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The Study of Happiness: Science, Symptoms, and Solutions

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By Sue Ingebretson

If you were given an enchanted lamp and told to rub it for your wish to come true, what would you say? Would you wish to be symptom-free so you could find true happiness?

If so, you’re not unlike most of us in this fibromyalgia community.

It’s common to wish for the elimination of the negative symptoms that hold us back. We want to drop our burdens so we can feel light enough to pursue the life of our dreams.

But … what if we have it backwards?

What if the allowance for happiness comes first … after which we’re better prepared to make decisions, take resourceful action and carry out our wellness plans?

What science has to say about happiness

I love to read studies and research on airy-fairy sounding topics such as peace, happiness, joy and contentment. States of being and emotions are hard to quantify. Therefore, research on these subjects always sounds so interesting. I’m constantly curious about how the participants were evaluated and the parameters of the study.

When I was in nutrition school, I studied a research phenomenon in positive psychology that occurred at Harvard. Starting as a small course on happiness, no one was more surprised than Professor Tal Ben-Shahar that his specific class became the most popular course in Harvard’s history.(1)

As it turns out, wanting to research, quantify and find positivity is an innate human desire. Through the course (literally) of discovery, it was determined that

“Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey
on our way toward a destination we deem valuable.
Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain,
nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain:
happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”

– Tal Ben-Shahar

If you’ve heard this “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” philosophy before, there’s good reason. A simple Google search using this phrase yielded over 1,000 quotes on Goodreads regarding life’s journey. Ancient proverbs and philosophers have approached this topic since man had a moment to pause and think.

What do you think?

What sort of thoughts come to mind most often for you? What thoughts garner the majority of your focus? Do you think mostly of the journey ahead or where you’ve already been?

Focus makes
all the difference.

Focusing on what we want – rather than on what we don’t want – is where the journey toward happiness begins.

It takes some conscious awareness, but shifting our thinking begins by shining a light on our mental chatter. What sort of things do you say to yourself on a regular basis? Do your thoughts lean toward the negative or the positive?(2) It may surprise you to know that many people are not all that aware of what goes on in that 6” space between their ears.

Some refer to negative self-talk as head trash, stinkin’ thinkin’, or ANTS (automatic negative thoughts).  However it’s defined, the result of consistent negativity is disastrous. The health consequences of stressful thoughts range from depression(3) and a lowered immune system(4) to seeding physical symptoms — including pain.

Lisa Rankin, MD says, “The more you focus on the infinite ways in which the body can break down, the more likely you are to experience physical symptoms.” In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself, she details research and application of simple principles to take personal health matters into hand.

She’s not the only one discussing the science of happiness as it relates to health. One research study has actually quantified a specific ratio of 3:1 (three positive thoughts for every one negative thought) as the “magic” number needed to flourish emotionally.(5)

That doesn’t sound that difficult, does it?

However, this study goes on to state that about 80% of us fall short of this number. Our thoughts, comments and experiences are not positive enough to create that tipping point toward happiness.

Tip the happiness scales in your favor

Awareness of mental negativity is where it all starts. Begin by noticing your thoughts without judgment. The easiest way to do this is to develop a sense of curiosity. Being curious about your thoughts allows you to observe them from a neutral position. Simply become aware of them and allow them to pass.

Ancient practices of meditation and deep breathing can help to increase our awareness. Additionally, prayer takes this awareness to another level since it also includes the spiritual component of relationship.

Feeling a sense of social connection is more powerful than you may think. In fact, social connection can give us the strength we need to counteract the emotionally draining effects of cognitive depletion.(6)

Have you ever taken a stroop test?
If you’ve participated in fibromyalgia or other medical research studies that test memory and mental processing functions, you may have taken one. Let me tell you, cognitive studies can be exhausting! A stroop test requires you to read a list of colors – but the words are actually written in a color other than its name. For example, you may see the word “red,” yet it’s printed in green ink.

It sounds easy, but it’s not.

When you read them quickly, you have to think about what color it is, what color it isn’t, and what the word actually says. It takes some mental gymnastics.

A stroop test and other protocols were used in a study to determine the impact of prayer on cognitive depletion. The study found that prayer – regardless of religious affiliation – increased the levels of social connection. As it turns out, this sense of connection increases a person’s mental strength and fortitude.

When it comes to re-aligning your thoughts into a positive direction, I often use the analogy of ruts in the road. It’s easier to push a cart down a muddy road in a well-worn course than it is to forge a new path. But, the path of least resistance means that things stay the same.

In order to foster change, it takes extra effort to push through a bumpy path at first. But, over time that path will also become easier. This is the exciting study of neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to change and learn new ways of thinking.

Keep it simple

As mentioned, we can increase awareness and change the direction of our thoughts from some very basic behaviors.

  • Deep breathing is one of the simplest activities we can practice to shift our focus and become present. This article on Mindful Breathing can give you a great head start.
  • Gratitude practices have a proven track record when it comes to creating a shift toward positivity. The great folks at Happify.com have resources on how to begin a gratitude practice as well as dozens of other happy and helpful topics.
  • Author Gretchen Rubin (a best-selling happiness author and blogger) details one of the practices she implemented in her Happiness Project
    as “Act the Way You Want to Feel.” You can read more about this simple step here.
  • And, speaking of how you feel, would you like to change your mood simply by using your sense of smell? Aromatherapy to the rescue! “Essential oils have been scientifically shown to be particularly helpful
    in treating stress, mood, sleep, pain, nausea, memory and energy.”
    To learn more about how aromatherapy can benefit you, check out this Aromatherapy Diffusers and Fibromyalgia article.
  • A few more simple ways to increase your happiness factor include healthy diet and exercise, forgiveness, generosity, and the art of becoming present. Check out this “5 Scientifically Proven Ways
    You Can Be Happier
    ” article to learn more.

Wrapping it up

Now that you know the impact of negative thinking on your happiness factor, what steps will you take to make a change? They don’t need to be big steps. In fact, as outlined in this article, some very small practices can reap big rewards.

And, remember – it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.

“Happiness often sneaks in through a door
you didn’t know you left open.”
–  John Barrymore

References:

  1. Positive Psychology 1504: Harvard’s Groundbreaking Course
  2. How Negative is Your “Mental Chatter”?
  3. Negative Thinking:  The Number One Cause of Chronic Depression
    and How to Overcome It
  4. Happiness and Laughter are Natural Immune Boosters
  5. Here’s the Magic Number that Leads to Happiness
  6. Scientists Find One Source of Prayer’s Power
  7. Essential Oils Support Physical and Emotional Well-Being

Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.

Would you like to find out more about the effects of STRESS on your body? Download Sue’s free Is Stress Making You Sick? guide and discover your own Stress Profile by taking the surveys provided in this detailed 23-page report.

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