The Declaration of Independence asserts the rights of Americans to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We all want to be happy. But, what is happiness? Why is it important? In this very stressful time, how can we build and grow happiness in our lives?

According to Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness is defined as the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being; combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. This definition takes us far beyond the normal, usually self-focused, conceptualization of happiness. Instead, it expands the concept of happiness to place value on the importance of life possessing meaning and worth.

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So, what are the benefits to happiness?

First, and obviously, happiness “feels” good. Beyond that though, happiness is good for our physical bodies — for our health. According to research, happy people have healthier immune systems and are less likely to get sick. They live longer. Next, happiness is good for our relationships. Happy people are more likely to have friendships which they rate as meaningful and fulfilling. People who are happy are more likely to get married and, once married, to report greater satisfaction with their marriages. Finally, happy people are better able to combat daily stress and negative life events. They face these events with greater ability to use coping strategies proactively and to manage any negative emotion that arises.

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So, our forefathers were “right” to value happiness but what “causes” happiness?

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According to Lyubomirsky and her colleagues, 50% of happiness is based on our genetic predisposition, our DNA. We are pre-wired to be a “more happy” person or a “less happy” person. Next, 10% of the cause of happiness can be linked back to our daily circumstances including: income, social status, age, where you live. Finally, the remaining 40% of the cause of happiness has been attributed to intentional activities — things that you choose to do to become happier. Subsequent research has changed the numbers somewhat saying that these percentages are too simplified but the overall concepts remain the same.

This is awesome news! This research means that, even when daily life is less than what we hope for, the impact of negative events is not as great as we often think that it will be. In fact, negatives will impact us less severely and will last less time than we anticipate they will. It also means that we have control over our personal happiness levels. Our daily life choices can make a direct impact on our daily experiences. We can create a life that supports meaning and purpose.

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How do we begin to create our own happy life? Lyubomirsky and her colleagues suggest several keys to happiness that can help us begin:

  • Build relationship: Connections with others repeatedly have been shown to be a key to happiness. We need to have people in our lives who we can support as well as those that can support us when needed.

  • Give thanks: Even in our darkest moments, there are still blessings around us. What we feel will be directly dependent on what we focus on. We can choose to focus on our challenges or to focus on our blessings. Outcomes will flow from which we choose.

  • Practice kindness: Recent research supports the idea that we often get greater benefit from doing good things for others as opposed to doing something for ourselves. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that areas of our brain associated with pleasure and reward become activated through simple acts of kindness towards others.

  • Get physical: Countless research has demonstrated the positive impact of exercise. Exercise positively affects both our physical health and our mental health. In addition, it increases self-esteem and decreases rates of depression and anxiety.

  • Get rest: According to Dr. Robert Emmons, good sleep hygiene can have a huge impact on a positive mood. In fact, Dr. Kahneman found that, in one study of 900 women, getting just one more hour of sleep each night could impact happiness as a significant raise.

  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness — or the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and external circumstances — has been shown to produce greatly lower rates of anxiety and depression. In addition, daily mindfulness practices have been shown to produce higher levels of satisfaction with life as well as higher levels of psychological well-being.

In these very stressful times, life can often seem overwhelming. One way to overcome these challenges is to, intentionally, choose to build happiness into our every day. Adding one practice into each day can have a huge impact not only on that day but on our futures. I choose to be happy. How about you?

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Holley Mathieu is a licensed psychologist at Northern Pines Mental Health Center