I recently attended a talk given by Marci Shimoff, bestselling author of Happy for No Reason, as well as six Chicken Soup volumes. She stood on stage in a sequined red suit, perky and funny and impossible not to like, and, it turned out, had some deep things to say about the thing that back in the 4th century BC, Aristotle described as the goal of all human activity: Happiness.
Aristotle and his fellow Athenian brainiacs concurred that Happiness is the ultimate goal of our lives, but they disagreed on what it consists of. The major contenders were virtuous activity, pleasure (of the “proper” sort), or tranquility. Aristotle was insistent that happiness had to be an activity (otherwise you could sleep your life away and be happy) and also that it had to engage the highest facets of human nature.
I’ve discussed in some detail what his actual theory of Happiness looks like, and why it’s compelling. Shimoff’s ideas come from a different, more pop-psychology angle, but are helpful reminders for where its best to direct our daily attention—namely, on our inborn “happiness set-point,” which is very malleable it turns out. In order to “move the needle” toward greater joy, we must do three things.
1. Develop a “kind mind.” We process around 60,000 thoughts daily, 95 percent of which are repeats, and 80 percent of which are negative. Shimoff surmises that this tendency is a carryover from our ancestors who lived in a state of fear and worry due to their precarious circumstances. Whatever the reason, if we focus on what’s good—for example, by every day noting five things for which to be grateful—the needle on our set-point moves toward Happy. We have read about the importance of gratitude ad nauseam in recent years, but that’s probably because it is that important. To the extent you’re focusing on what’s good and amazing in your life, you’re not complaining about what’s not.
A big piece of re-focusing your attention concerns focusing on what’s good about you. Our culture invites us to view sleek, photoshopped perfection against which to compare our own lumpy bodies and lives, which must of course come up short. The next step is buying whatever product is being sold as the remedy. Happiness does not, of course, lie in the collection of material things, but, and here goes Aristotle again, in the kind of activities we engage in, and in the extent to which our full humanity (i.e., our highest rational and emotional potential) is engaged by them. So, try engaging in the activity of showing gratitude, starting with yourself, and with the fact that you are (hopefully) breathing and moving around without assistance today—that alone is an immeasurable gift, and many would trade much to receive it.
2. Give love, service, and appreciation. For whatever reason, maybe just evolution, we are built to serve. There is something about losing yourself in loving and serving others with which self-pursuits simply cannot compete when it comes to Happiness. On this subject, Shimoff discusses some fascinating research. The first study was done at the Heartmath Institute which researches heart-brain communication. It shows that when we’re angry and negative, our heart rhythms actually become less coherent, whereas a positive, loving mindset evens them out. So our mindset feeds and correlates with our physical state; it’s not just your emotions then that feel toxic when you walk around angry and mad—your body suffers.
The second study was conducted by Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese doctor of alternative medicine. This one involved talking to water. Hear me out. Dr. Emoto had people speak both negatively and positively to containers of water. Here is what the different containers looked like on the molecular level as a result. Guess which is which. And, by the way, our bodies are around 60 percent water.
The water in the first photo was told, “I hate you.” The water in the second photo had love and gratitude expressed toward it. A little unsettling, but just saying.
3. Live your passion and dreams. Put another way: Move toward what makes you feel expanded. Shimoff did a little exercise to illustrate why this is important and which you should try. First, contract your muscles up as tightly as you can and try to smile and feel joyous and happy; it’s not so easy. Next try to do so while extending your arms as wide as they’ll go, opening your chest, raising your gaze, and expanding your body wherever else you can. Can you feel the difference? Your spirits instantly rise. Check your gut and identify the pursuits in life that feel like this and go do them.
Shimoff is no Aristotle, but she’s damn smart and well worth heeding. Most of all, she’s a shining example of what she preaches: doing what she loves, serving others, and genuinely happy.