6 practices for cultivating (getting present to) happiness and contentment

Let’s assume that we, human beings, want to be happy and contented.  If that is indeed the case then what should we do to cultivate and/or get present to happiness in our experience of living.  That is to say what can we do to experience happiness rather than think and make a statement along the lines of “I am happy” without feeling happy.  Each of us has his or own ideas about what drives, causes, gives rise to the state of happiness.

What do research studies on happiness suggest?  Are the practices that have been scientifically proven to cultivate and/or get us present to happiness and contentment in our lives?  Yes.  If you have the time then read “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt and “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky – I find the first a cracking read and inspiring, I find the latter a handy and practical reference book.  If you do not have the time then I simply wish to point you (and me) in the right direction by spelling out 6 happiness practices that have a scientifically sound basis.

1. Give Thanks (Gratitude)

There is enormous power in the simple habit of counting our blessings.  Regular expressions of gratitude promote optimism, better health and greater satisfaction in living our lives.  How often should you sit down and get present to all the stuff that you can be grateful for?  You might think daily and yet the science suggests that this does not work.  It is more effective to do make this a weekly exercise – make it a habit to take time out once a week to get present (make a list) of all that you can be grateful for and who you are grateful to.  Do this rigorously and we have the opportunity to get present to the huge contribution so many people (many of them strangers) make to our lives and how much we have grateful for.  For example, this morning I gave thanks for the hot shower simply by turning a tap and the gorgeous smell of coconut soap!

The Amish practice this everyday – they give thanks before they eat (“Living With the Amish”).

2.  Pay Attention (Mindfulness)

Studies show that mindfulness (being present in and to the present moment including self, others, the environment) matters.  Mindful people have stronger immune systems and are less likely to be hostile and/or anxious.  If you practice mindfulness you will be amazed at how disconnected you are from your body (living in the mind) and the present moment (living in the past and or the future continuously).  With practice we become more and more present and thus make the most of the present.

3.  Keep Friends Close

Make time for those closest to you.  I am particularly present to this as I have been immersed in a web of rich conversation with people that matter to me over the Christmas period.  Research shows that social connections are the key to happiness (the Amish totally get this).  And the quality of the social connections matter more than the quantity.

I find it interesting that the Amish practice this as well – they live with and work with their family members every day and they live within a community and within each community they know the people (their lives, live histories, the key people in their lives) – not just names of the people.

4. Drop Grudges (Forgiveness)

Research shows convincingly that when we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions and feel closer to others.  In the course of watching “Living With The Amish” I got present to how wise the Amish are – they actively practice forgiveness.  An example was given of a gunman that shot dead 10 young Amish children whilst they were at school: despite the incredible loss the parents publicly forgave the gunman!  That is a hard ask and yet think about whose lives would have been the most damaged if they had not forgiven:  the lives of the Amish parents, their children and the people in their community.

There is a zen tale related to this.  One day a renowned and fierce samurai turns up to see a zen master.  Face to face the samurai asks “I am tormented.  I have travelled far and wide and asked many yet I have not attained the answer I am looking for.  What is the difference between Heaven and Hell.”  The zen master ignores him.  The samurai asks again and is ignored again.  The samurai asks again – this time more forcefully.  The master responds “Get out of here you worthless dog!”.   No-one has ever talked this way to the samurai nor treated him this way.  Rage grips the samurai and he takes out his long sword and is about to bringing it down on the zen master and end his life.  Right there the zen master says “That is Hell”.  The samurai gets it – right there – the sword falls from his hand.  Then tears flow from the face of the samurai – he gets that the zen master had put his own life at stake to be of service to him (the samurai).  When the zen master says that change of state in the samurai he says “That is heaven”.   I hope you get what this tale is getting at.

5.  Move (Exercise)

Regular exercise increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and may well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all.  Again, it is interesting to note that the physical work plays such a large role in their lived lives – from dawn to dusk the Amish families work together making stuff and taking care of the necessities of life.

6.  Practice Kindness

Being kind to others makes us feel good.  Altruistic acts light up the same pleasure centres in the brain as food and sex!  Again I find it interesting that the Amish practice kindness vigorously when it comes to their community, their Church.  The make a point of sharing each other’s sorrows, they help each other out e.g. barnraising, they celebrate together…… Kind of explains why sex, fancy food and material goods (and riches) do not have the same hold on the Amish that they have on many of us.

A Handy Reminder

You can download a handy reminder of these practices by clicking on the following link:  Six Habits of Happiness

I thank you for listening and taking part in this conversation.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.

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