I’d like to invite you to stop for a moment and check in with yourself. I know it’s unusual, and at first you might come up empty-handed, but try and persevere: Take a deep breath and ask yourself how happy or unhappy you are right now, at this moment, without having to think about it. This is about feeling.
What was your answer? Was it a 5-star review, or more like a “meh” one? The truth is that most of us don’t feel outrageously happy the majority of the time. We’re not exactly unhappy, either, mind you. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could dial up the happiness meter, so to speak?
Let’s take a closer look.
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Why we feel “meh”
At first glance, it seems unreasonable. Barring serious physical and/or mental illness, which some of us suffer from and which can really mess with your emotions, the majority of us live lives our ancestors would have dreamed of, if they could have imagined them.
We have shelter and comfort. Our food supplies are so abundant, we needn’t worry about ever going hungry. Most of us also have a family and friends we love and who love us. We have more options in terms of fulfilling leisure and sports activities than any generation before us.
We’re living the life of Riley. We should be jumping with joy all day, every day, shouldn’t we?
Then why aren’t we?
There are a lot of reasons, but I’d like to pull up the most common ones.
#1: Negativity Bias
The first would be the evolutionary negativity bias we all carry around with us. I’ve published an entire video episode on the subject recently, so I’ll give you the link here and leave it at that.
It’s fairly obvious why this would dampen your mood, isn’t it? If you have ten good things going on but your genetic programming forces you to hone in on the one problem, it’s bound to affect your happiness levels.
Number two is a little more subtle. It may sound strange, but we’re prone to defaulting to the mood that has become a habit.
I often say that being unhappy is just as much of a habit as being outrageously happy, and if you look around, you’ll see a lot of people just living out their lives without ever experiencing either extreme. We’re surrounded by “meh” people – often in our families, as well as the outside world – and so this is what we learn from childhood on.
#3: Upper Limit
Gay Hendricks describes the “upper limit” of happiness people subconsciously allow themselves. Apparently, the habitual (see my previous point) level of feeling just about okay, feels safe to us. It’s familiar and therefore, comfortable.
This inner thermostat prevents us from feeling very happy – or very unhappy – for any extended periods of time. According to Hendricks, if something wonderful happens in our lives, we might feel overjoyed, but after a while the discomfort from being beyond our own Upper Limit kicks in and we subconsciously create or attract a situation that’ll regulate our happiness levels down to what we’ve come to see as “normal”.
Acute versus habitual (un)happiness
To avoid misunderstandings: I’m not saying we should always be blissfully happy. In fact, I’ve argued that that would be detrimental and unhealthy.
Going through happier-than-usual and also very unhappy periods in life is completely normal. If you’re in mourning or have just lost your job, got divorced, or are struggling with any misfortune in life, it’s normal and even good for you to fully experience the associated emotions.
Similarly, if you’ve just fallen in love or landed your dream job, you’re bound to be overjoyed for a while. Neither of these emotional extremes are better or worse than the other. What they have in common is that they’re bound to a particular situation or event in your life. As such they are also temporary.
What I’m talking about in this article is the way we feel outside such extraordinary circumstances. When our lives are ticking away, we still have a lot of reasons to be happy, objectively, but we might not feel the matching levels of happiness.
How to be
Now if you look at the above, you might notice that a lot of the things that makes us feel “meh” are fairly natural: habit, evolutionary burdens, the things we learn from the people around us from childhood onwards. By now, it should be fairly obvious that there’s nothing wrong with us if we’re not feeling happy all the time.
The point is that it’s possible to turn up the thermostat, to raise the Upper Limit and to create new, happier habits. It’s not something you learn overnight; instead, it requires a long-term commitment and many small steps. Here are a few to get you started.
1. New and shiny
Asked about the times they were the happiest in their lives, most people talk about special events such as getting married, travelling the world, having a child. It seems that humans thrive on the extraordinary and new. Therefore, make sure you do something new regularly! Try out a new hobby. Meet new people. Learn a new skill. It keeps you on your toes, preserves your mental flexibility, and it quite simply makes you outrageously happy.
Do what lights you up. One of the reasons I centre my work around passions is that they are a key to everyday happiness. If you do something that gets you into the “flow”, that makes you forget time, it’s almost like you fall in love: You’re floating on a cloud and your happiness is off the charts.
3. Helping others
There are few things more fulfilling than helping our fellow human beings. We’re social animals, after all! Volunteer your time, get involved in a good cause. You needn’t limit yourself to humans, either: working with animals is immensely gratifying, too. If you’re short on time or opportunity, support a cause through online activisim or donations. I often help provide loans to woman in third-world countries through Kiva, and it gives me so much joy to read their success stories afterwards.
4. Wooing your senses
Make a conscious effort to indulge your five senses. Listen to your favourite music. Redecorate or create a corner in your house with all your favourite colours. Dress in natural fibres and enjoy the feeling of the textures on your skin. Wear your favourite perfume or get flowers whose scent you love. Eat and truly taste your favourite foods and drinks. There are few things that create more happiness hormones.
Pick one or more of the above techniques and apply them regularly. The important thing is to set yourself reminders in the calendar or on your phone in order to make them a habit. Gradually, you’ll feel the difference it makes, and eventually, you’ll spend quite a lot of time being, simply, outrageously happy.