Explaining Happiness

India’s famous spiritual teacher, Osho, once said, “Happiness is like a tree going into the sky, and sadness is like the roots going down into the womb of the earth. Both are needed, and the higher a tree goes, the deeper it goes, simultaneously.”

Osho believed that these two mood states, although opposite in direction, are always in proportion and balance, and that both are necessary for a healthy life.

No matter how swimmingly life may be going at one moment, there are always a thousand things beneath the surface that may cause people sadness. Whether a beloved football team loses in the playoffs, or you missed the subway by a few seconds, sometimes even small derailments can put an individual into a funk. Sadness and dissatisfaction can also come from a more deep-seated place, such as feeling unfulfilled at your job or losing a close relative.

Sorrow can be beneficial in terms of increasing a person’s compassion and empathy, spurring much-needed life changes, or simply providing catharsis for pent up tension and emotion. In general, however, many people understandably try to keep gloominess at bay, often looking for simple tips to keep their mood lifted.

Some tricks to stay happy include exposing yourself to more natural sunshine, looking at old photographs, and playing with animals. While it’s not very hard to figure out why such activities would make people feel warm and fuzzy, there is actual science behind why they make us feel good. BTR explores the how behind some of the most well known mood-lifting tricks.

Exercise

It’s been said time and time again: a good workout is one of the best natural medicines for both body and mind. During exercise the brain releases a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” This protein protects neurons from the anticipated effects of a prolonged battle, essentially preparing a person for an intense workout. The brain also releases endorphins during physical exertion to numb pain and allow individuals to perform at their best, while also inducing euphoria–this is what’s going on physiologically during a “runner’s high.”

Engaging in physical activity not only induces feelings of wellbeing though, it can actually make difficult situations and problems seem more manageable. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor mentioned earlier “soothes ruffled neurons” to foster a sense of clarity.

A study evaluating the prevalence of leisure-time physical activity and episodes of mood alteration in a population-based sample of adults found that the practice of physical activity is related to “improvements in personality and an increasing ability to tolerate tension and frustrations.” Engaging in exercise has also been shown to elevate self-esteem and self-confidence levels due to the “behavioral shaping” that takes place when an individual makes the conscious decision to take part in an activity that will benefit them.

Another study found that maintaining an exercise regimen at a baseline level decreased mood instability. In the study, researchers asked participants to record the amount of time they spent engaging in physical activity as well as how much time they devoted to leisurely activities which was defined as time that is free from work, sleeping, eating, and engaging with family or other obligations. Essentially, leisure activities meant time devoted to a person’s hobbies.

The study found that individuals who maintained a steady exercise schedule reported lower mood instability. Similarly, individuals with high neuroticism reported less satisfaction with leisure but did not necessarily spend less time in leisure. In fact, they often spent more time watching television and using the internet for social contact–a possible argument that for a happier outlook, individuals may want to step away from their TVs and computers for less mood swings and a higher overall life satisfaction.

Sleep

Similar to exercise, sleep has been touted quite a lot in recent years as a major component in happiness and wellbeing. Unfortunately, research has found that 40 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night, despite experts’ recommendations to get seven to nine hours of shuteye.

Experts have a good reason for recommending this amount of sleep. Sleep deprivation studies indicate that when people do not get an adequate amount of rest, they feel more irritable, angry, and hostile. On a long-term scale, sleep loss is associated with depressed feelings.

Sleep deprivation amplifies a negative mood due to increased amygdala activity. The amygdala is a brain structure that is fundamental to experiences of negative emotions such as anger and rage. In addition to increased activity in this brain area, sleep loss also creates a disconnect between the amygdala and the area of the brain that regulates its functions. Not only does sleep deprivation intensify negative moods, it also makes it more difficult for people to fully process the emotional benefits of a positive experience.

Once someone is sleep deprived, it may be difficult even for friends of this individual to pull him or her out of an emotional rut. Sleep loss may decrease a person’s social functioning and lead to mood swings that may not always go over well with peers that are less empathetic.

To be functioning with ideal emotional levels, regularly get a good night of sleep.

Enjoy what you do

It’s very tempting to urge someone you know who may be feeling down to simply go out into the world and start doing something, anything. While your heart may be in the right place, and surely it seems that engaging in any activity is probably better than moping around at home, research has found that this is not necessarily the case.

In a study examining the association between engagement in valued activities and adolescent positive adjustment, it was found that how much importance and enjoyment individuals took away from an activity was crucial in how much they benefited from said activity.

Subjects’ greater engagement in valued activities (those that they enjoyed, found important, and spent time on) predicted higher optimism, purpose, and self-esteem over time. In the study it was not necessarily important if the activity was in an organized context (school clubs, sports teams) or in a non-organized context (hobbies done alone at home such as reading, writing, computer programming, and crafts). Instead, the amount of value that each adolescent put on the activity determined how much of a positive effect it had.

The time at which a person engages in valued activities was also found to be of importance. According to the study, finding valued activities during adolescence, as opposed to childhood or adulthood, may be pivotal for future life satisfaction. This is because adolescents are essentially exploring their identities through these activities, which in turn may facilitate pursuing future career options since teenagers may be able to “determine if they can make a long-term commitment to a particular skill or occupation.”

Essentially, this study concluded that finding fulfilling activities as a teenager makes higher life satisfaction as an adult more attainable, so people should find what they love, or keep exploring if they haven’t found it yet.

Whether it’s making time for a run, a good night’s sleep, or a passion that makes you excited about life, there are ways to become more in control of your personal happiness–it’s scientifically proven.

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