Priority 1: Happiness

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

How important is your happiness? Most people would probably say that being happy is very important to them. We all strive to experience happiness, but rarely do any of us treat happiness as a priority.

Work is a priority. Family, schedules, deadlines, finances, goals…those are priorities. Those are things that we actively devote time to doing. We expend a great deal of energy on accomplishing tasks and pleasing others – making sure the boss is happy, our clients, our spouse, our parents, and our friends. These are things that we can selflessly say are necessities. Ensuring our own happiness…we’ll get around to that.

The vast majority of us believe that happiness is a bi-product of something else – that happiness arrives after something. For example: “I’ll be so happy when I land this big account.” “I’ll be the happiest person in the world after I loose these 10 pounds.” “When I am done with this I will be so happy.” The idea here is that true joy comes after. We tell ourselves that sacrifice, hard work, and perseverance are the way to achieve our goals, and achieving our goals is the way to be happy. But what if that isn’t the case? What if we have it all wrong. What if success isn’t the most efficient route to happiness but instead, the reverse is true? What if happiness is the way to achieve our goals? What if success is simply the bi-product of being happy?

I would love to tell you that I thought this wonderful idea up all on my own – that one day I had an epiphany and came to this miraculous conclusion. But sadly, that is not the case. In fact, this idea has been around a while, a long while, and there is even research to back it up. Researchers looked first at how our brains process information. To do this, they examined where exactly the synapses were firing when we “think happy thoughts.” They then compared that to data representing our brain activity when we are creative and productive, and what do you know…same area.

Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Archer, says that being happy turns on our “learning centers” allowing us to be more productive individuals. He stipulates that when we are happy our brains release increased amounts of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with effective recall and thought organization.

If that isn’t enough to convince you that your happiness should be seen as a priority, no worries, I have more evidence to back up my claim. In his book “Authentic Happiness” Martin Seligman examines a remarkable study on happiness and longevity. I will leave it up to you to read Dr. Seilgman’s book while I skip to the end and give away the study’s conclusion (warning…spoiler alert). After researchers combed through the writings of two nuns who lived essentially the same life, they were able to make a conclusion on why one nun died relatively early and dealt with a far greater number of illnesses than her counterpart, who lived much longer with minimal ailments. The difference these researchers uncovered was basically that one of the nuns was happy. She was optimistic and fulfilled in her life, while the other did not experience the same level of joy. Thus, perhaps it isn’t just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away. Perhaps the key to health and longevity is happiness.

One reason for these, and many of the happiness/longevity findings, is that being happy reduces cortisol (also know as “the stress hormone”). Increased cortisol levels have been associated with: impaired cognition, thyroid suppression, high blood pressure, lowered immune system functioning, and increased belly fat (which is associated with stroke and heart disease), among other negative health effects. We produce cortisol when we are stressed and decrease it when we relax. When we remain in a stressful state for a prolonged period of time, these heightened levels of cortisol can become dangerous and begin to effect our overall health in a number of ways.

So what do we do about all of this? Lets face it, we can’t avoid being stressed out, nor should we make that attempt. But if we don’t take the time to learn healthy, effective coping strategies to deal with the stress that is inevitably a part of our daily life, we are doing ourselves an injustice. If happiness and relaxation are they keys to decreasing our cortisol levels, and thus increasing our health and well being, isn’t it worth the time it takes to accomplish that. Wouldn’t falling ill take a far greater amount of time to deal with than small bits of daily self care?

One quick and easy way to decrease cortisol and increase dopamine is simply to smile. Smile as often as you can. Earn those laugh lines, and wear them proudly. Smiling is one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings. One British study looked at PET scans of individuals who were smiling and found that their brains produced the same reaction as when they were told they just received $25,000!

Plus, smiling is contagious (a lot like yawning). When you smile, those around you smile – same with laughing. One person starts laughing, and others join in with you. You can even take a laughing yoga class where the entire class laughs together through their posses. By smiling you not only make yourself happier, more relaxed, and in the long run healthier, you also increase the chances of those around you doing the same thing (therefore you can mark this in the column of caring for others!).

Self care needs to be a priority for every individual. We all know this fact.. But lets be honest, it takes time. We are trained to take care of everything else first and ourselves last. We handle work, family, and friends all before we do something for ourselves. We can’t continue down that path if we plan on being there to continue those caregiver duties. We need to put us first and do so without guilt or apology. Remember, happiness doesn’t come after. If you are striving for success in your life, keep the well said words of Albert Schweitzer in your thoughts: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”