Seven Ways to Live Happier

  Seven Ways to Live Happier
Ask a Doctor: Dr. Bill Brock, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Sharp Grossmont Hospital

Living a happier life goes hand-in-hand with being stress-free, which can sometimes be difficult for people to achieve. Since the amount of happiness or stress in a person’s life can have an impact on health, it is also important to understand the relationship between emotional and physical health. Dr. Bill Brock, PhD, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital, answers a few questions below and offers tips on how to live happier and with less stress.

Does happiness contribute to health?
Studies have shown that happiness and positive emotions can contribute to a longer and healthier life, while feelings of stress, anger, frustration and worry can contribute to a variety of stress-related illnesses. We live in stressful times, and balancing the demands of family, friends, work, holidays and other stresses can create long-term, chronic stress that is recognized as a major contributor to a wide range of health problems, including obesity, heart disease or depression.

However, according to a recent Harvard Health Publications study, happiness and a positive outlook greatly benefit overall health. In fact, an entire field of Positive Psychology has been gaining momentum as psychologists recognize the crucial role of increased positive emotions on our mental and physical health. It is becoming more evident that the ability to effectively manage stress and increase positive emotional experiences contributes to better health.

How does stress detract from happiness?
Stress is an individual’s reaction to pressures and demands placed upon herself or himself. Some stress can be positive — it helps us identify problems and motivates us to take action. The problem is that our modern culture and lifestyle tends to create many stressors with very few ways to manage them. Ongoing stress creates a problem when we worry that we can’t cope, which can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed. Unhelpful thoughts, such as, "This problem will never go away," or "I can't stand all this pressure," can sometimes progress into feelings of anxiety, and even depression.

What activities can contribute to a person’s happiness?
While the debate continues over the impact of money and material objects toward happiness, researchers and psychologists find that some activities can contribute to an increase in joy and contentment. A few suggestions include:

  • Build resilience: Everyone experiences some challenging life events. Your ability to bounce back from adversity, relationship problems, trauma, serious health problems or work and financial setbacks is called resilience. To build resilience, accept that change is a part of life, take daily steps toward goals that are important to you, nurture a positive view of yourself and avoid reacting to crises as being insurmountable.

  • Find activities you enjoy and are passionate about: It doesn’t matter if it’s a hobby you’ve been doing for years or something you’ve never tried but have always wanted to. In the long run we are happier and more satisfied with life when we do things we care about. Carve out some time from the hours you spend watching TV or surfing the Web, and identify other activities you are passionate about.

  • Help others: Doing things for others obviously helps them, but research shows it can increase your happiness, too.

  • Practice gratitude: Noticing and being grateful for positive things in your life can boost your mood and help dispel negative thinking. To increase your gratitude, keep a journal in which you note large and small events that bring you joy or make you smile. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been kind to you or a positive influence in your life.

  • Share a laugh: Not only is laughter the best medicine, it brings people together, increases joy and counteracts conflict and stress. To add laughter to your day, spend time with happy, funny people, watch funny movies or TV shows or read the funny pages in your newspaper or online. Manage your media intake so that you aren't consistently exposed to negative, unhelpful news or other shows.

  • Strengthen social ties: Close relationships with family, friends and coworkers are a key factor in happiness. To strengthen your relationships, stay in regular contact with friends and family. Listen closely when they talk — turn off your cell phone and iPod. Tell others how much you appreciate, respect, count on and love them.

  • Take time to play: Playfulness helps anyone of any age be more resilient, happy, flexible and creative. It teaches us to manage and transform stress and negative emotions, too. It’s easy to be playful with pets and children. But looking for ways to play with grown-ups at work and at home is a great way to increase the strength and health of your relationships. Cultivating your own sense of playfulness has many rewards.

What are a few tips for minimizing stress?
Effectively managing stress is an important part of increasing our capacity for happiness. One way to start is by working on the basic building blocks of a healthy, happy lifestyle, including nutrition, physical activity, quality sleep and relaxation/leisure.

Of course, it is important to work on the problems that are contributing to our stress level. But remember, it is not the events themselves that are creating our feelings of stress and upset, but how we are thinking about those events. Here are three psychological strategies to help manage our stress response to situations:

  • Distraction — While distraction doesn’t solve the stressful situation, it can help reduce stress levels by allowing time to calm down and think through the problem. Distraction strategies could include mental exercises or games, physical activity, mantras or soothing statements.

  • Rethinking — Also referred to as reframing, an individual can reduce stress toward a certain situation by challenging unhelpful beliefs. For example, instead of thinking, "I am overwhelmed, I can’t do this," try to rethink toward something more helpful, such as, "I have a lot to do, but I can tackle these things one at a time. When I break the job down into smaller parts, I can calmly figure out a plan for completing the first thing I need to do. I may even be able to find some help and support for getting it done." Rethinking is a more helpful, realistic approach that contributes to feeling calmer and less stressed.

  • Acceptance — Many things in life can't be avoided nor fixed, but developing the ability to accept certain things can help reduce stress. While you may dislike rude, unkind people in the world, accepting that they exist can contribute to a sense of calm. Do what you can to improve the situation; make sure the behavior of others doesn't control your own emotions. Some acceptance strategies include breathing exercises, progressive relaxation, mindfulness and meditation.

Overall, pursuing happiness and managing stress can be viewed as an ongoing, evolving effort. For those who may need additional support or are struggling, self-help and support groups, books, online resources and mental health professionals can offer ideas about how to find more joy.

Find a San Diego Psychiatrist
To find a Sharp-affiliated doctor, search for a San Diego psychiatrist or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm.

For More Information
To find general information about mental health, visit Mental Health Disorders in Adult Health or read the Mental Health News archive.

About the Expert
Dr. Bill Brock, PhD, is a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
Dr. Bill Brock