406-543-7860 info@elementpt.com

What makes someone happy? Is it a good education? Good looks? Being married? Losing weight? Getting a raise at work? Being young? Hmm… the answer might actually surprise you.

This topic has long been researched. What actually is it that makes someone happy? If it were as easy as changing a couple of things in your life would you do it?

Let’s start with characteristics of happy people. It has been shown that happy people devote a great deal of time and energy to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying them. They are often religious or
spiritual, offer to help others and practice optimism when visualizing their future. They set goals and stay focused on them. Happy people often incorporate exercise into their daily or weekly routine. They also
operate out of a sense of gratitude for all that they have, even when what they have is not much. The more engaged one is in the moment, the happier he or she is. Research shows that only 50 percent of the time
people are focused on what they are doing in the present moment. That leaves the other half of the time for our minds to wander. So what are we thinking about?

Let’s face it some people are just born with an unhappy demeanor, while others appear giddy coming out of the womb. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California-Riverside professor of psychology, genetic makeup determines approximately half of our happiness “set point,” meaning that even though our happiness will fluctuate throughout life following pleasing or traumatic events; it will inevitably shift back to a natural level. Life circumstance, such as if we are married, healthy or wealthy, make up only 10 percent of happiness. The remaining portion of happiness – 40 percent – lies in our control.

That is exciting news as people predisposed to unhappiness are not doomed to stay unhappy. It takes work and dedication to change. Remember, “Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy.” “Happy people make people happy, but you can’t make someone happy.”

Happiness is more than a feeling. It is a state of being in the mind. It is important to focus on intrinsic qualities (qualities inside of us) rather than extrinsic qualities (qualities outside of us). People who focus on things outside of themselves, such as trying to make money, or having the “right” image, trying to be popular or of high status often will experience more anxiety and depression than happiness. When we focus our goals on ourselves we aim at personal growth, accepting ourselves and having closer relationships with those we love. This often brings a sense of connection with the community. It has been proven that these people are in general, happier and have less chance of abusing drugs or alcohol.

A large part of happiness comes from learning to accept ourselves for who we are and where we are in life. How many times in life have you heard someone say, “Be positive! Tell yourself something good about
yourself until you believe it.” In other words, “Fake it until you make it”. For people who have high self-esteems repeating positive affirmations may make them feel better, but only a little bit. However, for those who have low self -esteems, this repeating of positive affirmations can actually have a more negative effect. The reason is because we tend to be comparing ourselves to other people, which leads to self-criticism. Rather we need to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves. This type of behavior, compassion, is associated more with intrinsic motivation, setting personal goals with far less failure.

So what is the key? It’s learning to feel a wide range of feelings; the painful emotions as well as the “feel good” emotions. In other words, we need to acknowledge the good with the bad. Studies actually show that people who are able to go into the painful or dark emotions will come out happier in the end. Learn to approach your dark side and make friends with it.

There are ample stories out there that tell us if you have been tossed around by life you actually become more adept and happy. Remember, ethics, values and core beliefs become refined during the hard times. Hardships, diversity and setbacks are the best teachers. Extreme trauma can make you feel broken, but that is where the light shines through. If you continue to avoid feelings and the hardships of life, you will remain stuck. You must learn to go deeper and find the meaning.

Make an effort to be grateful, to help others rather than focus on oneself. Create new habits, keep an eye on the future, and practice self-control and delayed gratification. As you do these things you will find that greater self-acceptance you may have been looking for.

Amy Downing, PT, is the owner of
Element Physical Therapy in Missoula.