Are you happy? Do you know your life’s purpose? Most people spend their lives on a quest for happiness that is long lasting, but the journey is often thwarted by short-term pleasures and dead ends.
Harvard Medical School’s Dr Sanjiv Chopra, a professor of medicine, and Gina Vild, say the search for happiness is hardwired in our DNA. It transcends age, gender, geography, vocation and personal circumstances.
Here, they explore the science behind happiness and share their seven steps for a more fulfilling life.
The science of happiness emerges
What is it that science has revealed about the relationship between happiness and living a life brimming with purpose? So much is known, and all this knowledge can be used as actionable tools to expedite a journey toward purpose.
Finding your personal purpose is the turnkey to finding joy. Purpose can be defined as meaningful experiences that are unrelated to baubles, expensive toys and material objects.
Science has shown us that our brains are hardwired to feel ongoing pleasure from rich and meaningful experiences, as opposed to dopamine – the pleasure–reward neurotransmitter – that is on a transient drip-drip-drip fed by expensive toys, houses, cars, vacations, and all other forms of conspicuous consumption.
Dopamine dwindles over time
As with a drug addiction, we build tolerance and require bigger hits. But when we have meaningful experiences with other people, our brains reward us with oxytocin. We feel more connected. We create community and feel safe and more deeply nurtured. Friendship, forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, and service create these meaningful experiences.
A positive feedback loop is created when we seek more of those connections, more of these experiences that suffuse the brain in oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
When a life is guided by meaningful experiences, there is no chasing; there is only connection. Creating good experiences for others is a sustainable way to make ourselves happy. And when we are happy, we flourish!
Seven simple steps to a happier you
Here are seven simple exercises to set you on a path to embracing your own unique life purpose and ensuring that you flourish.
1. Gratitude exercises
Each night, write in a journal one to three things you are especially grateful for. Research has shown that keeping a gratitude journal correlates with peace of mind and elevated levels of happiness.
Gratitude to go
Every morning, begin your day by writing down three things you are grateful for. Fold up the piece of paper and carry it with you in your handbag or pocket.
Gratitude shared with a friend
Find a friend who is going through a difficult time or a friend who would enjoy this exercise. Agree to send each other every day an email that outlines three things you are grateful for. The shared experience will be bonding and thoroughly enjoyable.
‘I love you’ gratitude
Rekindle your marriage or relationship with a daily gratitude. Agree to tell your partner in writing one thing that you love about him or her over a 30-day period. It can be simple or detailed, serious or fun.
2. Thorns, buds, and roses
Around the dinner table or before bed, ask your children to share an experience that frustrated them (a thorn). Follow up by asking them to identify an opportunity that might have remedied the negative experience (a bud). Conclude by asking them what positive might have resulted (a rose).
3. Nightly affirmations
Each night before going to sleep, say an affirmation that will program your brain for happiness. Here are two suggestions:
“I live with abundance, love, and compassion.”
“I will flourish in all that I do and inspire others to do the same.”
4. Say “thank you” out loud to others
Say “thank you” to the security officer at work, to the young person who packs your groceries, to your children, to your partner. Consider saying “thank you” instead of apologising.
5. Praise your colleagues
Write notes to your colleagues to bring them joy and enhance their sense of appreciation. If someone helps you figure out a computer glitch, if someone gives a powerful presentation, if someone offers you a good idea, jot that colleague a quick note to let him or her know the kindness was noticed and appreciated.
6. Ask your friends to relive their happy memories (and yours, too)
Spend time reliving happy memories with your family and friends. Recall a funny vacation story, a long talk late into the night, or an excursion to a consignment shop with your girlfriends that resulted in beautiful finds. This is a direct route to smiles and happiness.
7. Find your purpose in 30 days
For 30 consecutive days, jot down on a three-by-five card three or four things that you did that day.
Give each activity a rating from one to 10, equating one with something that made you feel miserable and 10 with something that made you feel joyful.
At the end of the month, identify all activities that you rated seven or above. Reflect on these activities.
It is likely that you will be able to identify those actions that most resonate and give your life meaning. In these activities, you will find breadcrumbs to lead you on a path to a purpose-filled life.
This is an edited extract from The Two Most Important Days, by Dr Sanjiv Chopra and Gina Vild. Hachette Australia, RRP $29.99.