What do we really need to feel happy?

If you follow the social media feeds no doubt you will have the read the 7 essential morning rituals that every successful person does starting with getting up at 4.30 am, the five critical must-haves to future proof your professional development, the must consume brand of muesli as eaten by the top CEO’s to power them through their day and the ONE thing you must avoid at all costs to prevent becoming a perennial wannabe.

Yada, yada, yada.

If you like me are a bit tired of being told what to do by others with the less than veiled threat that if you don’t, you stand no chance of ever becoming the success you want to be, it’s time to reframe the question to ask “what do I really need in order to be happy?”

Because we are individuals not clones, with minds of our own and a unique perspective on what matters the most to us.

Feeling happy or successful doesn’t result from doing one or a handful of things, rather it’s our conscious choice to adopt a way of living, of being, that aligns with our values and sense of purpose that leads to more positive experiences and greater happiness.

The one thing we need more of is…

Connection.

When we feel connected to another person, something deep inside us shifts. Gazing into another person’s eyes connects us far more profoundly than the words being shared.

The eyes have it.

In the 2012 film Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, over a three-month period Marina sat motionless in a chair for 8 hours every day, gazing into the eyes of different people who took it in turns to sit in the empty chair opposite. No words were spoken but the connection was intense and deeply emotional. And people queued for hours for the opportunity to do this. 

Why?

Is it because in our state of perpetual business and digital technology we’ve lost something, that very human need to connect with others?

It’s estimated we spend up to 10 hours each day interacting with a screen, with three of those hours on our smart phones. Everywhere we go, in restaurants and bars, on planes, trains, cars, in lifts, elevators, the supermarket queue, or the doctor’s waiting room we’re constantly on our mobile devices scrolling, checking, tweeting and texting feeling simultaneously connected but disconnected at the same time.

When was the last time you felt really connected to the person you were speaking to?

The role of oxytocin.

Oxytocin, sometimes known as the trust molecule or the love hormone is released when we’re with somebody we like. The closer the bond, the greater the amount released. It’s what creates the bond between a child and a parent. When a mother gives birth or breastfeeds her baby, her brain pumps out oxytocin. But the role of oxytocin extends far further than childbirth alone, it drives our social connections through the associated release of serotonin, which activates a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens and its associated reward circuitry, making us feel happy.

As humans evolved as hunter-gatherers forming tribes, we created more social bonding and eventual pairing. In the modern world, group behaviours that focus on collaboration, altruism and having fun elevate  social connection and that feeling of belonging that Brene Brown describes as our innate need to be part of something far bigger than ourselves.

The problem with the “Digi age” is that while we may have a lot of Facebook friends, those relationships are superficial at best. Spending too much time on Facebook has been linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression because we indulge in self-comparison to the perennially happy and superlatively successful lives of our Facebook BFFs which in reality are merely snapshots of someone’s life, and which may not be true or grossly exaggerated. 

(“What I hear you cry, people post fake stuff??” Of course they do.)

If you’ve noticed that “compare and despair” feeling, it’s time to step away and choose to reconnect at deeper more meaningful level.

1. Rebuild connection with compassion

Self-compassion and empathy can be learned, shoring up emotional regulation and boosting adaptability and resilience. Research has shown that practicing self-compassion using loving-kindness meditation can up regulate positive emotion influencing what is call our vagal tone.

A higher vagal tone helps to boost further positive interpersonal connection creating a positive feedback loop to increase vagal tone further.

Undertaking compassion training of just seven hours alters our response to the suffering of others, increasing our level of altruism and reshaping our brain. The result? We care more about other people.

If the thought of practicing loving –kindness meditation freaks you out, as being too new-agey (it’s not btw) why not try some triangular breathing to help you achieve a similar experience of reduced muscular tension and an increased sense of calm and peace.

Here all you have to do in a comfortable seated position is to gently breath in through your nose to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of seven and breathe out slowly to the count of eight.

2. Reach Out: Get your free hugs here.

The original free hugs campaign was led by Juan Mann in Sydney in 2004 when he stood with a placard offering free hugs in the Pitt St Mall.

It gets back to good old oxytocin and using appropriate physical contact to create connection. It’s funny how we can sometimes feel less awkward hugging a complete stranger than someone we know (or is that just me?)

Not a hugger? A handshake, reassuring pat or Hi-five all work just as well.

3. Step Out: The power of nature and the Great Outdoors.

This is more than just getting out into some fresh air. Connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress levels, reduces rumination, boosts creativity, problem solving and vitality, and helps to restore our ability to pay attention to what’s important to us. Feeling connected to nature is a unique predictor to our happiness.

4. Switch Off: Find the off button on your technology.

This isn’t about abandoning our technology. It is about putting in place boundaries around how we choose to interact with it and being aware of the addictive nature of staying online for too long and its happiness sucking effect. Technology can help us to be more productive and happier, when used appropriately.

Frequent distractions play havoc with our short-term memory and ability to pay attention.

Implementing tech free periods in your day has been shown to reduce stress and levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure and provides a sense of having more time available. Nice.

5. Step Away: Overwork is killing us and destroying our relationships

“I should have spent more time at work!” said no one, ever.

We spend over 1/3 of our lives at work and often choose to put in some extra overtime to get some extra cash or because the workplace culture expects it.

The problem is that working too hard for too long not only is counterproductive to achieving more once we’ve already put in 50 hours in a week, it also diminishes the quality of our relationships because we’re too tired or too grumpy.

Some companies have now deliberately shortened their working week and the latest studies suggest that when work conditions are optimal, we boost our level of happiness. As you’d expect this is not a one size fits all – it’s about providing flexibility so that you can do the work that needs to be done in a reasonable time frame and have sufficient downtime to address other facets of your life including your relationships.

Is your way of living and working impacting your level of happiness?

If so, what could you choose to be doing differently?

Feeling happy helps you to thrive by design with smarter, sharper thinking.

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