Brain-Based Learning

Social and Emotional Curriculum: Understanding Happiness

Door One in the Seven Doors to Happiness journey

November 16, 2011

This seven part series, from the Project Happiness curriculum, explores the many facets of happiness and provides practical techniques to generate greater happiness and a more meaningful life -- from the inside. Each door can be done alone or the Seven Doors journey can be done in sequence. You can use this exercise to explore your own relationship to happiness, and/or bring it to your students to help them build a stronger sense of their own happiness. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to post them in the comments section below.


1) Happiness Is Personal

Everyone wants happiness. Yet, because each of our characters and preferences is unique, and since we also come from different families, communities and cultures, what makes one person happy may not be the same for another. At the end of the day, for happiness to be meaningful, we have to create our own individual definition of what it is.

Reflection: What comes to your mind when you hear the word happiness?

2) The Brain Can Change

It used to be widely accepted that brain cells do not grow. Newest findings reveal the opposite. The science of neuroplasticity has discovered that the brain can change. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson points out that the average adult grows 5,000 new brain cells a day. With certain practices, including mindfulness (bringing one's complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis), meditation (a self-directed practice, often using focused breathing, for relaxing the body and calming the mind) and gratitude, it is possible to re-access a deeper happiness that is available regardless of the day-to-day challenges that life presents.

In the 1940s, psychologist Donald Hebb stated, "The neurons that fire together wire together." As we think a thought over and over, it forms a neural pathway. So by practicing new positive ways of thinking, we can actually create new neural pathways that support the lives we wish to create.

Reflection: How do you want to be in the world? Adopting and then practicing new ways of thinking can make a huge difference.

3) Short-Term and Long-Term Happiness

Meeting our desires (for chocolate, new shoes, the latest gadget on the market -- you name it!) can definitely give us feelings that we define as happiness. But after the pleasure of having this object fades, we often just desire something else. This kind of happiness, which depends on external attainment of immediate desires, often brings only temporary or short-term satisfaction. Then, when we find ourselves wanting something new, we repeat the process. For some, it can feel like a never-ending cycle of constantly searching for more objects or increasingly intense experiences that satisfy.

Long-term happiness tends to be associated with experiences that bring meaning and a deeper fulfillment into our lives. These include acts of kindness, working toward a deeply held goal, or immersing ourselves in an activity which engages us so fully that time seems to disappear.

Both types of happiness are important and can work hand in hand. Tal Ben Shahar, whose "Positive Psychology" course is the most popular at Harvard, suggests, "Happiness is the intersection between pleasure and meaning." Both have their merits.

Reflection: What is your favorite path to short-term and to long-term happiness? This is an interesting question for a class or family discussion, too.

4) Waves of Appreciation

Thoughts are like boomerangs: what we project out into the world often comes back, and when we put our attention on something, that thing grows. In this way, anger begets anger, and appreciation both incites and expands happy feelings. Gratitude is a pillar of happiness. Research has proven that as we reflect and write down a few things we are grateful for, this simple act can change the brain, creating a happier state.

Some Benefits of Gratitude:

  • Gratitude helps you savor the good stuff of life. Whether enjoying a meal or spending time with an ailing parent, an attitude of gratitude makes each moment even more precious.
  • Gratitude makes you feel more confident of your strengths and less sorry for yourself, even in a financially volatile environment.
  • Gratitude improves relationships, as grateful people tend to be more positive, which often attracts new friendships.
  • Gratitude, as an antidote for disappointment and envy, helps you focus on what is here and now in your life.

5) Take the Happiness Challenge

During the day, take five minutes to look around you and notice anything, however insignificant, that makes you feel good. It might be, "I love the sun on my back," "That meal was awesome," or "Amazing conversation." You can jot it down or store it in your mind to enter in your gratitude journal later. Consider how these simple forms of appreciation feel, and how they affect your experience of happiness. If you do this for 21 days, you can experience noticeable changes.

Reflection: For now, what is your definition of happiness? What are you grateful for in your life: personally, professionally or in the relationships that matter to you most?

Next blog will be on obstacles to happiness and how to overcome them.

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