Our culture aims to convinces us that a happy life is a holy grail for which we all should strive. The pursuit of happiness is even a part of America’s Declaration of Independence. And the majority of companies produce advertisements that attempt to sell us on the idea that we’ll be happier if we just buy more of whatever product or potion they’re peddling.
So, where do you fall on the happiness continuum? On a scale of blue to yellow with blue being sad and yellow being happy, do you teeter, as I do, on the bluesy end? Or, are you nearer to the yellow edge? Perhaps you fall somewhere in the middle, as many people do.
But what if your capacity for happiness isn’t entirely in your control. What if, despite your best efforts to control events, you’ll always be right where you are? What then? Well, according to research, your genetics may be partially to blame (or thank) for your ability to feel truly happy.
The Happiness Setpoint
The setpoint theory of happiness suggests that your overall level of satisfaction is determined, in part, by heredity and the personality traits that were ingrained in you early in life.
Your level of happiness may change temporarily in response to the positive or negative events life throws at you. But you’ll eventually drift back to your typical happiness baseline.
I grew up in a family of six women, and depression was a dark and frequent visitor. It was most likely a combination of genetic and situational depression. But we all drifted toward the blue side.
Some of us turned to drugs and alcohol to battle the demon; some of us participated in risky behavior. Luckily, I eventually learned a healthy way to hack my happiness setpoint.
So, if your happiness setpoint runs low on the scale, here are five ways to do just that.
Get Your Heart Pumping
No doubt you’ve heard that exercise causes your brain to produce endorphins. Endorphins are neurochemicals that have a structure similar to morphine, and they act as your body’s natural pain killers by activating the opioid receptors in your brain.
Endorphins can give you a sense of euphoria and increase your overall feeling of wellbeing. But, research shows the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine are actually the culprits responsible for your post-exercise induced bliss.
If you gravitate toward sadness, make exercise your new best friend. The key is to push yourself. Hard.
Yes, a stroll outside will make you feel better. But if you genuinely want to get your brain brimming with neurotransmitters, challenge yourself.
Variety is the Spice of Life
This adage comes from William Cowper’s poem, “The Task” (1785): “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.” And he was right.
If you tend to follow the same old routine or are afraid to try new things, you’re not doing your mood any favors.
Novelty stimulates the dopamine pathways in your brain. Dopamine is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that has several vital functions — not the least of which is to reward you with a flood of pleasure signals when you try something new.
And the more unique or unusual that something is, the more Dopamine your brain will release.
If you really want to elevate your spirit, try something new that also gets your heart rate pounding. It’s a double whammy.
When was the last time you bestowed your bountiful benevolence on humanity? If it’s been a bit, find a cause you can get behind and offer up some hands-on assistance.
Acts of altruism activate a small group of interconnected brain areas called the “medial forebrain pleasure circuit.” And, once again, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role. It’s in these tiny clumps of neurons that you feel pleasure.
I know what you’re thinking, you’ve heard you should meditate a thousand times before. The question is, are you doing it?
A boost to your mood is one of the top perks of meditation. The benefits are so copious it’s astonishing everyone doesn’t keep a regular practice.
Research shows meditation offers the following:
- Reduced stress
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased emotional health
- Enhanced self-awareness
- Generates kindness
- Improves sleep
- Controlled pain
And the list goes on, but I think you get the point.
In our over-distracted world, it’s vital to give your brain some downtime. Unfortunately, most people fail miserably at meditation in the beginning and give up before the benefits kick in. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been told there are all types of rules to follow. There aren’t. And the more difficult meditation is for you, the more you need it.
You can meditate any way you choose. Meditation can be as simple as lying on your back with your eyes closed. Yes, your mind will wander. Just notice it did and bring your thoughts back to the moment. It’s as easy as that.
Meditation can be active. For example, surfers are notorious for their zen-like state — in and out of the water. Surfing is challenging, but it’s also peaceful and meditative.
I experience active meditation when I participate in indoor rock climbing. It takes so much concentration, I forget about everything else and tune-in to the moment. That’s meditation. So, if meditation bores you to tears, absorb yourself in a meditative activity.
If you was to try meditation, start with five minutes and slowly increase your time as you get better at it. You may find keeping a ritual helps. Light a candle, open your meditation session with a chant that feels right to you, and play sounds that capture your mind.
Drugs and Stuff
If you’re severely depressed, you may find it near impossible to haul yourself up by your bootstraps long enough to try the first four tips. I’ve been there, so I get it.
If you’ve been feeling down and sad and nothing seems to help, there’s a reason for it.
There are two types of depression. One is situational depression, and that’s when you’re dealing with a challenge in life that emotionally wrecks you. Typically, your depressed feelings will fade when your situation improves.
Then, there’s clinical depression, and that’s when your brain can’t produce enough of the feel-good chemicals you need. And here’s the rub, if you remain situationally depressed long enough, it can lead to clinical depression. Your situation may improve, but your mood doesn’t.
If this sounds like you, don’t hesitate to get help. Sometimes a short course of anti-depressant medication can help you feel better so you can start doing the things that increase your chemical production naturally.
But anti-depressive medications can be tricky, and it may take some trial and error to find one that works for you. So, find a mental health professional that you feel comfortable with and have them work with you to find the right course of action.
A Note About Illicit Drugs
Many illegal drugs will help you feel fantastic temporarily, but worsen your depression and cause severe addiction in the long run. So steer clear of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and the like.
Although these drugs are derivatives of natural substances, they are refined and altered to the point where they offer no medical efficacy. And alcohol, though legal, temporarily helps you feel better, but increases your depression in the long run.
But, not all illegal drugs are harmful. Scientists are rediscovering the medical use of hallucinogenic substances like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA.
Recent clinical trials show the majority of study participants frequently found permanent relief from their symptoms after a single, guided session.
These powerful substances aren’t legal yet. But if you’re out of options and are curious if they might help, you can apply to participate in an on-going study. But please, do your research first.
So, next time you’re feeling down, resist the urge to distract yourself with stuff that helps you temporarily forget your woes, and do something that increases the feel-good chemicals in your brain. You’ll be happy you did.