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Choose Happiness Every Time

You'll get more out of life if you go through it with a smile


Shivani Sen  

In the years leading up to my 40th, I navigated life's sharp curves. While I coasted along in my career path comfortably, my personal life hit a rough patch, even as I experienced the joys of motherhood. Then a life-changing event--my husband's sudden death--left me feeling numb. Singledom, with the accompanying silence and loneliness, the crushing load of solo parenting and worries of being the only caregiver to ageing parents, besieged me.


Luckily, I had many friends and well-wishers who saw me through the grief and pain. I experienced the joy of friendship and community support. Though a number of job changes brought on bouts of financial instability, they also led me to explore new roles and discover new things about myself. After a few years, I knew I had turned a corner.


Most importantly, I realized I was not the only one who was struggling with happiness. India ranks 133rd amongst 156 countries--11 spots below its ranking in 2017, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. "Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live," states the report (see box).
 

Research indicates that the longer you live, the more likely you are to become happier. As it happens, happiness traverses a U-shaped curve: We're happiest in our childhood and old age. Happiness levels steadily drop during early adulthood, bottoming out in our mid-40s. By age 50, those levels are on an upswing again.  So, while it seems that I possibly hit rock bottom earlier than expected--in my 30s--and still worry about unknown pitfalls lurking in the future, I am more mindful of the present. I concur with Dr Vijay Nagaswami, Chennai-based psychiatrist and author of the series The New Indian Marriage, who says, "It is more likely to be a jagged 'U', as life and happiness rarely follow linear patterns. And even as our happiness levels are on the downward curve, we might, nevertheless, experience periods of great happiness." And I take heart in the boost that awaits me.


Our sliding happiness curve is attributed to stress and significant life changes during our 20s, 30s and 40s: Working long hours, establishing a career, getting married, raising children, caring for ageing parents, putting away money for the future, et al.  


And perspective does come with age. "In the 50s and later, there is an acceptance of one's abilities and achievements along with a reality check," says
Dr Prabha Chandra, professor and head, department of psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru.


"The optimism of youth, which can reflect a magical type of thinking that success in life is inevitable, is replaced by the reality that things aren't always good. However, there is also the understanding that good can come from bad," adds Lisa F. Carver, an adjunct professor in the sociology department at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

 

Happiness & Relationships

Do you have friends or relatives whom you can confide in? If yes, then you're automatically happier than people who have no one to turn to for advice or companionship.


According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development that tracked the lives of 724 men, over the past 75 years, there are three big lessons to be learnt about relationships: Social connections are good for us, loneliness can kill and--perhaps the most important one--it is not the number of friends or social connections you have but the quality of your close relationships that matter.


So, though research indicates that people who are married or live with their partners tend to be happier than those who are unattached simply because the former are less likely to be lonely, it's the texture of your relationships that makes the difference. Happiness researcher, John Helliwell, an advisor to the Happiness Research Institute and professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia in Canada, who is the first to examine the intersection of marriage and friendship and its effects on happiness, says, "Calling your spouse your best friend is another way of saying 'I've got a pretty happy marriage'."

Regardless of the status of one's relationship, people who have someone to count on are happier, simply because they're less likely to be lonely.

 

Happiness & Work

Researchers have studied job traits that lead to happiness and greater life satisfaction and concluded that most people prefer a good work-life balance above all else.

Variety and learning new things are important, but not as important as work-life balance," says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, associate professor of economics and strategy at the University of Oxford's Said Business School. "If you feel your job is preventing you from giving time to your family or partner, or if you worry about work problems even when you're not working, or if you're too tired after work to enjoy other things, that has a massive effect on your well-being."

Delhi-based clinical psychologist Ashima Puri believes that today most of us focus all our energy on work and this leads to an early burnout. "In our 30s, stress is a major factor for unhappiness. We need to teach our brain to work at happiness … to create it. Train your brain to look for solutions and positive outcomes, and soon this becomes your second nature," she says. Clearly, it is possible to learn happiness. Today, you can also study it as a course in prestigious institutes like Harvard and Yale or enroll in 'A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment' course by the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, on Coursera.org.

 

Happiness & Health

Cultivating a happy outlook on life works like a charm. Just like eating healthy and exercising. "Being content and at peace with our environment keeps negative emotions in check. This affects our neurochemicals as well. A stressed and unhappy person will be prone to psychosomatic conditions like anxiety, headaches, digestive issues or blood pressure fluctuations," says Dr Sameer Malhotra, director, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi.
 

According to Chandra, the feeling of despondency and not being an active, contributing member of society can deplete happiness levels. Adds Shalini Anant, Mumbai-based clinical psychologist: you don't need a health scare to start living healthy. "Staying active and eating healthy not only prevents lifestyle diseases but also boosts happiness," she advises.

 

Happiness & Self-Care

Optimism and resilience can help you cope with stressors and keep you buoyant. Malhotra believes that the sooner we take decisions that help us be happier, the better it is. That includes scheduling a fixed bedtime and picking up a hobby or sport to balance the demands of leading a competitive lifestyle. "Factoring in fun and enjoyment is essential for peace and harmony in life," he adds.
 

"The mechanism for the association between optimism and successful ageing may very well be that optimistic older adults have the ability to cope with the curve balls of life," Carver says. "They are resilient. They express life satisfaction despite upset plans and losses because they have adapted their expectations and have accepted that events that may logically be considered negative can have positive outcomes."


"People who are able to feel a range of emotions, including negative ones, are happier than those who insist on feeling happy all the time. Allowing ourselves to feel a range of emotions helps us feel them more genuinely; whereas if we try to numb our unpleasant emotions, unfortunately the pleasant emotions also become superficial," says Anant.

 

A Happier Me

Over the years, small things have helped me cope with my challenges. For example, I try to get a good night's sleep by sharing my worries with my tiny new friends--the Guatemalan worry dolls. It seems Guatemalan children, before they go to bed, tell their worries to the dolls--one worry to each doll--and place the dolls under their pillow. It lets them sleep well at night, and in the morning, the dolls have taken away their worries.

There's something calming about externalizing your worries and putting them away for a while, just as it is reassuring to acknowledge the things we have to be grateful for and feel happy for.

 

Happiness Pointers for Life

To make happiness your mainstay in life, researchers recommend the following:

 

Adjust your attitude.
You may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you react. "It is possible to develop the habit of seeing the positive side of things," Puri says. Deep breathing, meditation and even walking outdoors can help you get some distance that could change your perspective.  

Learning to be more optimistic is a good first step. Puri suggests recognizing negative thoughts as they arise and questioning them. For instance: ask yourself, is the situation really as bad as you think? Is there another way to approach it? What can you learn from this experience and apply it in the future?

"In the final analysis, it is the acceptance of our selves and our environment that determines how happy we are. This is invariably what happens when we survive our mid-life crises," says Nagaswami.

 

Learn something new. To avoid internalizing your troubles, give an outlet to your fears and worries. Malhotra suggests picking up a hobby or, simpler still, opening up to a friend. Exploring new experiences can boost happiness and enhance your quality of life.

 

Interact differently with your partner. After years together, many couples become so familiar with one another that they're not as kind to each other as they could be. This can lead to tension and unhappiness in a relationship, which affects daily happiness levels.

Ask yourself: is this the way you would behave with a good friend? If you treat your partner the way you treat a friend, it should involve less taking-for-granted and more positivity.

 

Focus on what you have. Look for opportunities to savour the small pleasures of daily life, focus on positive aspects in the moment without concentrating on the shadows of the past or bad thoughts. Live in the present, the future has a way of sorting itself out.

 

Express gratitude: "Contrary to just feeling gratitude, expressing thankfulness spreads goodwill and joy," says Puri. It makes us alert to the good around us and, as a result, we respond to our environment in a positive manner.

 

Give back. You'll find more purpose in life and have more reasons to connect with others on a regular basis if you volunteer in your community. By getting involved with a cause or an organization that's meaningful to you, you'll create opportunities to make more meaningful connections with new people.

 

--With inputs by Gagan Dhillon. Adapted from an article by Lisa Fields.   

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