Just like a butterfly

Posted on December 6, 2011


I was working on a magazine feature not long ago about the science of happiness.  Fascinating. My intrigue first began post hearing an interview on Dubai Eye with a professor of happiness based here in the UAE.  He started the discussion by saying that in the history of Harvard, the course with the most popular sign-ups EVER was one on the science of happiness.

I’m already a sucker for books on positive psychology and personal development so digging a little deeper into this whole subject has kept me entertained for hours …

So today … Tori’s top takeaways from her reading and research so far … it’s not brain surgery, indeed many are obvious.  But sometimes, we forget. We get so wrapped up in looking forward that we forget to focus on the now.

  • Seeking ‘happiness’ alone is misguided; happiness is a byproduct of loads of different things in life: a meaningful purpose, passions, relationships with friends, family, lovers and others etc
  • Natural selection has wired us in such a way that it’s not the outcome but the process that makes us happy. Happiness comes from feeling we are making progress rather than achieving specific outcomes. This is why we should always break our big goals down into little goals
  • Your prefrontal cortex is prone to a cognitive illusion called the impact bias … what this means is that our brain vastly over estimates how happy certain outcomes will make us feel e.g. ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy’
  • To be happy with work, three key needs need fulfilled: autonomy – you have control over your time and what you do, competence – being excellent at a useful and valued skill and relatedness – feeling connected to others
  • We overestimate the effect that acquiring material goods will have on our long-term happiness. That 60-inch TV, VB handbag or jewel-encrusted pair of Manolos will not make much of a long term dent (other than to your bank balance) after the initial high. Once over a minimal threshold of wealth, increases do not bring much extra happiness
  • Work out. It gets you into a meditative-like state and pumps natural painkillers through your brain. We’ve all heard of the ‘runners high’ … and many of us experience it regularly first hand. Learning to push yourself when exercising makes you more resilient when facing the inevitable hardships in life. Exercise also powerfully boosts your mood and alleviates depression among those unfortunate enough to suffer from it
  • To those of you who worry constantly about what people think of you: they’re thinking about you less than you imagine. Other people are thinking about themselves, not you
  • Take more chances. ‘Worst case scenarios’ don’t usually transpire and are not as painful as you imagine they will be. Terrified to ask someone out on a date? Do it. If they say no, you will NOT be crushed forever with humiliation; it will be nowhere near as bad as you think it will be. (And, all else being equal, you have about a 50% chance of a stranger agreeing to a date with you – not bad odds)
  • Fulfilling, intimate, close relationships are important, but never reply on others for your own happiness / feelings of content … that should come from within
  • Don’t just ‘count your blessings’; vividly visualise how your life would be if those blessings were suddenly taken away from you. This elicits sincere gratitude
  • ‘Chase your dreams’ is good advice. Find a way to make money doing what you would do if you couldn’t make money out of it – the thing that gets you into a flow state. But this must be tempered with a dose of reality: there is no magical occupation in life that will fill you with endless delirious happiness. Thinking otherwise will lead you to be relentlessly unhappy and dissatisfied
  • Having too many options leads to perennial dissatisfaction. The freedoms you have and the multiple alternative life possibilities available to you, are, paradoxically, a source of enormous dissatisfaction.
  • Simplify your life. You are probably doing too many unnecessary things that clog up your schedule, stress you out, dilute your productivity and detract from the day to day enjoyment of life
  • If circumstances in your life are causing you unhappiness, sit down with a pen and paper and work out what the problems are and what steps you can take to eliminate the problems. Do not ruminate – eliminate!
  • Not everyone will love and adore you. Some people will detest you and they will be multiplied if you become successful. Don’t waste your time trying to make everyone like you
  • We are wired in such a way that losing stings more than winning brings pleasure … but some suffering is inevitable; it the flipside of having a mind capable of intense joy and love.
  • Be friends with happy people. Get rid of toxic friendships. Who you surround yourself with is crucial to your well-being, your life satisfaction and your success in personal endeavours.

Quite a lot here I know … perhaps a post worth printing out and sticking to the fridge. Or perhaps just remember the wonderful words of Henry David Throeau:

“Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits softly on your shoulder.”

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