The other day, over a lunch-time pint, someone asked me to name the number-one thing I absolutely need to be happy.
Now that's a heavy question, but a welcome change from the usual mind-numbing converse of hair and clothes and weight gain and weight loss and money and Christmas shopping and bullshit.
It's a big question alright, with an infinite number of answers, especially when happiness means different things to different people. I think, for most people, it's a hard question to answer. Because most people never stop to ask if they're happy at all, let alone what they need -- what they really need -- to be so.
Just a few years ago, I would have answered this question with something like "friendship," or "true love," or "a rewarding career." Years before that, I am red-faced to admit my answer might have been something like "bigger tits" or "a smaller ass." From month to month and year to year, the answer would change, as would I.
Now, at the ripe old age of 34, I know exactly what my answer is. I also know that, while I am still continually changing, my answer to this question will not. Because the answer itself allows for change, from now until my expiry date.
What's the one thing I need to be happy? Above all else, I need to be myself.
Not some version of me watered down by expectation and fear. What a waste.
Not who strangers expect me to be when first we meet. Pretending is so exhausting.
Not how I'd have to be to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses can suck it.
Not like the people on TV and in magazines. This is it, baby.
Not the girl my husband secretly wishes I was.
Not how my mother would have me.
Not even as my dad would have wanted me to be.
Not another kind of mom. Max seems to like me just as I am.
I'm not even halfway through my life (I hope), but I've already spent too much time filtering out the parts of me that were inelegant and awkward, turning down the parts of me that were too loud or too bright, to fly under the radar with the rest of the perfectly normal people.
And it's my own fault. Nobody, except me, demanded anything else of me than who I was. It took me three decades to fully realize it, but the truth is: people fucking love it when you're real. You know, as long as you're not a real asshole or a serial killer or a cow fucker or something.
It's simple logic. How can you be happy if you're not being yourself? You're just trying to make the make-believe version of yourself happy, and that doesn't make any sense, stupid.
Of course, it can seem tricky if you don't actually know who you are. But here is the thing: we are all still trying to figure out who we are. It's a lifelong search. We are seekers of the truth -- that's who we are. And I reckon that's a great who to be.
So if you're bonkers, be bonkers. ("I'll tell you a secret -- all the best people are," said Alice.)
If you're smart, be smart.
If you're beautiful, be beautiful.
If you're not beautiful, yes you are.
If you're flawed, work with it. Nobody said you had to be perfect.
If you want to say fuck on the Internet, say fuck on the Internet.
If you're gay, for the love of god be your gay ass self.
Who you are is always right.
You know who had it spot-on? Doctor Seuss. See, I guess I've known the answer to this happiness question for some time now, because I scrawled it on Max's bedroom wall nearly four years ago. I was seven months pregnant, perilously standing on a wooden chair, determined to hand-paint a quote up near the ceiling, all the way around the room. I had searched for weeks for the one piece of wisdom I would like to impart on my first child above all, ultimately choosing one of Seuss's lesser-known lines:
"Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."
Maybe when I redecorate his room one day, I'll change it to this one, also by the good doctor:
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
Yes you read that right. There is a tremendous amount of research that demonstrates the importance of happiness and its association with so many positive outcomes that I was surprised to discover the counterintuitive research conducted by Iris Mauss at the University of California Berkeley, who claims that happiness may not be beneficial in every context. Mauss has discovered that as people strive for happiness, they set higher expectations for happiness. When their expectations are not met, they find themselves disappointed. Also, the harder one tries to experience happiness, the more difficult it is to actually feel happy. We feel this tremendous amount of pressure to be happy all the time that we often hear people apologizing for their unhappy moods. For heaven's sake, if your dog dies, it's okay to be sad.
I always thought that having more choices when making any decision would make me happier, but according to psychologist Barry Schwartz, endless choice can actually lead to lower levels of happiness. Here's how it works: the more choices you have, the more you have to give up. Having some choice is good, but when you have too many choices, having to forego many attractive features of things not chosen causes regret. We can liken this to buyer's remorse. Schwartz's suggestion is to employ a tactic called "satisficing/" Before you purchase, be clear about the features and options you require, make your choice based on those requirements and then stop searching. If you are prone to what Schwartz refers to as "maximizing"; exhaustively exploring every single option and feature before making any decision, satisficing can be liberating. What I have found is that when I need to make a major and significant decision I take the time to maximize. For everything else, satisficing is fine with me and I'm happier for it.
For this, I turn to Dan Gilbert's TED Talk titled "The Surprising Science of Happiness." In this talk, Gilbert describes how humans are bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. I thought that a bigger salary, a bigger house and a nicer car would make me lastingly happier, but what I didn't know about was the concept of hedonic adaptation. Research has shown that human beings are highly adaptable to both bad and good changes in their lives. After a period of adaptation, we typically revert back to our previous happiness range. This is not true for all life events, as some are more life changing than others, but true for most situations. So we find ourselves working hard for more and more things without realizing that we are really just on a hedonic treadmill.
When I think about my happiest moments I think about time spent with family and friends but I didn't think that social relationships were that central to our survival, especially for some personality types. Science has proven the opposite. Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger designed an experiment where participants played a computer game called Cyberball while having their brains scanned by an fMRI machine. The Cyberball game begins with all three avatars happily tossing the ball to each other but soon, the study participant is excluded from the game. As soon as the participant is excluded, the fMRI shows activity in the same region in the brain that physical pain might cause. In other words, social exclusion is experienced as physical pain in the most primal part of our brains.
Of course we're taught from an early age that exercise is an important contributor to our physical health but research now shows that physical exercise is also important to our psychological health. Whenever I mention this to people, they often refer to the boost of endorphins after exercise, but there is way more at work here. According to Dr. John Ratey in his ground-breaking book, Spark, exercise produces the feel-good bio-chemical serotonin. Daily physical activity actually increases the amount of serotonin in our brain improving mood and protecting us from depression. In one study with clinically depressed people, the group that was prescribed daily exercise in fact showed greater reductions in depressive symptoms than the group that was prescribed anti-depressants. Exercise also reduces the stress hormone cortisol which allows us to manage better in stressful times. The good news is that any physical activity counts - so just get moving every day.
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