We all want to be happy, but if you’re anything like me the task of keeping spirits high is not quite as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, it feels like you’re so tangled up in your own thoughts that the world around you just kind of… fades into the background. You don’t feel comfortable with yourself. But what does that actually mean? How can our sense of ‘self’ make us happy?
It turns out that our senses of self-acceptance and self-esteem have a massive effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. The way in which we see ourselves plays a key role in our happiness, and yet it is a role that is so often neglected. Meaningful relationships, in particular, give us a sense of identity and security that has been proven to not only increase happiness and reduce stress psychologically but also biologically, changing the very structure of the brain and keeping us healthier for longer.
So, with that promising start, let’s take a look at how we can be happier with ourselves, starting with what the experts have to say.
- What do you need to be happy with yourself?
- Self-Acceptance and the impact on your happiness
- 4 ways to be happier with who you are
- Self-acceptance is not easy, but worth it
- Wrapping up
What do you need to be happy with yourself?
One of the longest-running investigations into happiness is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began following the lives and developments of 724 men all the way back in 1938 when they were just teenagers.
Of the original cohort from diverse backgrounds, one of whom was none other than John F. Kennedy, about 60 are still alive and still taking part in the over-70-year-old study. Throughout their lives, researchers tracked their health and happiness in great detail and now Dr. Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study, tells us three things that they learned.
- Social connections are vital for our health, both mental and physical. Loneliness kills.
- The quality of relationships is what matters, not the quantity.
- Good relationships actively protect our brains as we age.
So, how do our relationships with others affect our health? After all, Dr. Waldinger claims that good relationships are as important for our physical health as not smoking and not drinking. That’s quite a statement, but it has its foundations in fact.
We all like to spend time with our loved ones and it turns out that your body is thanking you too!
The research shows that people who have more active social lives are not only happier but also healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated.
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Loneliness lowers our internal happiness
On the other hand, loneliness really is quite damaging. The study showed that people who spend less time with others than they would like are less happy, their health and mental faculties deteriorate quicker in midlife and they are prone to dying younger.
So, if you’re currently living that single life you might be getting concerned at this point, but before you panic and grab the first person off the street and drag them up to the altar, let’s discuss that second finding – the quality of relationships is more important than the quantity.
It turned out that people in happy, satisfying relationships gained many advantages, like being happier in themselves, physically healthier, and even less affected by pain and memory decline in later life.
Those in relationships that were problematic and unsatisfying, actually suffered as a result, with worse health, greater pains, and more severe memory decline.
Interestingly though, this wasn’t just for romantic relationships, but for platonic relationships as well. Though having a loving and stable romantic relationship might be good for you, meaningful friendships are also vitally important to your well-being.
Inner happiness may come down to who’s around you
If we want to be happier with ourselves, we need to understand that we are social animals.
Humans are just not designed to live solitary lives, and though wanting some alone time from the kids or your other half is perfectly normal, true isolation is bad for our health in so many ways.
The happiest retirees are those that manage to maintain good romantic and platonic relationships late into their lives, so maybe if we start appreciating the role others play in our happiness, we might get longer to enjoy our good mood.
Self-Acceptance and the impact on your happiness
According to Srini Pillay, writing for Harvard Health Publishing, ‘self-acceptance’ is another way in which our mental state can affect our well-being.
To be clear, self-acceptance and self-confidence are not quite the same things. We can be confident in ourselves, at least in specific scenarios, without having truly accepted ourselves.
Pillay uses a definition of self-acceptance from a paper written by a team in Brazil, who states that self-acceptance is ‘an individual’s acceptance of all of his/her attributes, positive or negative’. The key here is positive and negative. It’s not enough to just accept the things you like about yourself, that’s the easy part. It’s the things you don’t like, even the things you hate, that pose the challenge for most of us. I never said self-acceptance was easy, so why bother?
Well, much like how our relationships can affect both our mental and physical health, so too can self-acceptance. It is well known that stress can wreak havoc with our health, and it turns out that people with a greater level of self-acceptance experience a reduced effect from stress, whereas a lack of acceptance can actually increase stress and anxiety.
Self-acceptance also has a measurable, physical effect on the brain. Incredibly, studies have shown that people who feel negatively about themselves have less grey matter in the areas of the brain that deal with emotions and stress, making them less effective.
Yes, you read that right, how you see yourself actually changes the structure of your brain!
4 ways to be happier with who you are
Happiness is a complicated and ethereal thing, and what may work for one person might not work for you.
Just remember, if one thing doesn’t work you are not doomed to a life without happiness. Everyone has something that makes them happy and can help them on their way to self-acceptance, you just need to figure out what works for you. To help you find that thing, here are a few tips.
1. Self-regulate your negative thoughts into positive thoughts
This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like and involves grappling with and suppressing negative opinions and ideas about yourself. It is a conscious decision to take negativity and find a way to either make it positive or get rid of it.
In my opinion, this ‘brute-force’ method might not be the best, as it can sometimes lead to the problem being dodged and ignored instead of actually dealt with. Studies tell us that a lot of self-hatred issues are subconscious anyway, meaning that conscious efforts can’t really get to them.
2. Self-transcendence and find your purpose in life
Firstly, no, this method does not turn you into some godlike spirit from the 5th dimension; it’s not that kind of transcendence. Instead, this strategy focuses on our connectedness with the world around us and the people in it.
By engaging more with family, friends, and our communities, we can aim to achieve a sense of purpose and unity within our social circles. This then allows us to more clearly understand our own thoughts and emotions – we become ‘transcendent’ of ourselves. Cool, right?
We have an entire section on this blog about finding your purpose in life, filled with actionable tips and interesting articles!
3. Practice mindfulness
You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness recently, but what does it mean?
Basically, mindfulness is the practice of acknowledging our thoughts and feelings without judging them or obsessing over them. Our friend Srini Pillay describes this as ‘calming down your amygdala’, which is one of those parts of your brain that gets involved with emotions.
Being kind to ourselves and compassionate about the way we are feeling can have very positive effects on emotional health, increasing our self-acceptance and even increasing connectivity in the brain. If you want to read more about mindfulness and how to live more in the present, I got you covered.
4. Simply exercise more often
Exercise is well known for increasing the flow of endorphins in our bodies and thus making us feel happier, but that’s not all it does.
Many of us struggle with self-acceptance, at least in part, because of how we look. The world isn’t kind in the stereotypes and standards of beauty and health it sets for us because most of us don’t look like those people in the perfume adverts.
However, I have found that working towards a healthier, fitter version of myself has made me feel better. I know I will never look like [insert your chosen heartthrob here], but the act of taking control of my life and trying to make a positive change for myself has really helped me with my self-acceptance.
Sometimes, just trying is enough to get those positive effects rolling.
Self-acceptance is not easy, but worth it
Being happy with who we are is no easy task.
Struggling with self-acceptance is probably one of the most common problems in the world and it really is nothing to be ashamed of. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to leave it unchecked.
The science says that by valuing our relationships, avoiding self-judgment, and treating ourselves well, we can tackle those pesky doubts and negative thoughts, clearing our minds to see just how wonderful we really are.
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I hope this article has helped you on your way to self-acceptance and the happiness that comes with it. Just remember, treat yourself and those around you with kindness and compassion, and the rest will follow. Now, I’m off to do some exercise… wish me luck!
Do you want to share your own tips on how to be happy with who you are? Did I miss any interesting studies that could be added to the article? I'd love to hear in the comments below!