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The Journey to Happiness, Part I

Thu, 11/12/2020 - 15:43

Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly this year on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset during the coronavirus pandemic. The following transcript is of her conversation with KFIN’s Brandon Baxter on October 21, 2020.

Q: Are you happy?  
I am happy. I think I come by it naturally – or genetically – from my optimist mother, and then also my circumstances and choices allow me to feel fulfilled. But make no mistake, as we can talk about, happiness is not a permanent state, so even happy people can have really, really sad times and struggle. I literally work at my happiness every day, and I make it a priority for our children as well. 

Q: Are most people happy?
This is probably obvious, but different cultures define happiness in different ways. Even generations define it differently. Societal influences and pressure can really affect how a person perceives their own happiness. Sadly, it’s easy to see this even in pre-teens and teenagers! Recent studies show we were all happier last year at this time, which is no surprise to anyone. In the midst of COVID-19 and all of its associated stressors, so many people are in more of a survival or existence mode—providing food, clothing, shelter, etc.—than a living or growth mode… happiness, personal meaning, etc.

Q: What exactly is happiness?
I want to just mention as we discuss happiness that these conversations and techniques can apply to everyone. But there are some folks who struggle with clinical depression who may need medication to get to a point of stability where they are then able to implement some of these behaviors to build happiness. 

Overall, most researchers agree that real happiness is a combination of how satisfied you are with your life and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis. It’s a feeling of contentment and satisfaction with what you have and how your life is, not as intense as joy or ecstasy or bliss—those are all short-term states. Although happiness is a relatively stable state of being, it’s not permanent and it can change—so that if our life changes, our mood fluctuates. But our general happiness is more genetically determined than anything else. The good news is, with consistent effort, we can alter how happy we are. 

Q: So, our mindset is similar to the way our bodies are. We inherit quite of bit of our shape and size, but if we consistently work toward healthy eating and exercise, we can change it quite a bit. And then, of course, if we don’t keep that up, we go back to our starting shape.
Yes, or worse, even! Each of us probably has a genetic disposition to a certain level of happiness or contentment. We are also shaped by the happiness and contentment we saw—or didn’t see—from our early caregivers.  Then our behaviors, or lack thereof, can increase or decrease that level. 
In other words, we do have so much control over how we feel—and with consistent practice, we can form life-long habits that will lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling life.

A lot of people say they want to be happier—or fitter, for that matter. But if you really want to see change in your life, you will have to put in some work. You will have to be intentional about finding or identifying happiness, and about creating happiness in our everyday lives, in our journey. 

Q: What are some signs that a person is happy? 
Happy people live with purpose and they find meaning in their lives. They find satisfaction in lasting relationships, working toward their goals, and living according to their values. The happy person is not enamored with material things or luxury vacations. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things—they just lend themselves to more short-term joy, and if short-term joy is your main focus, you’ll miss out on ways to build long-term contentment.

Q: It sounds like a happy person is content with the simple pleasures of life—petting a dog, sitting under a tree, enjoying a cup of tea. What are some obvious signs that someone is content?
Happy people are emotionally and cognitively flexible. They smile and laugh a lot, they’re kind to themselves, they have healthy reciprocal relationships, and they live with meaning and purpose. They don’t sweat all the small things, they don’t see themselves as victims because they are really good at being grateful for what they do have, for what is going right.

Q: So, we don’t need to have everything we want in order to be happy—true happiness can be obtained by finding joy in what we already have.
Exactly. True happiness starts by being grateful for what you have and then on building on what you have.

Having positive emotions, a livable income, good physical health, family, social relationships, values/morals, a meaningful purpose… all of these factors are important for overall happiness, but research shows the most vital ingredients are finding meaning and purpose in your life and cultivating strong relationships with others. 

You don’t have to have a lot of friends, but happier people do tend to have more friends and deeper connections because people like them, they want to be around them, and they trust them. 

Q: We have some control over how our relationships go, so that leads us to an interesting and important question: can we increase our own happiness? Can individuals learn how to be happy?
You can definitely learn to be happier! And it can be really tiny bits of change to start. For example, you can start thinking about what is the purpose of your life, work on improving your health in small ways, work on developing and maintaining high-quality relationships, and overall, find ways to locate and create more positive feelings into your daily life—like keeping a gratitude journal, serving others, and taking care of yourself physically and emotionally.

Q: Can we be happy when we are sad or stressed or anxious? Can you have good and bad emotions at the same time? 
Happy people have all of the emotions. But they have protective factors—the good parts of their lives—that help them overcome struggles, loss, grief, and hard times. 

People who are happy tend to be more resilient. They already put effort into cultivating their goals and relationships, so therefore they tend to be able to weather storms and bounce back from hardships more easily. 

Q: So, it sounds like there are a lot of benefits to putting effort into being happy. 
There are so many benefits to increasing your happiness. 

  1. Happy people are more successful in multiple life domains, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health.
  2. They get sick less often and experience fewer symptoms when they do get sick.
  3. They have more friends and a better support system.
  4. They donate more to charity and are more helpful and more likely to volunteer—which also makes you happier!
  5. They have an easier time navigating through life since optimism eases pain, sadness, and grief.
  6. They smile and laugh more, which is beneficial to your health.
  7. Happy people live longer than those who are not as happy.
  8. Happy people are more productive and more creative.

And each of these things creates a continuing cycle of reinforcing happiness! Happiness breeds happiness!

Q: So, what if someone wants all those awesome things but just can’t find their way to getting there. Is that where you come in?
YES! As you can hear from that list, there is a strong relationship between mental health and happiness! 

The sources that contribute to happiness are the same as those that provide people with a buffer or protection against mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. When someone comes to my office and is depressed or dissatisfied, they have usually become extremely self-focused, focused on their pain or dissatisfaction. I try to get them busy doing the things—creating the habits—that happy people are doing.

The close tie between mental health and happiness is reason enough for each of us to make happiness an important priority. If you’re listening now and feeling stuck or sad or depressed—generally wanting to be a happier and healthier person, call Families, Inc at 933-6886 and let them get you in and get you started on your happiness journey.


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