I usually am a happy person and grateful to have health, financial security and food on the table. Given the profound loss of loved ones, jobs, the virus setbacks and all of the other tragic results of this pandemic, I almost feel guilty with my concern. With all that I have, I am not experiencing moments of contentment or happiness. And I am reminded of the word as we all wished one another Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. I just don’t feel it. Is there anything I can do to feel some level of happiness during these difficult times? P.L.

Dear P.L.

You have identified a word and feeling that is getting increased attention from authors, educators and researchers. Interest in the subject dates back to over 2,500 years ago with Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and Aristotle. It continues to be an area of discourse and research today, and here is a recent story that addresses your concern.

In 2018, Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos took on a new role that meant she would live with students on campus and observe their daily lives. She witnessed their high levels of stress and anxiety, their loneliness and worry about grades. Based on her observations and a national survey of college students, she decided to create a new class on the science of happiness. The first week, over 1,000 students showed up; it became the largest class in Yale’s history with just under one-quarter of all students registering. 

The good news is that a course designed by Santos is available through Coursera.org for free; more than 3.2 million people having signed up. 

Santos distilled five practices backed by science that enhance happiness. 

Become social: A study looked at folks scoring the highest tenth percentile on happiness surveys and found the one activity that distinguished them from others was that happy people were more social. Results lead researchers to conclude that being social was a necessary condition for feeling a high degree of happiness.  

Express gratitude: Studies indicate that grateful people are happier and have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Health care workers who express gratitude by writing in a gratitude journal are less stressed and depressed. Those suffering from chronic pain who express gratitude improve their quality of sleep and their mood. 

Be in the moment: A growing body of research shows that just focusing on the here and now – the moment – makes us feel better. For example, meditation practice for just five to ten minutes a day can boost concentration and mood levels and get rid of negative emotions that often lead to negative behaviors. 

Sleep and move: Sleep is important for both physical and mental health. We are aware of sleep hygiene such as no devices in the bedroom, using the bedroom space for sleep only and more. Movement is equally important in boosting happiness. One study found that one-half hour of cardio exercise on a stationary bike can reduce feelings of tension, anger, depression and fatigue. 

Be kind: People who are the happiest report focusing on the needs of others. They donate money, volunteer or just do random acts of kindness. Of equal importance is being kind to ourselves. We need to remember that most often we do the best we can. Harsh self-criticism and unrealistic expectations do not lead to happiness. 

Joshua Becker, author of “The More of Less,” adds a few action steps to Santos’ list: smile, wake up early with a morning routine, don’t complain and eat healthy meals and snacks.  

P.L. Let’s take Santos’ research findings and apply them. The following assignment (with no grades) might be helpful. Ask yourself, “What am I currently doing — or plan to do – to become more social, grateful, present, rested and exercised, and kind?” Do this in writing and decide which steps you can and want to implement. And then do it. Also, consider exploring “The Science of Well Being” at Coursera.org. 

Abraham Lincoln said, “ Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” This suggests that happiness is a choice. These five practices are choices. 

Thank you P.L. for your timely and forthright question. This homework could serve as a 2021 agenda for all for us to achieve greater levels of happiness in trying times. Stay safe, well and be kind to others and yourself. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity/



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