Taking control of the situation will make us feel happier.
When we focus our minds on what is right in our lives rather than what is wrong, it appears to activate the joy-enhancing parts of our brains. And while it's natural for us humans to compare ourselves to others, we can decide what to measure and where to look. If you feel there is something lacking in your life, take positive steps to address it.
Enjoy the moment. Most of us are too rushed to notice the ordinary experiences of each day that have the potential to bring delight. Take time to savor the sights and smells and tastes that surround you. For instance, you and your kids might stop at least once each day to just observe and appreciate all that is special about the present moment.
Social contact has been found to contribute to happiness.
As humans, we're herd animals, and just being around other people often gives us a feeling of well-being. If you're feeling overwhelmed or isolated at home, go to the library with your kids or meet friends for pizza.
The very latest research indicates that happiness may be "contagious." A study conducted by Harvard professor Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis finds that being around happy friends, or even strangers, influences one's sense of well-being. Joy can be passed along to others, and we are lifted by our friends' and acquaintances' good spirits.
Engaging in activities also contributes to our sense of happiness. Studies on "flow" show that when we're truly involved, our brains are in a contented state. We all have different interests, so find yours—and help your kids discover activities that give them pleasure. It might be as simple as reading, cooking, or singing in a choir. Doing what we love brings us joy. And apparently, our joy can be spread in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand.