Happiness doesn’t just happen. At least, not for most of us anyway. Sure, some people seem to always be on cloud nine, but that’s not the case for many out there. Depression and anxiety are rising rapidly, with those needing and seeking treatment becoming younger and younger. According to statistics gathered by the NIH (National Institutes of Health), antidepressants were the most prescribed drug among 18-44 year olds from 2005-2008. A past president of the American Psychological Association even said this about depression:
“We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between 10 and 20 times as much of it as there was 50 years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression 30 years ago … the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5 … Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”- Dr. Martin Seligman
With such an epidemic sweeping our society, we need all the happiness in our lives we can get. However, we can’t just sit around all day waiting and hoping to feel good. We have to take action and need to create happiness ourselves.
UCLA psychology researcher, Alex Korb, has found that there are 5 hacks you can start doing right now to increase your happiness.
Stand Tall, Smile Wide and Open Your Eyes
It turns out that your posture and facial expressions have a profound effect on your happiness levels. Slumped over, with a frown on your face is a sure fire recipe for feeling down. When in doubt stand up straight and SMILE – even when you don’t feel like smiling at all. Not only will you trick your brain into thinking all is right with the world, but you’ll also be more attractive – that alone should make you happier. As the old saying goes, “Fake it until you make it.”
“That’s part of the ‘fake it until you make it’ strategy because when your brain senses, ‘Oh, I’m frowning,’ then it assumes, ‘Oh, I must not be feeling positive emotions.’ Whereas when it notices you flexing those muscles on the side of the mouth it thinks, ‘I must be smiling. Oh, we must be happy.’ When you start to change the emotions that you’re showing on your face, that changes how your brain interprets a lot of ambiguous stimuli” – Alex Korb
Dr. Korb also recommends wearing sunglasses. Not only because they look cool, but because you also wont squint. Squinting forces the corrugator supercilii muscle to fire. When that muscle fires you squint and the brain interprets this as you being worried. So, wear the shades and you’ll help short circuit the squint-worried feedback loop.
Wake up Refreshed
If you’re going to be happy you MUST get a good night’s sleep. However, too many people are not getting nearly enough sleep to actually refresh and rejuvenate the body and the brain.
“Very few Americans regularly obtain the eight or more hours of sleep that almost all adults need each night.” – American Psychological Association
Sleep and depression are closely linked. Which one comes first? Sleep issues or depression? It seems to be a chicken and the egg scenario.
“Depression causes sleep problems, but sleep problems are also more likely to lead to depression.” – Alex Korb
You may be wondering what are some things we can do to actually sleep better tonight?
Go to bed at the same time each night, begin a nighttime ritual, sleep in a completely dark room, and turn off the smart phone, tablet, computer, as well as the TV too. The blue light from those devices plays havoc with our natural sleep cycles.
“Participants who read on light-emitting devices took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep [the phase when we dream] and had higher alertness before bedtime [than those people who read printed books]. We also found that after an eight-hour sleep episode, those who read on the light-emitting device were sleepier and took longer to wake up.”- Anne-Marie Chang
Focus on Your Long-Term Goals
If (or more likely when) you feel overwhelmed, don’t focus on the here and now. Take a minute and remind yourself of your long-term goals. Reframing the focus from the challenges and struggles of right now to the eventual payoff you’re working towards can reframe the situation in your brain and make you happier. Just the feeling that you’re in control of the situation, and working towards your goals, is all it takes for the body to release dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter) and begin the shift into a happier state.
Build Good Habits…
…or you’ll just end up stressed out and less happy because you screwed up, or didn’t move yourself towards your long-term goals. Now you feel bad about your choices and ultimately your self.
Lets face it, we don’t always “do the right thing.” How often do we start a diet, know we should order the salad, and opt for the cheeseburger instead? More than we should – I know. One of the keys to increasing happiness is to build good habits and strengthen the good ones you’ve already got. By doing this, you’re going to make more choices that are in line with your long-term goals and strengthen your sense of belief in the control you have over those outcomes. As we learned earlier, focusing on your long-term goals is one way to quickly increase happiness.
Your brain has three regions that interact to build habits: the Prefrontal Cortex (which is focused on things like long-term goals), the Dorsal Striatum (which tries to get you to repeat the actions you’re used to doing), and the Nucleus Accubens (the trouble maker, that just wants you to do what feels good in the moment).
The key to building good habits, and being happy with your decisions, is to listen to the Prefrontal Cortex most often. This means limiting stress in your life. Doing so keeps the Nucleus Accubens muted and Prefrontal Cortex in control of the decisions your making, the actions you’re taking, and (ultimately) the habits you’re building.
“When the Prefrontal Cortex is taken offline by stress we end up doing things that are immediately pleasurable.” – Alex Korb
The easiest way to keep the Prefrontal Cortex online, and make the best decisions is to take one small step towards your goal – no matter how small.
“Instead of getting overwhelmed, ask yourself, ‘What’s one little thing that I could do now that would move me toward this goal I’m trying to accomplish?’ Taking one small step toward it can make it start to feel more manageable.”- Alex Korb
What Songs Remind You Of Happy Times?
Put them on and crank them up!
Playing music from the happiest times of your life reminds you of those places and how you felt when you experienced them. Music from happy times literally transports your brain to that time and place.
“Let’s say college was the happiest time of your life. If you start listening to the music that you were listening to at that time, it can help you feel more connected to that happier time in your life and makes it more present.” – Alex Korb
The pace of modern lifestyle is frantic. With so many stressors awaiting us, it’s easy to understand why so many are depressed, anxious, stressed out, and just plain blue all of the time. However, happiness doesn’t have to be this elusive thing that is outside your reach. With breakthroughs in neuroscience like those mentioned in this article, we’re learning we can have a profound affect on our happiness. Just by implementing simple strategies (like those highlighted here), we can lead happier and more enjoyable lives.