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Why Happiness is a Choice (And a Smart One to Make)

Why Happiness is a Choice (And a Smart One to Make)

You’re struggling to find this elusive thing called “happiness.” Most days, you feel either overwhelmed, anxious, angry, depressed, or flat. Or, maybe you experience quick shifts of mood.

You can remember times when you were happy, but they seem distant, and your life circumstances are different now.

But what if I told you that you can actually choose happiness? And, that it’s easier than you think?

In this article, I’ll break down the basics of how you can lead a happier life, just by following a few basic principals. These are easy to implement in your own life, which means happiness is just around the corner!

Ready to find out more about how and why happiness is a choice? Let’s dive in further to gain a deeper understanding.

Happiness Isn’t an Idea, It’s an Experience

The idea that happiness is a choice seems to be just that, an idea, and one that doesn’t apply to you. How can you choose to be happy when someone has treated you so badly, when circumstances beyond your control are bombarding you with pain?

Many people feel this way.

Each year, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network releases the World Happiness Report.

This measures the overall happiness of different countries. The 2018 report finds that residents in Finland rank first place, while the residents in the United States are all the way behind in 18th place.

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Despite the fact that Americans’ incomes have more than doubled since 1972, we’re not even in the top 10 of happiest countries.

Understanding the Easterlin Paradox

Americans have continuously made more money, yet we’re not reporting an increase in happiness. This disparity between income and happiness is called the Easterlin Paradox.[1]

Chances are you see more money now than you ever have in your life, yet you’re still trapped in the paradox, struggling to understand why you’re unhappy.

What explains the paradox?

The answer to this question can help you understand what happiness is. Solving this dilemma seems complex — it is a paradox, after all. Yet the answer is a lot simpler than you might expect: happiness is a choice.

What the Buddhists Know

Buddhism is particularly concerned with cultivating happiness through constant practice.

First, Buddhists acknowledge that existence lends itself to pain and mental dysfunction. This is the wear and tear of the world that comes from desiring and expecting what you don’t have.

Buddhists follow a set of practices towards enlightenment:

  • Clear the mind of negative thoughts: Recognize negative thoughts, redirect them positively, and act on positive thoughts.
  • Practice mindfulness: Without applying judgment, contemplate how your body feels and pay attention to your breathing; pay attention to your own thoughts; pay attention to “phenomena” — the world around you.
  • Meditate and concentrate: Let random thoughts go while you’re sitting and concentrating on one single thing, such as the sound of water, your breathing, or a humming sound.
  • Have compassion: Personal happiness is directly related to the happiness of others. Contemplation of others and their suffering leads you to a place of true compassion, and compassion for others is a simple path towards happiness.

Buddhists choose to live neither in the past or future.

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Thoughts of the past can bring brooding and depression, and thoughts of the future can bring anxiety. Contemplation of the present and compassion for others in the present can help alleviate depression and anxiety, freeing your mind to accept happiness.

People choose many creeds, philosophies, and religions in the pursuit of happiness. In any situation, you can choose to concentrate on what makes you happy.

You can choose to accept the most excruciating challenge as an opportunity to be good now and to create happiness.

How to Choose Happiness

Happiness is a state of being that you can seize, such as when a runner takes in air with her lungs. Each inhalation is essential, and with every inhalation, exhalation must follow.

If happiness is a state of being, then you could say that happiness is simply an experience, or a set of experiences.

Amanda Pinnock is a college student at Arizona State University who experienced this type of happiness without ever expecting it. To earn her degree in global health, she needed to do a study abroad program, but she was worried she was going to be disconnected from her group as a nontraditional student earning her degree online. [2]

To her surprise, the other students in her group were inclusive and eager to connect. Then there were the locals in Fiji, the country she’d chosen for the program. They seemed to truly understand how happiness is a choice. According to Amanda:

“Fijians are probably the happiest and humblest people in the world. They welcomed us with open arms and made sure we were fed and had the accommodations we needed. It wasn’t until I talked further with the group leader and tour guide that I realized they were giving us more than what they have for themselves on a daily basis.”

Plenty of Fijians don’t have running water, but Amanda noted that they felt they lacked for nothing. She says:

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“They live off the earth and they all help one another … They may not have had nearly as much money as an average American, but they are wealthy in their lives, and I think Americans can learn a lot from that. It really put into perspective what’s most important: family, loved ones and the environment.”

For the Fijians Amanda encountered, happiness isn’t a concept, it’s the act of supporting each other.

Happiness is the act of finding joy in everyday experiences with other people.

Communities of people who give to each other and share the value of generosity, the value of love—a love which expects nothing in return—are the happiest.

That’s why, according to the World Happiness Report, generosity and social support networks are two key factors that lead to happiness. [3]

Every second you’re alive and conscious, you have choices to make. Amanda Pinnock chose to experience another culture even though she was worried about fitting in. She was happy to share the experience with the other students and the Fijians that welcomed them.

Each day of your conscious existence you can choose to support others, to accept their support, to engage in activities that are good for you.

All of these acts will bring happiness. You can choose to trust others and do things that help them to trust you. You can choose to build up the community around you and be a part of it.

Practice the Life-Changing Art of Sisu

In Finland, famine wiped out 9 percent of the population during the 1860s —hardly an event that would engender happiness. The Finns have made a point of recovering by embracing a philosophy called sisu, which is a shared value of grit, determination, and rational action, even when life is painful.

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Sisu is also about powering through exercises that are challenging and uncomfortable, such as taking a swim in an ice-cold river, running a marathon, or biking to work in the rain. [4]

According to This Is Finland, “Sisu is extraordinary courage and determination in the face of adversity … Sisu is embodied by people everywhere who defy the odds and hold on to hope when at first there seems to be none.”

Sisu is simple: seize life, do it with courage, and build your courage by engaging with the world in challenging ways.

Be Proactive in Your Happiness

You can be happy by being proactive. People who choose to recover from addiction choose to take proactive steps toward recovery.

You can think of choosing to be happy as choosing to recover from depression. As it turns out, exercise benefits recovery in a number of ways:

  • Exercise imitates the effect of drugs on your brain (or rather, drugs imitate the effect of exercise) by releasing endorphins.
  • Exercise helps you sleep better and increases feelings of well-being.
  • Exercise helps you cope with stress, structure your day, and improve your physical fitness.
  • This lines up very well with sisu, although sisu asks you to take it to another level and challenge yourself beyond your comfort level.

Even if you don’t take it to that extent, start small and exercise on a regular basis, then build up to greater challenges. Work on making connections with other people based around your exercise routine.

Final Thoughts

Happiness is finding joy in everyday experiences.

When you choose to include other people in your happiness, then with it comes community—in both social networks and shared experiences.

Happiness is the smart choice because deep down it’s what your being strives for; it’s what other people want, too.

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When we’re choosing happiness together, we’re choosing to care for each other, and the whole world opens up to infinite possibility.

More About Happiness

Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: Easterlin paradox
[2] Arizona State University: Find Yourself by Getting Lost
[3] World Happiness Report: World Happiness Report 2018
[4] This is Finland: Sisu Begins Where Perseverance Ends

More by this author

Dan Matthews, CPRP

A Certified Psychosocial Rehabilitation Practitioner with an extensive background working with clients on community-based rehabilitation.

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Published on May 18, 2021

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

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Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

More Tips Improving Listening Skills

Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

Reference

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