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I watched a wonderful film called ‘Happy’ on Netflix last night, and it made me realise that the best resolution we can make for 2017 is to learn about ‘happy’… and here’s how.

As i watched the film, I realised that if we take responsibility for our own happiness then simply by being in the presence of others, we share that happiness with them. So I decided to do just that and making myself happy by sharing with you the gift of the golden nuggets I discovered in that film.

Directed by Roco Belik, ‘Happy’ ultimately shows us that the intrinsic goals of personal growth, relationship, and community spirit, are the surest path toward a happy life well lived. Most of us however follow the commercially cultivated social norm of extrinsic gratification, so lets explore that first.

Extrinsic goals of money, image and status by their very nature make us discontent with who we are. They have us believe that what we have (or rather don’t have) is where our attention should be. What’s important becomes what’s missing and how we can fix it through those extrinsic goals.

This externalized misconception of what happiness is and how we achieve it has us myopically striving toward those goals unaware that we march in a direction that is directly away from where the true source of happiness lies.

Happiness lies in people… deep inside all of us.

We feel happiness as those butterflies in our tummies, and that most readily happens when we are in the presence of other people. Yes, those first few moments of material realization fleetingly flutter those butterflies into life, but it soon fades because those material things have no life. They are not alive, they are in fact life-less.

Through the contribution from a range of neuroscientists and psychologist, the film takes us on a fascinating dive into the truths of how we human beings really work, and how happiness actually works in our brains. Dopamine, as many may know, is the chemical neurotransmitter that gives us that feeling of pleasure and happiness. It creates waves and webs of happiness across our brain, creating mini networks of nirvana as it connects with our neuron’s neuroreceptors. It turns out though that these receptors, if not used, start to die out from our mid teens onwards… and they don’t regenerate!

So here’s my first Christmas present… ‘use it or loose it’.

Do stuff that gets dopamine flowing like taking exercise that’s fun, varied and not a painfully duty! Join a class, play football in the park, go dancing. This kind of activity triggers you into that state we now call ‘flow’. Free from the bondage of self centred self importance, and fully absorbed in what you are doing in that moment, the flow state serves up a delicatessen of dopamine on which to feast your way to fun and happiness.

The neuroscientist also let us in on the secret of why, when we get the stuff we think will make us happy. it doesn’t… well not for long anyway.

It’s called the Hedonic treadmill or set point. It constantly recalibrates our happiness level so as to keep the system in balance. Buddhist call this balancing out of both pleasure and pain ‘Equanimity’. By accepting that the dips are as essential (and transient) as the high points of your fluctuating state of happiness, the dips wont grip you and hold you down. Now this is really useful to know because it shows us, in scientific terms, why the material path to happiness is more of a on going journey than it is a destination.

This is how the story so often goes…

It all begins when we recognize a feeling of dis-ease… something’s not right… we don’t feel good… in fact we’re not happy. To make ourselves feel better we follow the lead of the social norms in which we live. For most of us in the consumer based, material world this means looking for what’s missing in our lives and where we can get it from. It could be a new job, a promotion, more money, a new car or the latest designer thing. It could mean looking for praise, or recognition, or pampering ourselves so that we feel good about the way we look. This externalized perspective kick starts a process, which in focusing on what we don’t have, further widens the gap between how things are and how we now wish they were. So it is that our first step toward making ourselves happy is to make our selves more unhappy!

Stoically we take this as proof that we are on the right path, and with our goal in sight we work as hard as we have to to get it. Sure the hours are long and we don’t get to see as much of the kids but this un-happiness is worth it because one day we’ll get there… one day we’ll be happy. We dedicate an ever increasing proportion of the most precious and perishable resource we have, time, to the pursuit of the money that we’ll use to get those things that we ‘know’ will make us happy.

By the time we arrive at the point where we have acquired that thing we have been striving for, something has happened. The closer we got to getting it, and the more attainable it became, then the less it seemed like the solution we had once thought it was. We realise that far from satiating our material hunger, our appetite has grown with what it fed on (as Shakespeare put it), and the material morsel is no longer enough. Our Hedonic set point has recalibrated to accommodate our new circumstance and now we need even more… that feeling of malcontent has retuned and returned.

And we all know the story doesn’t really end there. We are tenacious! Off we go again, continually moving the goal posts of our own happiness. It’s no surprise we keep missing the target because it’s never where it was when we last looked. It’s always somewhere other than where we are… and while we are at it, it was probably the wrong kind of ball as well!

So what to do?

How can we learn to enjoy putting the ball in the back of the happiness net on a regular and dependable basis? The answer is simple. Play the game where you already are, not where you aren’t, and don’t try to play with what you haven’t got, play with everything you already have. So I have three gifts for you this Christmas, three simple things that will cost you nothing, and for which you need nothing but a sincere desire for authentic homegrown happiness:

Start each day by being grateful for what you have. Write down five things you are glad to have in your life. A funny thing happens in the few minutes you dedicate to this morning ritual. Simply as a result of your thinking about those things and what they mean to you, you smile, and in that smile the seeds of your own homegrown happiness start to grow.

Throughout the day do three random acts of kindness for others – and don’t get found out (if you do it doesn’t count). This can be as simple as picking up a piece of litter, or filling the paper tray in the printer when it’s not empty. As you walk away from this moment of clandestine caring, and as you enjoy the fact that no one will know it was you, notice that you are smiling again and that the seed you planted that morning continues to grow and flourish.

And at the end of the day take a few minutes to notice something else… a minor miracle that you’ve been able to take for granted throughout the whole day, just as you do every day. You are breathing. Perhaps as you lie in bed, simply place you attention, as best you can, on nothing but your breath and how it enters and leaves your body. Notice how revitalizing this simple act of awareness has the potential to be. Best of all, notice that it’s always right there wherever you are. You don’t have to save up for it, you don’t have to strive for it, and you don’t even have to want it to be better than your neighbours! Doing this simple thing for a few minutes at the end of each day will cultivate an ability to choose where you place your awareness, and what it is that really makes you happy.

I’ve saved the best news till last. It turns out that being happy is a gift you give to others every time you give it to yourself. So go on be generous to yourself this Christmas, you know you deserve it.

Happy 2017

Tom

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