Hey, there! Dr. Alan Christianson here. This is going to be fun. I want to talk about what makes you happy. We have these big, over-arching goals that are oftentimes subconscious. These goals tie into the fact our genes and brains conspired through thousands of generations to make us good, survival machines. Our goals are to survive, not get killed, keep ourselves fed, and pass on our lineage. A big goal is also being connected—being in a group. Oddly enough, many have argued being secure in a community may be one of the biggest, hidden goals we have. Why is this relevant?
We think our ancestors had stability in tribes of maybe 20-50 in numbers. If you had a group that size, you could help support each other. You could take turns gathering food, share hunting duties and help out with the kids. You could also protect yourself against other tribes that wanted your land. If your group was much bigger, you had too many to support in terms of how much time you could spend and distance you could cover gathering. You would eat up the food quicker than it would be growing. If your group was much smaller, bigger groups could take your land, and you would be lost. The other thing is you really could not survive on your own. Without the support of others, anytime you were an unlucky hunter or needed assistance, it wasn’t there. To leave the group was to risk death. So, deep in our genes, we are hardwired to want connections, to be stable in our group. We want to be accepted.
Oftentimes, we have subgoals that are set up to meet that overriding goal. Subgoals may be things like: We want to lose weight. We want to be successful. We want to have certain things work out well. We want to meet these goals, too, but they are subgoals of a bigger goal, which is being secure and a stable member of the group. Oftentimes, we have happiness as one of our subgoals. We want to be happy. The thing that really drives our wanting to be happy is that sense of security.
We have been taught by our culture the subgoals that give us happiness are material rewards. In different contexts, material things do create happiness. For example, if you go to developing countries, look at those who have some basic means and those who do not. Those who have some things are happier. They have more options. They have more security. What if you look within developed countries? When you look at groups who have their needs met, some may have different brands of cars or clothes and different vacations. Regardless, people are really not fighting for their survival needs. So, within those worlds, material acquisition no longer predicts happiness.
Let’s take an example of someone who is starving. If someone is starving, you can get them a pretty crappy meal. You can give them McDonald’s, and it’ll be the tastiest meal they ever had. On the other hand, for someone who is not starving, a McDonald’s meal is not considered something wonderful. Material things are the same way.
There was a shocking study that illustrated this. They looked at different people’s set point of happiness and observed them over long periods of time. They witnessed some who, through horrible tragedies, became paraplegic or quadriplegic. Their injuries left them unable to be mobile, free and do the physical things they wanted to do. They also had others who literally hit the jackpot as lottery winners, and our culture teaches us this is the surest ticket to happiness. In the first few months after a life-changing episode, the lottery winners were happier than they were before. Those who had the horrible tragedy were understandably feeling awful. However, after six months, people were no more or less happy than they were before those events happened. They went back to their set point. So, if winning the lottery won’t make you happy, and a major tragedy won’t make you sad, what does make a difference? What can shift your mood in the right direction? There has been a lot of research on this. There are differing views, but more commonly, there are three, actionable steps you can do to make yourself happier. There are other ideas about how to structure your life, create flow, and be in the best environment to be more productive. These are also valid, but in terms of short-term strategies to gain your happiness, here are the top three.
The first is very intuitive. It is random acts of kindness. It is almost cliché to hear these words, but it is legit. It actually makes a really big difference. It’s more effective when you do not get any direct feedback from the recipient. You can do things like pay for someone’s Starbucks in line (if you go to places like that). You can give random gifts, or do little, unexpected things to help people around you. They can be done anonymously and unreciprocated. Let someone get in your line of traffic when you would not otherwise. You can totally shift your mental state by getting outside your concerns and using your brain to predict what someone else’s concerns and needs are, and then, meet those preemptively. This is so very powerful and very easy. I know it sounds trite and cheesy, but it works.
The second one is obviously less intuitive but fun and not too unexpected. It is moving your body rhythmically to music. A lot of people love to dance on a dance floor, and it is an awesome outlet. There are times you can do that; however, it can be as simple as using music when you’re exercising. Play your favorite songs. Here is a funny thing: Our brains are the most emotionally responsive to music during our adolescence. That is when we have the most tendencies to form deep patterns and connections in the brain. So, crank up the music you listened to when you were in your teenage years. No music will resonate with you as strongly. Even if it’s dated, and no one else likes it, play it when you’re active. Get a groove going to the beat of the music when you’re running, hiking or using an exercise machine. Play it even when doing random things around the house. Crank it up loud, or use some headphones, and move in some way to the beat. It is so simple, but so powerful. You completely elevate your mood in sustainable and lasting ways.
Now, this last one is going to throw you: think about your mortality. We work hard in our culture, denying the fact we are going to die. There was a great movie with Robin Williams, called the “Dead Poets Society”. It was all about being acutely aware of the fact that you have a timeframe, and the clock is ticking. We can think of that as depressing and not want to think about it. The reality is it can be one of the most inspiring and liberating things to be aware of. It completely shifts your perspectives and takes away the mental loops of all the difficult things in life. It totally breaks those loops because, “Hey, I am going to die someday, so what do I really need to do to feel I made my legacy, knowing someday I will not have another chance to? Either I will be gone, or they will be gone. What do I want to do, so I do not have regrets? How do I want to live today, so it will matter enough, and I will know I have done what I could?” As dark and bleak as those thoughts can seem, they are some of the most powerful. There have been motifs in many Tibetan or Latin American cultures that were skulls, skeletons and other scary-looking images. Those were not about devils and demons. Those were reminders that the clock was ticking. We are talking about the simple idea of being aware of it in your mind. Take a moment out of your day, maybe journal or think about the fact there is a timeframe, and we are not going to get out of here alive. (We actually have a place here in Scottsdale where you can get frozen in liquid nitrogen, and maybe you can get revived. Who knows? By and large, we do not think we are getting out of here alive.) So, believe it or not, being aware of your mortality is one of the more powerful tools to make yourself happier.
So, next time you’re really upset, buy a stranger a treat, let someone cut in front of you in traffic, crank on the tunes and move your body a little more. Remember you’re going to die. Remember what matters to you. Think about your loved ones and how you want to make a difference. You’ll pull yourself out of being upset. These three steps are not what you expect but very powerful.
Dr. Alan Christianson here, and we will talk again real soon.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.