The Most Important Article You’ll Ever Read: The Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness. Part 3 of 3

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Welcome to part 3, the last of my series, The Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness. If you haven’t read part 1 or part 2, please do. They are loaded with great tips as well. I broke this into three posts so readers would have a chance to digest each recommendation. Each one is important, and each one will work at increasing your happiness.

This is the more controversial of the three posts. As with parts 1 and 2, this post has a lot of good information. Some may not agree with everything, and may even have something against what I say, but give it a chance. Read it over, think about each point. You don’t have to agree with everything…these suggestions still work (although the verdict is still out on having kids) but they have to work for you, your personality and your beliefs. Here are the recommendations making up part 3 of The Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness. Please pass this on.

Explore ways to relax – meditation techniques and yoga
Although it’s changing, there is a fear in some out there of both yoga and meditation. I’ve heard it said in response to recommending yoga, that it is a “slippery slope.” To where they think they might slide…I’m not sure.

Neither yoga or meditation are religions. They are techniques…practices. Meditation is the practice of slowing down, of taking time to not worry, to not be distracted, to enjoy the moment. There are many benefits of learning the principles and techniques of mindful meditation. By learning to focus on our breathing, we can calm ourselves in stressful situations so we can react appropriately. It can also help us focus on what’s important. A technique can be as simple as taking a slow deep breath while counting to five, then exhaling counting to three, and repeating this five times, thinking about the sensation of breathing while you are doing it. Try it. There are many good books and blog posts written on different techniques.

Yoga is a mindful exercise. I would even argue that it could be one of the most well rounded, most efficient, and beneficial exercises we can do. It often employs some of the meditative techniques during and at the end of a session. Start with beginners yoga and don’t get discouraged. We all have to start somewhere.

Slow down and enjoy the moment
Be aware, and present…thinking about what we are seeing and how we are interpreting what’s going on around us. Whether you’re playing with your kids, cooking dinner, or talking to your spouse, try and focus on what you are doing right then and there. Put your concerns aside about all the things you have to do, all the things that stress us out, and enjoy what you are doing.

Try to think the best of people
If something is said or done that could be interpreted in more than one way, try and give the person the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be naive and don’t be a doormat, but when ever possible, think the best of people.

Have pets
There are times when being a pet owner can be stressful, frustrating, expensive, and a lot of work, however, pets have an amazing way of lifting our spirits. The wag of a dog’s tail as you rub it’s head, the purr of a cat as it makes bread in your lap, fish coming to the surface when you feed them…they remind us that we make a difference. This is an important ingredient for achieving and maintaining happiness.

Show respect
There are many people we come across who have been through a lot. Whether it’s an elder, a veteran, someone who is trying their best, or someone who is just trying to get by. It may simply be someone who has been around and seen things we haven’t. Show them the respect they deserve. Slow down. Don’t rush them. Listen to what they have to say. Learn from them. It will likely make their day…and yours.

Spirituality
I throw this one in because it’s mentioned a lot in articles about happiness. There are some studies which support a notion that people who are spiritual are happier. I would suggest that it is not as important that we be religious or spiritual, but instead, that we be content with our beliefs in that area. We should all explore what spirituality means to us personally and continue to ask questions until we are content with our beliefs.

Be Organized…Intentional Living
I’ve had a number of periods in my life when I’ve felt overwhelmed…bogged down by overcommitments, deadlines, and demands on my time and mental energy. The more things pile up, the more we become stressed, scattered, and fragmented in our though processes, and at the same time, we become less productive. It’s a terrible feeling, but sadly, it’s all too common. It is human nature to desire some degree of control in our lives. If we feel we’ve lost this, hopelessness sets in.

One of the best ways to combat this is to be organized. Spend some time, every day, planning. What do you want to accomplish tomorrow? What about in the next week? What projects do you have hanging over you and what is the smallest next-action step that will move you forward on each. There are many great books on this. Even a little time organizing will lead to greater satisfaction in your accomplishments, give you more control over your life, less stress, and more happiness. Think of it as intentional living.

Have kids
Like spirituality, I’m mentioning this one because the topic of kids is often discussed in happiness books. It might come as a surprise that current research suggests that having kids makes us miserable. Well, okay…maybe not miserable, or at least not all the time…but couples with kids rate their happiness significantly lower than couples without kids. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there is no rebound. As far as I’ve found in the available research, there is no payback…our happiness returns to the same level as those that don’t have kids…once the kids move out! Sorry to break the mythical illusion passed down from generation to generation, that having kids is fantastic.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “I thought you were recommending we have kids.” I do, because I believe the research is flawed. It hasn’t been researched closely enough yet. Anyone who has had kids knows it is hard…in fact, it is damn hard, but it is rewarding. I believe that with kids, we have higher highs and lower lows. If you can ride out the lows, the rewards are like nothing I’ve experienced before. To watch your child take their first steps…okay, you’re still be in the zombie years then and just want to go to bed, but later…to watch them score a basket in basketball, to see the excitement in their eyes, to see them joking around with friends, to have them look up to you…you can’t explain the feeling. So I say to ignore the research we have so far, and continue to perpetuate what may turn out to be the greatest myth in human history.

Limit the things that bring you down
1. Beware the effects of the news.
If you are sensitive to what you hear and what is going on around you…and all of us are to some extent, limit how much of the news you are exposed to. This might seem unreasonable to some…like poking your head in the sand. However, mainstream news is inflammatory and designed to stimulate fear and concern, and is almost all negative. You do not need it. Believe me, if something important is happening, you’ll hear about it. You can quickly skim internet feeds if you want a brief, controlled summary, reducing some of the impact on your stress level. Also give some consideration to greatly reducing how much television you watch, altogether.

2. Limit the time you spend with people who are bringing you down.
This might sound selfish, but is it really? Think of all the people you come in contact with. Your partner, kids, family, co-workers…these are all people you can have a positive impact on. You need to have the mental energy to be there. Given the power of mindful actions, of acts of kindness, of being aware of how you can help each of these people by being present and happy, ask yourself, can we really afford to be brought down? I’m not saying don’t be there for someone in need, but I am saying be careful how much of yourself you donate to things that bring you down.

3. Limit your Debt
Debt has to be one of the greatest stressors in today’s society. Be careful to keep it under control.

There you have it…the ultimate guide to increasing happiness. Concrete tools to implement. I suggest you try as many as you can. Review these strategies regularly. Print this out. Pin it at work, and at home. Bookmark it on your computer or tablet. Go back to it. Re-read it. Keep a Happiness journal mentioned in Part 1. Start watching and being aware of your thoughts, and what is influencing them. Implement as many of these strategies, as consistently as you can, for one month. Then report back here and comment on your progress.

Please let me know what you think. Do you think these strategies make any difference? Do you think we have any control over our happiness?

Wishing you well,

Silas Payton
I have a blog where I post articles on writing, happiness and other areas of thought stimulation. Click here if you wish to visit.
If you’re interested in purchase my thrillers, they are available right here on Amazon.

Image from Philippe Put on Flickr

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The Most Important Article You’ll Ever Read: The Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness. Part 2 of 3

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This is part two of a three part series, divided to not overwhelm, and to allow anyone a chance at trying each and every strategy. In part one of the Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness, I discuss the benefits of keeping a Happy Journal. If you haven’t read it go do that now. I recommend a standardized list of things you look for and track each day. If you consistently look for things that make you happy, your brain will start to see them where you might not have before. Tracking what makes you happy also helps highlight just how much you enjoy them, and helps you make decisions. After doing this a while, I quickly realized that one of my favorite things is playing basketball with my kids. It may sound obvious but believe me, these things get lost in the busyness of life. Now, I’ll almost drop anything to play some ball.

The suggestions laid out in this Ultimate Quick Guide to Increased Happiness do take a conscious effort, but they get easier with practice.

In your Happy Journal, I suggest the following two headings:
Things that made me happy (3), or that I feel grateful about, and my successes:

People I helped, Acts of Kindness, &/or Gifts given:

If you maintain a digital Happy Journal, you can copy and paste it over and over. If not, just write it at the top of the page and refer to it. This has to be as simple as possible so we don’t avoid doing it daily.

We should all strive to be as consistently happy as possible. When we are happy we are more productive, have a better quality of life, are healthier, and we make life better for those around us. I know the strategies in this three part series will help. Each one might not fit with you but try them all. Find what works best for you. Review this list over and over as a reminder and pass it on. Here are my recommendations in part 2.

Make someone laugh
Laughing is one of the best ways to bump up your happiness and the happiness of someone you meet. If you can make someone laugh, you may be turning their day around, as well as yours.

Give something away
This can be in time, material items, or money. Studies have shown that when we give something away, we feel better, not only at the time but anytime we look back and remember doing it. This can be volunteering our time, or giving what we can to a charity or someone in need. Of course, there are many other reasons to give of yourself other than to make yourself feel good, but it is a bonus. Make a note in your journal, of what you gave away that day.

Get some sunshine
This may go against popular convention for the past decade or two, but we know exposure to sunlight, effects our levels of three very important chemicals in the body: Serotonin, Melatonin, and Vitamin D. There is a biological mechanism by which we feel better when we get some sun. Don’t take this as my support for tanning beds or sun bathing…that’s not what I’m saying. Some safe sun exposure has been shown to be healthy and make us happy. M. Nathaniel Mead wrote a good article in Environmental Health Perspectives, outlining the health benefits. You can read it here. As a word of caution, there are many variables and much disagreement on how much sun is safe, so I’ll leave that up to you to research and decide upon.

Nurture your relationships
We are happier when we have a significant other in our lives. Be sure to protect your relationships. Show some love. Some gratitude. Do something special for them. I love the saying, “The grass is always greener…where you water and take care of it.” This also goes for other relationships we have, whether it be our family or friends, keep in touch. A short email, or phone call can go along way.

Focus energy & spending on experiences – Conscious Spending
Studies have shown that when we do something, we tend to be happier than when we purchase material items. This can be a dinner out, a show or concert, or a trip. It doesn’t need to cost a lot. I doesn’t need to cost anything. It really doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you enjoy and will look forward to. To get even more benefit from it, plan ahead. If we book it in the future, we enjoy the thought of it coming up, we enjoy doing it, and we enjoy looking back at it, with fond memories…all of which increase our sense of well-being and happiness. I’m not suggesting you go on a big trip instead of covering your basic needs, saving, or working toward something you really want. This is more about conscious spending.

Exercise and Eat well
In many cases, we feel better when we are active. Fifteen minutes of mindful exercise…walking, biking, running, yoga, gardening…can be very helpful in making us feel better. This evening I was becoming more and more agitated with the constant interruptions of being in a house with three kids, four cats and a dog. During one of my interruptions, I came back to find a cat had eaten the chicken off my dinner plate. While I tried to salvage the un-munched portion, my twelve year old son asked if I’d play some basketball. Thirty minutes of laughing and joking with each other totally changed the direction of my evening. My ego took a beating, as he cleaned my clock, but my mood was much better for it.

Equally important is the food we eat. Cooking and eating healthy meals together with family (even with the cat), whenever you can, is a great way to bond while getting the benefits of quality healthy food. Healthy eating is a very complicated subject that I’ll leave you to explore further.

Feel music
One of the fastest ways to instantly feel better is to feel some music. Put on something with a beat and really feel it. Don’t just listen to it, but feel it. Move your body to the beat. A hand, a foot, nod your head, shake, move…it doesn’t matter what or how you move but move something…feel it. This works. Go try it now.

Part three will be coming next week.

How have you found any of the suggestions so far? Leave your results or any recommendations in the comments. Do you think any of this really matters?

Wishing you well,

Silas Payton
You can find more articles on writing, happiness, and other areas of thought stimulation on the Silas Payton Blog.
If you’re interested in spreading the love by purchasing my thrillers, they are available on Amazon.

Image by Gatto Mimmo on Flickr. Not one of my cats, but I envision mine looking this happy after eating my chicken.

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Tips for Happiness in Daily Life

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Some days are harder than others. Some days it feels like from the moment you wake up, things are difficult. You stub your toe on the way to the shower. You find out there’s no more soap. You drop your razor and it breaks. Every have one of those? Ya, who hasn’t.

The question is…should this dictate the rest of the day? Should 15 minutes control your emotions and the way you see things throughout the remainder of the challenges, encounters, and exchanges you have for the entire day? This could easily be the case. Once we get looking for and expecting everything to be going wrong, sure enough we’ll find it.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s damn hard to do sometimes, but there are ways we can change the direction of our day. We can be aware of our thoughts, be kind to people, breath deeply, relax, do something we enjoy…but it starts with being aware that we have some control over our emotions and outlook.

Here’s a great article with tips on how we can change the direction of our day…to take control and bring more happiness to our lives and the lives we touch.

Silas Payton

Tips for Happiness in Daily Life

You can make your life happier. It is a matter of choice.

It is your attitude that makes you feel happy or unhappy.

We meet various situations every day, and some of them may not contribute to happiness. However, we can choose to keep thinking about the unhappy events, and we can choose to refuse to think about them, and instead, think about and relish the happy moments.

All of us go through various situations and circumstances, but we do not have to let them influence our reactions and feelings.

If we let outer events influence our moods, we become their slaves. We lose our freedom. We let our happiness be determined by outer forces. On the other hand, we can free ourselves from outer influences. We can choose to be happy, and we can do a lot to add happiness to our lives.

What is happiness?

It is a feeling of inner peace and satisfaction. It is usually experienced, when there are no worries, fears or obsessing thoughts. This usually happens, when we do something we love to do, or when we get, win, gain, or achieve something that we value. It seems to be the outcome of positive events, but it actually comes from the inside, triggered by external events.

For most people, happiness seems fleeting and temporary, because they allow external circumstances to affect it. One of the best ways to keep it, is by gaining inner peace through daily meditation. As the mind becomes more peaceful, it becomes easier to choose the happiness habit.

Tips for Happiness in Daily Life:

1) Endeavor to change the way you look at things. Always look at the bright side. The mind might drag you to think about negativity and difficulties. Don’t let it. Look at the good and positive side of every situation.

2) Think about solutions, not about problems.

3) Listen to relaxing, uplifting music.

4) Watch funny comedies that make you laugh.

5) Each day, devote some time to reading a few pages of an inspiring book or article.

6) Watch your thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself thinking negative thoughts, start thinking of pleasant things.

7) Always look at what you have done and not at what you haven’t.

Sometimes, you begin the day with the desire to accomplish several objectives. At the end of the day, you might feel frustrated and unhappy, because you haven’t been able to do all of those things.

Look at what you have done, not at what you have not been able to do. Often, even if you have accomplished a lot during the day, you let yourself feel frustrated, because of some minor tasks you didn’t accomplish.

Sometimes, you spend all day successfully carrying out many plans, but instead of feeling happy and satisfied, you look at what was not accomplished and feel unhappy. It is unfair toward yourself.

8) Each day do something good for yourself. It can be something small, such buying a book, eating something you love, watching your favorite program on TV, going to a movie, or just having a stroll on the beach.

9) Each day do at least one act to make others happy.

This can be a kind word, helping your colleagues, stopping your car at the crossroad to let people cross, giving your seat in a bus to someone else, or giving a small present to someone you love. The possibilities are infinite.

When you make someone happy, you become happy, and then people try to make you happy.

10) Always expect happiness.

11) Do not envy people who are happy. On the contrary, be happy for their happiness.

12) Associate with happy people, and try to learn from them to be happy. Remember, happiness is contagious.

13) Do your best to stay detached, when things do not proceed as intended and desired. Detachment will help you stay calm and control your moods and reactions. Detachment is not indifference. It is the acceptance of the good and the bad and staying balanced. Detachment has much to do with inner peace, and inner peace is conductive to happiness.

14) Smile more often.

Written by By Remez Sasson. Originally posted on www.successconsciousness.com
Image by BK on Flickr

5 Beneficial Side Effects of Kindness

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“If you haven’t any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.”
–Bob Hope

When we think of side effects, the first thing that springs to mind are the side effects of drugs. But who’d have thought that kindness could have side effects, too?

Well, it does! And positive ones at that.

Of course, we should never do an act of kindness to gain from it. We should always be kind because it’s the right thing to do. But when we are kind, the following are some side effects that come with it:

1) Kindness makes us happier.

When we do something kind for someone else, we feel good. On a spiritual level, many people feel that this is because it is the right thing to do and so we’re tapping into something deep and profound inside us that says, “This is who I am.”

On a biochemical level, it is believed that the good feeling we get is due to elevated levels of the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, which we know as endogenous opioids. They cause elevated levels of dopamine in the brain, so we get a natural high, often referred to as “Helper’s High.”

2) Kindness gives us healthier hearts.

Acts of kindness are often accompanied by emotional warmth. Emotional warmth produces the hormone oxytocin in the brain and throughout the body. Of much recent interest is its significant role in the cardiovascular system.

Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates (expands) the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure, and therefore oxytocin is known as a “cardio-protective” hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure). The key is that acts kindness can produce oxytocin, and therefore kindness can be said to be cardio-protective.

3) Kindness slows aging.

Aging on a biochemical level is a combination of many things, but two culprits that speed the process are free radicals and inflammation, both of which result from making unhealthy lifestyle choices.

But remarkable research now shows that oxytocin (which we produce through emotional warmth) reduces levels of free radicals and inflammation in the cardiovascular system and thus slows aging at its source. Incidentally these two culprits also play a major role in heart disease, so this is also another reason why kindness is good for the heart.

There have also been suggestions in the scientific journals of the strong link between compassion and the activity of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, in addition to regulating heart rate, also controls inflammation levels in the body in what is known as the inflammatory reflex. One study that used the Tibetan Buddhist lovingkindness meditation found that kindness and compassion did, in fact, reduce inflammation in the body, mostly likely due to its effects on the vagus nerve.

4) Kindness makes for better relationships.

This is one of the most obvious points. We all know that we like people who show us kindness. This is because kindness reduces the emotional distance between two people, so we feel more “bonded.” It’s something that is so strong in us that it’s actually a genetic thing. We are wired for kindness.

Our evolutionary ancestors had to learn to cooperate with one another. The stronger the emotional bonds within groups, the greater the chances of survival, so “kindness genes” were etched into the human genome.

Today, when we are kind to each other, we feel a connection, and new relationships are forged, or existing ones strengthened.

5) Kindness is contagious.

When we’re kind, we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends — to three degrees of separation. Just as a pebble creates waves when it is dropped in a pond, so acts of kindness ripple outwards, touching others’ lives and inspiring kindness everywhere the wave goes.

A recent scientific study reported than an anonymous 28-year-old person walked into a clinic and donated a kidney. It set off a “pay it forward” type ripple effect where the spouses or other family members of recipients of a kidney donated one of theirs to someone else in need. The “domino effect,” as it was called in the New England Journal of Medicine report, spanned the length and breadth of the United States of America, where 10 people received a new kidney as a consequence of that anonymous donor.

Written by David R. Hamilton, originally posted on Huffington Post
Image by BK on Flickr

Ignorance is Bliss — Sort of: How Not Watching the News Makes us Happier

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Over five years ago, I stopped watching the news. It was one of the best moves I’ve made to improve my happiness. Sound crazy? In fact I stopped watching mainstream television altogether. I’m sure half of you are ready to stop reading this now, but don’t.

The mainstream news as we know it, is designed to promote fear and anxiety. That’s how they entice viewers to tune in and keep coming back for more. The media does this under the guise of keeping us informed of what we need to know. I would argue that most of it we don’t need to know. In most cases, it doesn’t directly effect us and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.

I’m definately not saying we shouldn’t have the news, or reporters risking their lives to share what could otherwise remain hidden. I’m not saying we should become ignorant and uninvolved. I am saying we have the ability to tune in to small doses…to filter what, and how much we are thinking about. I am fortunate enough that in my work setting, I hear about anything important going on in my community or the world. If I’m interested, I can find all I need to about it very quickly. I just choose to not immerse myself in something geared to manipulate me and produce fear, frustration and anxiety.

About mainstream television…we still watch shows as a couple or a family by way of the Internet. But, we watch what we want, when we want, with no commercials. How often do you end up watching something, because it’s the only thing on. Well stop. Add up all those hours. Think of what you could do with that time, especially if it was something positive, enjoyable, and not stress producing. If I look back, I’ve never been more productive, creative, excited, and happy. Give it some thought. Try it for a while.

Here’s an excellent article by someone who shares my conclusions on the idea of getting ride of mainstream news and television. One of the ways to stay up is to cut out what brings you down. Leave a comment of your thoughts.

Silas Payton

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” – Thomas Jefferson

Around 2 years ago I stopped reading and watching mainstream news. I don’t read a single newspaper, offline or online, and I don’t watch any TV at all. I recently mentioned this on Twitter and Facebook and it created a lot of discussion, so I wanted to expand on my thoughts and experiences.

When I first started ignoring news, I felt that I was simply making an excuse, that if I had more time I should read the news. Today, however, it is a very deliberate choice and I feel consistently happier every single day due to ignoring the mainstream news. It just so happens that the last 2 years have also been the most enjoyable and productive of my entire life, and have contained some of my greatest achievements. Here are a few reasons I think we should stop consuming mainstream news:

News is negative

“The news media are, for the most part, the bringers of bad news and it’s not entirely the media’s fault, bad news gets higher ratings and sells more papers than good news.” – Peter McWilliams

The most interesting fact I learned in the last few years about mainstream media is that is that almost all news reported is negative. Studies have shown that the ratio of bad news to good news is around 17:1. That means that 95% is negative. This is a massive number, and I’m sure if you stop to think for a moment about the most recent news you watched, it has also been overwhelmingly negative. In my experience, 95% is absolutely the correct ratio in the news. However, 95% is a very bad reflection of the real ratio of good to bad in the world. Many great things happen, they just don’t sell newspapers.

Mainstream news report about wars, natural disasters, murders and other kinds of suffering. It seems the only natural conclusion of watching or reading mainstream news is that the world is a terrible place, and that it is getting worse every day. However, the reality of course is the complete opposite: we live in an amazing time and the human race is improving at a faster pace than ever before.

The effect of negative news

“When you turn on the television, for instance, you run the risk ingesting harmful things, such as violence, despair, or fear.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Another very interesting thing I’ve learned in the last few years is the incredible impact that being around the right people can have on your trajectory to achieving what you want. This comes down essentially to your environment, and whilst it can mean some hard decisions to change our environment, we actually have a lot of control over it.

These two aspects – that we are subconsciously affected by our environment, no matter how much willpower we believe ourselves to have, and that we have much more control over our environment than we realise have been a key factor of some of the success I’ve had in the last few years.

In a TED talk titled “Information is food”, JP Rangaswami compared eating McDonald’s for 31 days, as in Supersize Me, to watching Fox News for 31 days. In essence, mainstream news is the fast food of information. There are much healthier types of information we can and should consume.

The opportunity cost of watching news

The other key thing that I think it can be easy to overlook, is what you could be doing in the time you are spending watching the news.

I remember as a kid, my parents always used to watch the 6 o’clock news. It became so ingrained, it was what would always happen at exactly 6pm, and if we didn’t watch it, we would surely miss out on something vital that could affect our lives.

As a teenager, over time I managed to gradually escape that more and more often. At first, I simply turned to something I enjoyed. I played games online in the evenings instead of sitting with my family and watching the news. The most interesting thing, however, is that my passion for gaming turned into a powerful hobby of learning to code, and I accredit this for a lot of my startup success.

Not only is watching news going to put an out of proportion amount of negative thoughts in your mind, which will affect what you can achieve, it is also valuable time where there are many amazing and meaningful things you could be doing:

you could go to the gym and feel better every day
you could help someone and at the same time feel happier
you could build an MVP which could turn into a startup
you could write an article and start building a useful resource for others
Try a month off mainstream news

Abstaining from mainstream news has been one of the single best decisions I’ve made in the last two years for both my productivity and my happiness. If you’re still in a habit of watching or reading news, I strongly recommend you take Thomas Jefferson’s advice and try a month off news:

“I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”

Do you read or watch mainstream news? Have you thought about stopping consuming it? Have you also given it up and felt better? I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Joel Gascoigne at Joel.is
Image by flash.pro on Flickr

We Can Feel More Compassion, Increase Kindness and Increase Happiness. Here’s How.

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If you could find a way to be more kind, would you? We know that when we are kind everyone benefits, including ourselves. Kindness increases our happiness and the happiness of who ever we are kind to. We also know that compassion, the emotion one feels in response to the suffering of others that commonly gives rise to the active desire to help, tends to lead to acts of kindness. There is also evidence that we can increase the compassion we feel for others. I’ve attached a great article explaining how we can do this.

Think about this for a second. We have the power to increase the compassion we feel, increasing our kindness to others, which increases happiness. What!? Why haven’t we been told this?

I’ve posted before on the notion that kindness is contagious. We need to try this and tell others. There are 7 billion people that need to hear this. We can make the world a better place. Pass it on. Leave a comment on how this works for you. I want to hear about it.

Silas Payton

Want To Train Your Brain To Feel More Compassion? Here’s How.

Scientific evidence shows that we can teach our brains to feel more compassion, both for others and ourselves. Imagine how the world might be different if we all learned this skill.

Many of us know that if we want to become more physically healthy, we can exercise. What if we want to improve our emotional health? Are there ways to train emotional “muscles” such as compassion? Would such training improve our lives?

Compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people. The feeling of compassion itself is the emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering a person’s suffering.

With practice, it’s thought that compassion can be enhanced and this will increase the likelihood of a person exhibiting helping behavior—not only during the meditation practice, but out in the real world, when interacting with others. In a study my colleagues and I conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson), participants were taught to generate compassion for different categories of people, including both those they love and “difficult” people in their lives. Doing these kinds of exercises is a little like weight training—the compassion “muscle” is strengthened by practicing with people of increasing difficulty, like increasing weights over time.

After only two weeks of online training, participants in our study who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Not only that, the people who were the most altruistic after receiving compassion training also were the individuals who showed the largest changes in how their brains responded to images of suffering. These findings suggest that compassion is a trainable skill, and that practice can actually alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.

When we embarked on our study several years ago, earlier research had shown that expert compassion meditation practitioners who have accumulated over 10,000 hours of practice show greater neural responses to suffering compared to control participants. We also wondered, what about people like you and me? Can people from the general population also cultivate compassion with much less practice?

We decided to give only seven hours of practice, in 30 minutes daily sessions for two weeks. We wanted to see if these people would change, both in exhibiting altruistic behavior and in the ways their brains responded to suffering. We recruited participants with no prior meditation experience and randomly assigned them to learn either compassion training or reappraisal training, which is an emotion regulation technique that asks people to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions. Both groups trained for two weeks by listening to guided audio instructions over the Internet.

In the 30-minute guided compassion meditation, participants practiced compassion for themselves, a loved one, a stranger, and a difficult person in their lives (see full script here). Participants were told to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise as they imagine a time that each person has suffered. The goal is to give participants practice at tolerating their reactions, rather than avoiding them or getting too wrapped up in them. The next part involves actively wishing others compassion—or wishing their suffering is relieved. Participants repeated phrases such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” They were instructed to pay attention to sensations in the body, particularly around the heart (this is called “interoception”).

In the session, the compassion we feel for the loved one is used as a kind of home base to then attempt to extend similar levels of compassion to the other people. It’s rare in our everyday lives that we truly contemplate the suffering of strangers or of people we may dislike.

The real test of whether compassion could be learned was if people would behave more altruistically towards strangers, by doing things like spending their own money to help people they had never met. After the trainings, participants played an economic exchange game in which they had the opportunity to spend their own money to help an anonymous person in need. After only the seven hours of practice, people who trained in compassion behaved more generously compared to the other group.

Importantly, these differences in altruistic behavior were also linked to physical changes in the brain. We scanned the participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) both before and after meditation training. In the scanner, they viewed pictures of people suffering (such as seeing a crying child or a person with a physical injury) and employed their assigned training strategy. The compassion group generated feelings of compassion while silently repeating the phrases they learned, such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” The reappraisal group used their training to re-interpret the meaning of the images to decrease negative emotions, such as saying to themselves, “This person will make a full recovery from the injury.”

In the end, there was a correlation between brain activation changes and altruistic response. The participants who were the most altruistic playing the computer game showed the greatest changes in brain activation in response to suffering. In the most altruistic participants, activation increased in the inferior parietal cortex (a region of the brain involved in empathy and understanding others), in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional control), and in the nucleus accumbens (a region involved in rewarding emotions). This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences. It also suggests that these individuals may have been learning to change their emotional response to a more caring response for the person in need. The participants in the control group either showed no relationship between their brain responses and their altruistic behavior or a negative relationship.

These findings provide early evidence that compassion is a trainable skill rather than a stable trait. This work could be applied to many settings where improved relationships and communication can be beneficial including health care, education, and business.

After the experiment, we’ve made these trainings available for free to the general public. As of April 2014, over 3,700 people have downloaded the compassion meditation training in over 60 countries (see map above).

People from the general population have reported beneficial effects such as, “I feel after practicing compassion meditation, I can monitor my emotions better. I can sympathize with other people better and I get upset with them less often.” People also felt better about themselves. One person said: “After compassion training, I feel far greater kindness and self-acceptance towards myself. The harsh self-critic is gradually unraveling.” Some struggled, especially with the difficult person in their lives. That’s to be expected, and it may be helpful to consult therapists, teachers, or mentors to help navigate them.

We hope that by providing the public with scientific knowledge and tools, people can be empowered to make changes that can benefit themselves and their communities. To try the trainings, visit the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds website.

Written by Helen Weng, originally posted on fastcoexist.com.
Image by Denise P.S. on Flickr.

Kindness Makes You Happy… and Happiness Makes You Kind

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What if the payback for acts of kindness was an increase in your happiness? What if it also increased happiness for the person you were kind to? And what if you were both more likely to be kind to someone else, because of it? Amazing but true, it seems. It could be said that acts of kindness are contagious. All we need to do is start.

Slow down. Notice what’s going on around you. Consciously look for opportunities to be kind. Maybe it’s a smile, holding the door, buying a writer’s book, wishing someone a nice day, or helping someone in need. It doesn’t matter what you do…but do as much as you can, as often as you can.

Here’s a great article explaining the positive feedback loop between kindness and happiness. Leave a comment on any cool examples you discover. Also, check out my Ultimate Quick Guide to Increasing Happiness Part 1, and Part 2

Silas Payton

Wouldn’t it be great if you could walk into a store and buy lifelong happiness? The idea’s not as fanciful as it sounds—as long as whatever you buy is meant for someone else.
Two recent studies suggest that giving to others makes us happy, even happier than spending on ourselves. What’s more, our kindness might create a virtuous cycle that promotes lasting happiness and altruism.

In one of the studies, published last year in the Journal of Social Psychology, researchers in Great Britain had participants take a survey measuring life satisfaction, then they assigned all 86 participants to one of three groups. One group was instructed to perform a daily act of kindness for the next 10 days. Another group was also told to do something new each day over those 10 days. A third group received no instructions.

After the 10 days were up, the researchers asked the participants to complete the life satisfaction survey again.
The groups that practiced kindness and engaged in novel acts both experienced a significant—and roughly equal—boost in happiness; the third group didn’t get any happier. The findings suggest that good deeds do in fact make people feel good—even when performed over as little as 10 days—and there may be particular benefits to varying our acts of kindness, as novelty seems linked to happiness as well.

But kindness may have a longer, even more profound effect on our happiness, according to the second study, published online in the Journal of Happiness Studies in April and conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia.

In this study, the researchers instructed roughly half of the 51 participants to recall, as vividly as they could, the last time they spent $20 or $100 on themselves. The other participants had to recall the last time they spent the same amounts on someone else. All the participants also completed a scale that measured how happy they were.

Researchers then gave the participants small sums of money and two basic choices: They could spend it on themselves (by covering a bill, another expense, or a gift for themselves) or on someone else (through a donation to charity or a gift). Choose whatever will make you happiest, the researchers told them, adding that their choice would remain anonymous, just in case they felt pressure to appear more altruistic.

The researchers made two big findings. First, consistent with the British study, people in general felt happier when they were asked to remember a time they bought something for someone else—even happier than when they remembered buying something for themselves. This happiness boost was the same regardless of whether the gift cost $20 or $100.

But the second finding is even more provocative: The happier participants felt about their past generosity, the more likely they were in the present to choose to spend on someone else instead of themselves. Not all participants who remembered their past kindness felt happy. But the ones who did feel happy were overwhelmingly more likely to double down on altruism.
The results suggest a kind of “positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness, according to the authors, so that one encourages the other.

“The practical implications of this positive feedback loop could be that engaging in one kind deed (e.g., taking your mom to lunch) would make you happier, and the happier you feel, the more likely you are to do another kind act,” says Lara Aknin, a graduate student in psychology at the University of British Columbia and the study’s lead author. “This might also be harnessed by charitable organizations: Reminding donors of earlier donations could make them happy, and experiencing happiness might lead to making a generous gift.”

Written by Alex Dixon at Greater Good
Image by Jesslee Cuizon on Flickr