Strategies for pursuing and obtaining happiness.
- Recent studies in positive psychology indicate that happiness defined by material gains or success isn’t sustainable.
- Happiness fuels success, success doesn’t fuel happiness.
- Strategies such as mindfulness, physical health, spirituality, and connections with others can lead to sustainable happiness.
By Debra Walker, PhD, MSN, MEd, RN-BC
Benjamin Franklin wrote this about the unalienable right to happiness delineated in the U.S. Constitution: “The Constitution only gives [you] the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” Do nurses really have to chase or discover happiness? What does happiness mean to you? And do you remember the first time you felt that you achieved happiness?
Meaning of happiness
Some researchers describe happiness as a state of accepting that what happens in life is necessary to being human. Life is a series of experiences that develop our character, behavior, and skills for living. Previous beliefs about happiness were based on achieving success—working hard, finding a great job or position, losing weight, driving a new care, and having money in the bank—but recent studies in positive psychology indicate that happiness defined by material gain or success isn’t sustainable. Happiness fuels success, success doesn’t fuel happiness. In addition, evidence supports the connection between the mind, body, and spirit and that happiness is strongly related to health. Something as simple as smiling slows your heart rate during stressful situations and can lead to a happier, positive attitude in you and the people around you.
Social psychologists have been researching strategies to increase happiness and well-being after discovering that when positive thoughts and actions replace negative ones, the brain becomes more active in areas of creativity, motivation, resilience, and productivity. Happiness strategies are based on theory and research that examine the characteristics of people who profess to be happy. In light of challenges many nurses encounter both professionally and personally, these strategies may help you in your pursuit of happiness. The first step is pursuing meaningful, substantive happiness.
Pursuit of happiness
Scientists and researchers call our daily routine of plans, tasks, endeavors, projects, and ambitions “goal pursuit.” When a goal is materialistic with possible negative outcomes, anxiety and unhappiness overshadow achieving the goal. If the goal is realistic, flexible, culturally valued, and authentic, the goal may or may not be achieved, but the pleasure and satisfaction of just pursuing it can be meaningful. What you learn while working on the pursuit of a valued goal can lead to increased opportunities and the mindful satisfaction of being challenged. A perfect example is completing a nursing program and developing a sense of purpose and responsibility as a nurse.
Rather than focusing on the finish line—“I’ll be happy when I get the promotion and a salary increase”—remember that happiness lies in the journey. Steps taken in the pursuit of happiness, such as participating in wellness programs, reading self-help books, and attending wealth and happiness seminars, have value, but the key ingredients of positive psychological well-being include mindfulness, physical health, spiritual well-being, and connections with others.
Strategies for happiness
Several proven strategies increase happiness in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for emotions.
We all find ourselves thinking about what we need to do next. Rather than giving our full attention to the patient in front of us, we’re thinking about the patient we need to care for down the hall. The result is reduced productivity and feelings of unhappiness. Learning to slow down and focus on being present can lead to increased efficiency and happiness.
Meditation is one way you can learn to focus your mind. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation can increase the happiness in the brain and permanently rewire it to more positive function. Taking just 5 minutes to breathe slowly and deliberately, not counting or holding your breath, is one of the most effective strategies to help you redirect negative thoughts and refocus on the present moment. You can practice short meditations at home, at work, or anyplace you feel yourself becoming stressed. Sit in a comfortable position, focus on your breathing, and then bring your mind’s attention to the present. When your thoughts drift to events of the past or concerns about the future, gently guide yourself back to the present and your breath.
Taking care of yourself through diet and exercise can have lasting benefits both physically and emotionally. For example, exercise releases pleasure-inducing endorphins that boost your mood, improve motivation, decrease stress and anxiety, and reduce depression. It can also increase the development of new neurons in the brain that have been damaged by stress and anxiety. And when eating five servings of fruits and vegetables every day and exercising (walking, yoga, playing with your kids) for at least 30 minutes a day three times a week become a part of your lifestyle, you build a foundation for long-term happiness.
Scientific evidence shows that people who have religious or spiritual beliefs are happier than those who don’t profess any type of spirituality. They perform acts of kindness and exhibit empathy and compassion. With or without a formal religion, spirituality offers protective qualities that can help us sustain happiness throughout our lives. And when practiced with a community, spirituality provides the support of others during difficult times.
Connections with others
Spending time with friends and family is the number one source of happiness. That means maintaining a work/life balance that gives you time to connect with other people. Rather than pursuing the purchase of a new car, which will give you only fleeting happiness, make time for a family vacation or a regular walking routine with your best friend, which will provide you with experiences that enrich your life.
Sustained happiness can’t be found in material pursuits. Instead, focus on the journey of your life—the good and bad—with mindfulness and in the company of friends and family. Make your physical health a priority and incorporate a sense of wonder about the world through religion or spirituality. The result will be a life of happiness that supports you through challenging times.
Debra Walker is an assistant professor at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion and Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey.
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