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A Recipe for Happiness

Frank Sinatra made it sound easy when he crooned, “Forget your troubles c’mon get happy/ You better chase all your cares away.”

Yet happiness can seem quite elusive. Can we make ourselves happy? And is happiness really such a worthy goal?

Positive psychology is the field of psychology that looks at the science behind what makes people thrive. It has yielded research suggesting we can, indeed, boost our levels of happiness. At the same time, there’s no single key to achieving it.

Rather than a key to happiness, a better analogy would be a recipe, Ed Diener, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, explains on his website. “Most good recipes call for quite a few ingredients. Some are absolutely essential, and others are merely helpful,” he writes. “You need to have multiple ingredients put together in the right way.”

Psychologists are quick to point out that no one can expect to be happy all the time, and different things make different people happy. Nevertheless, most people’s recipes for happiness include the following crucial ingredients:

Connecting With Others
“If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income,” says Harvard Professor of Psychology Daniel Gilbert in an interview in The Harvard Business Review. “I’d want to know about your social network --- about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them.”

These bonds with friends and family improve our sense of wellbeing and help us weather difficult times. They also confer physical benefits. Having a network of social connections appears to increase our immunity to infection, lower our risk of heart disease and reduce mental decline as we get older.

Pursuing Meaningful Activities
Having challenging -- but achievable – goals can give our lives direction, purpose and a sense of satisfaction. In fact, working towards the goal may be as important to our happiness as reaching the goal itself.

Professor Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, suggests that we also pay more attention to what our minds are doing. “When you wake up on a Saturday morning and ask, ‘What am I going to do today?’ the answer is usually about where you’ll take your body – to the beach to the kids’ soccer practice, for a run. You ought to ask, ‘What am I going to do with my mind today?’”

Cultivating Gratitude
Many researchers note the importance of gratitude – noticing and appreciating the good things in our lives. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at U.C. Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, found that students who spent 15 minutes a week for eight weeks writing letters about experiences they were grateful for showed increased levels of happiness immediately after the eight week period. The effect persisted six months later.

U.C. Davis Professor of Psychology Robert Emmons found similar results: Subjects who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded problems or neutral life events. Emmons details his research in the book Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

Lending a Hand
Helping others boosts happiness, provides a sense of meaning and increases our feelings of competence. Social connection is a key ingredient to happiness, and helping others is one way to create that connection. A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that regular volunteerism decreased mortality rates by 40 percent, although it is not clear whether those who volunteered were in better health to start with.

Taking Care of Your Body
Being active is important for both physical and mental health. Regular physical activity helps maintain thinking and judgment skills. When we exercise, our brain releases chemicals -- including endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine – that help reduce anxiety and improve mood. Exercise may also help us sleep better, which positively affects our mood. Meditation is another means of reducing stress and improving moods. And of course, a healthy diet keeps the body fueled and keeps sugar levels constant.

Although it may take some work to be happy, it appears to be worth the effort. Dr. Diener lists a host of benefits that seem to be associated with happy people, including stronger immune systems, longer lives, greater success and better coping skills. And perhaps achieving happiness may not be as elusive a goal as we might think. As Dr. Lyubomirsky says, “It just takes commitment and effort -- as with any meaningful goal in life.”

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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