Can you train yourself to become a happier person?
This is a question that raises many diverse opinions.
For some, you are who you are and there is nothing you can do to change how you feel.
Some people will argue your environment, and the people around you will shape who you are.
Some believe your happiness comes down to how you choose to react to situations.
So what causes people to be happy?
The reality is all these factors mentioned above will contribute to your happiness in some way shape or form.
Do our genes determine our happiness?
Are some people just born happier?
Scientists have found that a gene for happiness exists- and it is especially influential in people who have inherited both sets of this gene from each parent, making them twice as likely to be satisfied in life.
The gene 5- HTTLPR (also known as the serotonin transport protein) enables serotonin to distribute through the nerve cells throughout the body. So that feel-good sensation you have when you eat chocolate or watch a great movie- that’s serotonin being released from your pineal gland helping your brain control your mood.
Similar studies have shown that individuals with a shorter 5-HTTLPR gene appear to be more vulnerable to depression. Whereas more optimism is apparent in people with the long 5-HTTLPR genes when experiencing the same stressful situation.
Chemical stimulants such as ecstasy, cocaine, and prescription anti-depressants also work by targeting the 5-HTTLPR gene complex.
This could explain why some people are just naturally happier than others. But it’s important to note that each of these studies has stressed that there are many other factors that contribute to one’s happiness and life satisfaction.
Does our culture determine happiness?
It goes without question that your environment can have a direct impact on your happiness.
For example, who do you imagine would be happier?
- A man with a safe home, a family, a good job with the luxury of yearly holidays.
- A man living through war, who’s lost his family, home and all of his possessions.
It would seem far more probable that the first man would have a higher level of happiness based solely on his environment.
The problem with blaming your environment for your unhappiness.
When dealing with the environment alone, it is difficult to make a focus on being happier as there will be many external things that you can’t control.
While you may have influence or the ability to move, you can’t completely control many aspects of your daily environment. Such as the weather, the people around you or even the laws in society.
Stephen R Covey states in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that you should look at your circle of influence when dealing with your environment to make you feel more in control. Through prioritising your concerns into areas of control, influence or no control, you can shift your focus on things that you are able to change in your life.
We won’t go through his exact exercise, but we will use it as a way to highlight the attitudes of proactive people vs reactive people. Covey states that proactive people put a larger focus into their circle of influence- things they have influence and control over.
Reactive people focus their attention on the things they have no control over- the weaknesses of other people, environmental problems, creating a generalised victim mentality.
The reactive person tends to be a lot more dissatisfied with their life. They have little to no control over what they feel- as they put too much focus on the things they cannot control or influence.
It’s important to note that, this is more prevalent today than any other time especially with the growth of social media. Social media is built around flaunting. Flaunting physical appearance (artificially enhanced through filters and apps), experiences (expensive holidays) or possessions (expensive clothes or cars). This is made even worse through the rewarding of ‘likes’. Likes are confirmations that flatter the ego, creating a feel-good response to repeat the actions.
We know that social media is a huge part of many peoples lives. The average user on Facebook alone in 2019 spends up to 58 minutes per day on the platform. Followed closely by Instagram with 53 minutes spent per day, then YouTube with 40 minutes per day. Over a lifetime this equates to 6 years and 8 months of someone’s life taken up by social media use.
Worryingly, studies show the more social media profiles someone has, there is an increased correlation to depression. Knowing what we know from the circle of influence example, it may explain part of the reason why depression is increasing among young adults today.
Can our personality and attitude determine our happiness?
Can we really choose to be happy?
Many arguments suggest that it is near impossible to choose our reactions and emotions when our day is filled with negativity. Such as the doom and gloom on the news, or if we are facing a real tragedy in our lives.
For many- maybe even you reading this blog post, it is clear that things these days just aren’t as they should be.
Why is it that many people living in developing countries look happier with more joy and zest for life than the majority of people living in the Western world?
Is it easier to have a more positive outlook when your focus on life is simpler?
Materialism and Social Media
We have so much to be thankful for in our Western world- medicine, infrastructure and a developed economy certainly make living life easier.
But it goes without saying that the Western world is also consumed with materialism. There is a sickening trap of working to make money, to buy more things, in a rinse repeat cycle of consuming and work until more things are acquired and upgraded. We save to buy more clothes, bigger houses or better cars, we then spend our free time sharing these acquisitions on social media.
We spend a lot of our resources on maintaining the things we believe will make us happy.
Often in poorer countries, people can’t afford to be materialistic. They focus their free time on their families and friendships. They have a better sense of community and often rely on each other for their needs. How is it that many of us in the Western world have hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media, but not so many of these online relationships can hold their true value outside of a social app?
Disclaimer, We realise these are very generalised and sweeping statements about each of these different sets of cultures and are not completely true for all people. But there are many Western people who are very content and happy in their lives, without the need to consume more. Or to feel social pressures to look a certain way, or feel the crushing displeasure of not working a job that is also their passion.
So why the disparity?
Taking responsibility, focus on positivity, not negativity
Without a doubt, our grandparent’s generation certainly lived in tougher times. They lived through the war, food rationing, cold winters with no heating and even losing loved ones more regularly than we ever have. It would seem that living in these harsh times moulded our ancestors to have much tougher attitudes than us. A ‘get on with it’ outlook on life- because they had to.
Our lives today are certainly much kinder and more comfortable than our grandparents, it seems that we should be more content and happier. So why is it that life seems to be more complicated today?
As we highlighted earlier, more people are diagnosed today with anxiety and depression. While there is the argument that doctors have become better at recognising these conditions since our grandparent’s time, suicide rates have had a sharp increase in recent years.
This poses us to ask the question, does our easier lifestyle cause us to be softer than our ancestors? And is our softer attitude making us feel more victimised, leading us to feel unhappier with our lives?
Before you discard these questions posed as nonsense, we will later provide the science behind this thinking…
Attitudes of happier people
Happy and content people often share a similar personality trait when it comes to being satisfied and happy with their lives. They take responsibility for their actions.
Your attitude and how you face everyday things in your life has a huge influence on how happy you feel. Studies show that people who choose their reactions to things can train themselves to be happier in life. In other words, they choose their happiness.
Many Gen-Zer’s are reporting they are stepping away from social media. The largest reason being they wasted too much time on the apps. With there being too much negativity on the apps being the second-highest reason for using social media less.
These negative feelings come from negative interactions with others, negative feelings from subconsciously comparing, and being reminded of the things they don’t have and often have no control over.
When we look back to the circle of influence in the above example, by choosing not to focus on things that you have no control over you can begin to shift your focus on things that matter, and that you can take responsibility for.
If your weight is getting you down, you can realign your focus. Instead of wishing for supermodel body types (something that is likely never to be achieved), you can focus on eating healthier and exercising to feel good about yourself.
How you can influence your happiness?
Happier people are more content with their jobs, friends and with themselves, why is this?
Scientists have found that there are ways to be happier, which you have direct influence over.
It’s simple, having gratitude.
Have you ever known someone to have a close to death life experience? Maybe they overcame cancer or even lost a loved one. Then, have you noticed they became so much more content with the simplest of things in their own life?
What changed?… They became grateful for each little thing in life.
And you don’t even need to have a near-death experience to understand this feeling.
Why is it that while on vacation sipping a cappuccino gives you that ‘aaah’ feeling? Or why a dip in the ocean feels so good? Could it be that your grateful for these moments because they are fleeting?
By refocusing your attention to the little things in everyday life that bring you joy, you can train yourself to be happier.
Ungratefulness causes life dissatisfaction
We have consistently touched upon it throughout this post, but social media, pop culture and advertising, all encourage dissatisfaction with yourself and your life. Focusing your attention on these ‘norms’ make you feel that you don’t have enough, you’re unattractive and you aren’t achieving what you should be.
Dissatisfaction causes you to look outwards with envy, and inwards with disappointment
History of being grateful
Throughout history, societies grow and decline. In all the periods of growth, people share and show gratitude to one another resulting in more kind acts.
Kindness creates a feel-good hormone that gets released when you feel grateful towards someone and a bond to return the favour. These biological mechanisms drive people to be more social. Our ancestors all forged bonds and friendships, which made selfish individuals become evolutionarily disadvantaged compared to those who were kinder.
Gratefulness wipes out negative traits- proven by science!
Grateful people are happier more satisfied, sleep better, less depressed, have fewer addictions and are better at dealing with traumatic events.
Pathways in the brain stimulate reward through feeling grateful. These feel-good sensations help social bonds, interpreting others intentions and creates positives memories. When practised enough, gratitude combats feelings of materialism, envy, social comparison, narcissism and cynicism. You cannot be envious and grateful at the same time; they are incompatible feelings – try it.
Grateful people are more stress-resilient. In the face of serious life situations, dispositionally grateful people recover far more quickly from traumatic events.
Expressing gratitude improves mental states, including depression, resulting in a reduction of future episodes of depression.
A study carried out by Dr Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California proved this to be the case. They carried out a study of 65 adults living with neuromuscular disease, who wrote in a gratitude journal for just 21 days. The results were astonishing. Not only did they have a more positive mood in daily life, but their health also improved. They slept longer and had an improved quality of sleep. They also reported higher life satisfaction and had a more optimistic outlook, perhaps this is through focusing on life’s blessings instead of the worry and angst caused by their condition.
Gratitude teaches you to be currently happy in the moment and throughout your life journey.
How to feel more grateful
While genetics, culture and personality have an impact on your happiness, you can use gratitude training to increase your ability to feel satisfied in life and increase your happiness.
So, how can you train yourself to be more grateful?
It’s very simple, by practising gratitude journaling.
It really is as simple as writing your daily gratitude in a journal. Writing your gratitude is a process and that you can build into your daily life. When practised enough this will become a habit.
The science behind gratitude journaling
There are amazing changes that occur in brain activity after practising gratitude journaling over a large period of time. The brain rewires itself to focus on positive experiences and seeks to replicate these positive experiences up to three months after completing gratitude journaling.
Not only are people happier and more satisfied with life through gratitude journaling, but they have far fewer negative thoughts and emotions.
Here’s how you can get started
1. Begin with writing what you feel grateful for on a daily basis.
If you find this hard then just start with three small things that you appreciated that day. (E.g the weather, someone smiling at you, or even the food you ate that day). If you’re struggling to think of things to be grateful for then reflect on what your life would look like without certain blessings.
2. Write in-depth, rather than breadth.
It is far more beneficial for you to write in detail about one thing that you feel grateful for in a day than to list many things. Even though acknowledging many things you’re thankful for is a great way of appreciating the day, over time, it will become repetitive and superficial.
Think about why you appreciated something and express how it made you feel.
3. Think of people.
Thinking about certain people in your day who made it better for you allows you to be grateful for your relationship with them. You will want to reciprocate the kindness to them, in turn, deepening your feelings towards them and strengthening your bond.
“When you write about how grateful you are to others and how much other people have blessed your life, it might become considerably harder for you to ruminate on your negative experiences.”
Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth. When you are grateful you feel that you are working within a network of people who help you be who you are today -whether they have done this intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, you will begin to recognise and appreciate these people.
4. Write consistently.
Writing your thanks for the day doesn’t have to take up much time, just setting aside 5 minutes at the end of the day is enough. If you can’t manage to write every day, try to at least stick to a few times a week or even once a week.
Practice Gratitude Journaling with Reliving
You don’t necessarily need a particular gratitude journal to start your daily gratitude reflection. You can write in a plain notepad each day if that suits you fine.
But if you do want a way of writing a gratitude journal with the ability to see your overall mood increase over time, then check out the Reliving daily diary app.
Reliving has designed an app with a journaling feature designed specifically to aid in supporting mental health.
Reliving are working with Cherish- De the Digital Economy Research Centre at Swansea University. To help make design features best suited to support people living with mental health problems, and to be used as a tool to promote mindfulness.
Daily Mood Tracker
This is achieved with the daily mood tracker.
Each day you can reflect on your mood through selecting one of the emoji’s, sad face, neutral face and happy face.
This is particularly useful when using your daily diary for gratitude journaling as you can track your progress over a length of time. When practising your gratitude journaling you will gradually become more content and find enjoyment in your daily life. Over time you will see your mood and happiness improving.
The Reliving app also allows you to upload media files such as images, video and voice recordings. So if you have something particularity wonderful happen in a day you can support your gratitude entry with these media files. This is especially important for days when you feel down in the future, and need reminding of the things you appreciate in your life.
Self-reflection helps you understand what you’re going through, however, we also believe a great deal of knowledge can be gained from knowing what others have gone or are going through.
Reliving provides a unique interview feature – pre-loaded with multiple topics and questions for you to explore the life experiences of others, in the hope that the user can learn and develop.
Reliving can be downloaded as a mobile app on the IOS, Play and Amazon stores. This means you don’t have to lug around a physical book with you when you have travel plans.
It is far easier to stick to a daily habit when the process is made easy for you. We carry our mobiles on us all day long, they are almost another body part. So there is no excuse for forgetting to set 5 minutes aside at the end of the day to write your appreciation for all the wonderful things that happened.
Can you train yourself to be a happier person?
It would seem so!
You can use gratitude journaling today to change your behaviour. By introducing a simple habit each day, you can make huge changes to your mental state and happiness.