Approaching a new year often elicits some inner reflection for people. I have felt especially aware of that which is most meaningful, and as a lifetime work in progress, as we all are, each year brings new insights and spotlights particular values. It brings less self-doubt, greater clarity and stronger boundaries to people or places that are toxic or senseless energy drains. During Thanksgiving I felt especially grateful for spending time with family, also honoring those family members who have passed away, as well as the ever growing new members through marriage and new births.
Many of the insights remind me of the tenants of Positive Psychology. One of my teachers in Positive Psychology, Tal Ben-Shehar, who as a Harvard instructor began teaching Positive Psychology, which went on to become the most popular course at Harvard, even surpassing economics. Gratitude is the focus of Thanksgiving, and an important practice for anyone who is interested in cultivating happiness. I can just hear his voice saying “when you appreciate the good, the good appreciates!”
What I find so exciting and empowering about Positive Psychology is that it is backed by hard research. Sonjia Lyubormirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, is one of the leading researchers in the field. On the cover of her book The how of Happiness, is a pie divided into three slices of 50%, 10% and 40%. Lyubormyrsky, based on a decade of research largely based on both fraternal and identical twins, cites that we are all born with a certain set point of happiness. This is genetically determined by our birth mother or birth father or a combination of both. Much like how our genes determine our intelligence, weight, cholesterol and such. In addition the charts prove that only 10% of our happiness levels is explained by our life circumstances, that is whether we are rich or poor, married, divorced …”
A well known study demonstrated that the wealthiest Americans’, those earning 10 million dollars or more annually show no difference in happiness levels from their office staff and blue collar workers they employ. What then is the 40% available space in our brain? It is room to create new neural pathways created by behavior. This is the beauty of this research in my view as it is self-empowering, with a plethora of behaviors that we find generates happiness, and that with an intention to continue using this behavior, after 4 weeks we have created a new habit, our brain begins to expect it and that after a year of continuing this behavior we have created a new neural pathway. As the years continue, the new neural pathways become stronger then the ones that don’t serve us as well, and this has been seen in MRI’s.
Lyobormirsky exlpains: “during the past 10 years psychological science has made tremendous advances in knowledge about not only how to treat depression, that is not only how to lift someone from feeling terrible to feeling good but how to elevate them to feeling great, to focus on what works. To languish or to flourish? the choice is yours. To name some behaviors which cultivate flourishing is:
.Devote a great deal of time to family and friends, nurturing and enjoying their relationships.
.Expressing gratitude for all that you have
.Be first to offer helping hands to co-workers and passersby
.Practice optimism when imagining your future
.Savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment
.Make physical exercise a weekly or daily habit
.Be deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g.) fighting fraud, building cabinets, or teaching your children your deeply held values
.Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crisis and tragedies, but possess a poise and strength in coping with their challenges.
Of course flourishing does not look like someone who is happy every second. It is, according to Tal Ben-Shehar a combination of happiness and meaning. Each individual has a choice, many are content with the status quo, and that is fine, this is a personal decision and not to be judged.
As the holidays move into Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and we reach the Winter Solstice, I find it no coincidence that each holiday includes candles or lights. Whatever your religious or spiritual inclinations may be, I feel these represent the inner light we all have with in, even at the darkest and coldest times of the year. Just as we know that that on a cloudy day, the sun is still there. It is the time for seeds of intentions to germinate, just as in nature, and to bloom when the time is right. New Years Eve many of us do set intentions for the following year, and celebrate that excitement.
These winter holidays also reminds me of the Danish expression HYGGE. Denmark is an excellent example of happiness, which is experienced throughout their country. It has consistently ranked number one of the list of countries with the greatest level of happiness for over 40 years. HYGGE describes the cozy, fireside, candlelit atmosphere, surrounded by friends and family. In the long dark Danish winters, Danes gather around the table and engage in conversation and play games by the fire. It is the drama free ultimate quality of life, that for a variety of reasons the Danes have curated into a deeply fulfilling living experience.
So settle in, go with the flow of the season which calls for more rest, greater intimacy, cuddling, and remember seeds are germinating. In our society “busyness” has become for many a pretense for importance, we have a lot to learn from the Danes, who have created some of the greatest, architects, furniture makers and chefs. Yet the culture holds a disdain for showiness, one is more likely to garner respect by riding a bicycle than a BMW.
May this New Year bring peace and much needed harmony to each and everyone, and remember peace is an inside job. Let it emanate from you out to others and connect us to one another. In the infinitely wise words of Jalaluddin Rumi, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop”