“It’s like someone has taken away all my happiness,” is something I hear quite often as a psychologist. But what if happiness isn’t a possession someone can take away, but rather a skill that can be learned?
Happiness can be learned and practiced, just like any other skill. It’s constantly changing and while different life events can influence it, a large part of happiness lies in our own subjective perception. Learning to control and regulate our perceptions and judgments will help us boost and maintain our happiness levels.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the evidence that happiness can be learned and provide some ideas for your own happiness curriculum.
What is happiness exactly? What is there to learn about happiness? This article is a part of the most in-depth guide on how to be happy, which answers these questions in the first section: What Is Happiness?
The basics of happiness
There are many factors that influence our happiness – physical and mental health, relationships, our job and finances, and so on. While it’s clear that supportive relationships and being in good health make us happy, there’s no objective measure to determine how supportive your relationships or good your health have to be.
Happiness is, above all, subjective. And while this makes happiness hard to define, it also means that it’s up to us where we choose to find it.
Happiness is also often prone to change and fluctuation. The set-point theory of subjective well-being posits that our level of happiness is determined by heredity and by personality traits, and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. But even this theory makes allowance for the fact that major life events will cause our happiness levels to fluctuate, and there is evidence that set-points can change over time.
In short, happiness is never set in stone and this brings us to the third tenet of happiness. Namely, happiness can be learned.
Happiness can be learned
A recent article reports the effects of a 9-month mental training program called The Art of Happiness. The program consisted of lectures, readings and discussions on the topics like the purpose of life, empathy and compassion, working with difficult emotions and self-image, and finding meaning, as well as two retreats.
The results showed that there was an increase in the participants’ levels of life satisfaction and of the capacities to act with awareness, and a decrease in levels of trait anxiety, trait anger, and negative affect.
This study, published just this year, isn’t the first one to show that happiness can be trained. A 2009 meta-analysis reports that positive psychology interventions significantly enhance well-being and decrease depressive symptoms.
Neither is The Art of Happiness the first training program that has been shown to be effective. For example, a 1977 study reports that a self-study program was effective in increasing personal happiness and life satisfaction. Similarly, mindfulness-based stress reduction, one of the most well-known satisfaction-boosting and stress-reducing programs, was developed in the 70s.
Neurons that fire together, wire together
Humans are amazingly adaptable and capable of learning all kinds of things. From algebra to the piano, we can become proficient in almost anything.
We owe this adaptability to neuroplasticity – our brains’ ability to form new neural connections. The more you practice something, the stronger the connection becomes – in the words of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb:
The neurons that fire together, wire together.Donald Hebb
But just like you can forget how to solve equations or play a certain piece on the piano, staying happy requires ongoing practice. The more you practice happiness, the happier you become.
How to learn happiness
The idea of training yourself to be happy may sound a little weird, but it’s entirely possible, and quite simple, if you know what you’re doing. Like all skills, it takes time and practice, so don’t be discouraged. Here are 5 tips for compiling your personal happiness curriculum.
1. Be mindful
Mindfulness is all about finding peace and joy in the moment and letting go of judgements, which in turn will boost your happiness. It helps us accept things the way they are and stop worrying over what could be different.
Some easy mindfulness practices to include in your daily routine are learning how to say “It is what it is” to let go of your worries and taking time to breathe. If you’ve never dabbled in mindfulness, you can try this 3-minute breathing exercise.
2. Search for the silver lining
Sometimes, things are less than ideal. That’s a part of life, and we shouldn’t strive to be positive at all times, but we should be mindful of focusing too much on the negatives. It pays to look for the silver lining, even in situations that seem pretty bad at first glance.
The more you practice, the better you get at finding new opportunities in your life that you would have otherwise missed.
3. Own your successes
Often, people tend to deflect compliments and praise. I am certainly guilty of not accepting compliments, and reacting to praise with embarrassment. But these reactions can take away from our happiness.
When someone praises you, chances are you’ve earned it, and compliments are usually sincere. Learning how to accept them without embarrassment or deflection can make you more confident and happy.
So the next time someone pays you a compliment, accept it with a smile and a thank you.
4. Practice gratefulness
In addition to accepting compliments, taking stock of things in your life that you can be grateful for can make you happier.
Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to keep your focus on the positives. Whether it’s big things like having kept your job in a global pandemic, or small things like getting to go for a walk on a sunny day, finding things to be grateful for helps you build your happiness skills.
5. Find your why
It’s easier to be happy if your life has a meaning and a purpose. While mindless meandering has its charms, knowing why you do the things you do makes it easier to get through the harder parts of life.
When you’re in a motivation slump or just stuck in a rut, it’s often your purpose that helps you get unstuck, while living meaningfully can prevent getting stuck in the first place.
Happiness is never set in stone and depends a lot on our subjective perception of life, which means that it can be learned. Like with all skills, it takes time and practice to form and strengthen the neural networks of happiness in your brain. Training your brain to be happier requires conscious effort to pay attention to the positives and find purpose and meaning, but the more you practice, the easier it is!
What do you think? Can happiness be learned, or have you never managed to take control of the way you feel? I’d love to hear in the comments below!