There’s no doubt we feel better when we are happier. We smile more, we’re healthier, we live longer, we have a lower risk of anxiety or depression and the world seems a less frightening place.
But happiness on its own isn’t the whole story of what creates a good life. There are so many other emotions available to us that add richness to our experiences because they are all a valuable source of data, helping us to make better sense of what’s happening.
Does nurturing happiness matter?
Yes, but as Sydney J Harris said, “happiness is a direction, not a place.”
Which is why chasing happiness is an illusion. It’s the positive actions we take, big and small that create greater happiness in our life.
And it’s the anticipation of a special event that makes us especially happy.
When our daughter’s partner proposed to her on Christmas morning my chest was bursting with love, pride and happiness for them both, and I was beyond happy too. The wedding may be a few months off, but hey just thinking about it makes me gloriously happy.
When my best friend from Uni said she was planning to visit Australia (this was pre-Covid!!) as part of a trip to mark a significant birthday, I was deliciously happy she would be coming to stay and started planning and thinking about what she could do while with us. Now I can look back on the photos we took and the places we visited with a warm glow in my heart and happiness to know I have a very special friend and think of when we might next get to see each other.
At my father’s funeral, my husband played the beautiful piece of music, ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ by Ennio Morricone on his saxophone. He had been practising hard for days to get it right. As soon as he played the first note, my brain went to a happy place thinking how much my Dad would have loved knowing this piece was being played to commemorate his life.
If you’ve got a favourite piece of music, maybe you’ve noticed how it brings the same amount of pleasure each time you hear it, through the release of more dopamine, the powerful neurotransmitter that is involved in our brain’s reward circuitry. You might close your eyes or sing along with the lyrics because you know what comes next, especially if it has a catchy chorus line. Your brain loves nothing better than the familiarity of patterns as found in music, which is why we will often press ‘repeat’ to hear it again and again and again.
But there’s one thing even better than anticipating something great and that’s when there is a level of uncertainty associated with whether you’ll get the reward or not. Think how many of us buy that $20 million Lotto ticket, fingers crossed that this might be “the time you win.” You know the odds are stacked against you but the thrill of the possibility of that big reward keeps you buying.
But I hear you say, isn’t uncertainty troublesome for us? Isn’t this the BIG issue so many of us have been grappling with during the global pandemic?
For sure. The difference here being the uncertainty associated with our response to the pandemic is linked to different emotions, particularly fear.
Uncertainty associated with potential reward is different. Here studies have shown that when the element of certainty is reduced from 100% to say 50%, the amount of dopamine in your brain skyrockets when the desired outcome finally does occur.
It’s a bit like dog training. When teaching your dog to sit at the kerb and wait for your instruction before walking across the road, you might give the dog a tasty snack each time the dog gets it right. Soon the dog thinks, “Oh good I’m going for a walk, lots of roads to cross which means lots of doggy snacks”. Well, maybe they don’t think that exactly, but they’re sure looking forward to that walk. Having built the anticipation of reward for sitting and waiting, you now only give the treat sometimes and your dog’s dopamine levels goes off the roof every time they do get one.
You might not like the idea of doggy treats being withheld in your own situation. I can’t say I’ve ever tried them myself. But can you think of a circumstance where the uncertainty like waiting to hear the result of your exams, makes the sweetness of success makes you even more happy?
Building happiness at work
We spend a lot of time at work. I recently spent an afternoon with an enthusiastic and passionate group of health professionals talking about the need for greater mental wellbeing at work and what contributed to it. I asked them to do a short activity where they had to recall a particularly good day at work and reflect on what made it so. The answers all had two common themes.
Firstly, they derived a huge amount of pleasure from seeing the outcome of their efforts benefiting the patients they had been working with. Secondly, it was the camaraderie and friendships within the department that made their work a joy. As they shared the stories of special events at Christmas, having lunch together on a regular basis, sharing wins and calling out good things, the energy in the room was electric and there was a sea of happy beaming faces.
Nurturing effective teamwork, raising psychological safety, dealing with low engagement levels, presenteeism and absenteeism are all common challenges in many of the workplaces I have visited. Getting it right isn’t rocket science, but it does require an understanding of what we as humans want and thrive on.
Happiness is the outcome of recognising what really motivates us to bounce out of bed thinking, “Woohoo, it’s time to go to work!”. This includes anticipating being with your colleagues who you know “get” who you are and what you stand for, feeling accepted as part of the tribe, valued, and doing meaningful work that you know contributes towards the greater good. This not only makes us happier, but it also makes us more effective in what we do, more collaborative, open-minded and attractive to others.
Now there’s a plus!
And as mentioned, it’s often the smallest of gestures and actions that make the biggest impact. Like a genuine warm smile, a cheery hello, taking six seconds out of your day to make that difference.
I know we’re all time poor and frantically busy, but that six seconds could make someone’s day and start the ripple effect of positive contagion.
That’s why focusing on creating greater happiness for ourselves and others is never selfish. It’s a natural part of thriving and cultivating a good life.
How does happiness and its anticipated arrival show up in your world? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.