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Live Life Fully: Raise your happiness setting

By Linda Arnold

Happy campers. An appropriate phase as we’re entering the summer season.

As you look at the people in your world any time of year, though, I’ll bet you likely group them into categories like “Mary Sunshine” or “Debbie Downer.”

They can immediately lift the energy in a room — or suck the living daylights out of it.

Do you ever stop to wonder whether they’ve always been like this? Maybe they were born this way.

Then again, life experiences could have shaped their outlooks. Although we all have qualities of both Mary and Debbie, chances are you naturally lean one way more than the other.

That’s not to say you’re forever destined to stay that way, though.

The title of this column, Live Life Fully, along with my license plate, LIVE, serve as reminders to me that this life is not a dress rehearsal. And there are times when I definitely need those reminders!

Of course, we all have our bad moments — and bad days. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t.

And it’s healthy to feel those emotions and move through them.

Then there’s the balance between authentically processing a scenario and wallowing in it ad nauseam — replaying the situation over and over.

Which brings to mind a concept I find very intriguing.

Scientists have found that we each have a “happiness set point,” the genetic and learned tendency to remain at a certain level of happiness — similar to a thermostat setting on a furnace.

Like a weight set point, which keeps the bathroom scale hovering around the same number, our happiness set point remains the same unless we make a concerted effort to change it, according to Marci Shimoff, author of the book “Happiness for No Reason.”

Two of our greatest barriers to happiness — fear and anxiety — have been hardwired into us to ensure survival as a species.

In today’s world, however, that old wiring has become somewhat obsolete and more harmful than helpful.

Consider these barometers of happiness developed by Shimoff:

Unhappy

Life is a bummer, filled with anxiety, fatigue and sadness. This isn’t the same as clinical depression, characterized by hopelessness that interferes with the ability to live a normal life, and which requires professional help.

Happy for bad reason

Attempting to feel better by indulging in addictions that feel good in the moment but are ultimately detrimental — drugs, alcohol, excessive sex, compulsive gambling, overeating, spending hours on end on the computer, retail therapy and too much television.

This kind of happiness is only a temporary way to numb out or escape unhappiness through fleeting experiences of pleasure.

Happy for good reason

Good relationships with family and friends, fulfilling careers, financial security, nice houses and cars and using talents well.

While these things can definitely have a positive impact on us, they depend on the external conditions of our lives.

If these conditions change, our happiness usually goes, too. True happiness doesn’t come from merely collecting an assortment of happy — and fleeting — experiences.

At your core, you know there’s something more.

Happy for no reason

True happiness: a neurophysiological state of peace and well-being that isn’t dependent on external circumstances.

This isn’t euphoria that doesn’t last. In fact, when we’re happy for no reason, we can have any emotion — sadness, fear, anger or hurt — and still experience that underlying state of peace and well-being.

When we’re happy for no reason, according to Shimoff, we bring happiness to our outer experiences, rather than trying to extract happiness from them.

We don’t need to manipulate the world around us to make ourselves happy. We live from happiness, rather than for happiness.

People with high happiness set points don’t have special powers. They just have different habits.

Psychologists say at least 90 percent of all behavior is habitual. So, to become happier, we need to look to our habits.

Some books and programs tell us we can simply decide to be happy. Just make up our minds to be happy, and we will be.

While that’s a good start, it’s too simplistic — and not realistic.

All of our habitual thoughts and behaviors in the past have created specific neural pathways in the wiring of our brains — like grooves in a record. When we think or behave in a certain way over and over, those neural pathways are strengthened and the grooves become deeper.

Unhappy people tend to have more negative neural pathways. That’s why we can’t ignore the realities of our brain’s wiring and just decide to be happy.

To raise our happiness set point, we need to create new grooves.

Scientists used to think that once a person reached adulthood, the brain was fairly well set in stone and there wasn’t much we could do to change it. But new research says that when we think, feel and act in different ways, the brain changes and actually rewires itself.

Brain researcher Dr. Richard Davidson says, “Based on what we know of the plasticity of the brain, we can think of things like happiness and compassion as skills that are no different from learning to play a musical instrument or tennis. It’s possible to train our brains to be happier.”

As this witticism (often attributed to Benjamin Franklin) says: “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

Linda Arnold, MA, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, psychological counselor and syndicated columnist. Reader inquiries are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, P&A Enterprises, 1401 Somerlayton Drive, Charleston, WV 25301, or livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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