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Happiness: 6 Myths and Truths

Don't Fall for These Happiness Myths; Learn How to Overcome Them
(continued)

Myth 5: Happiness is all about hedonism. continued...

"When people help others through formal volunteering or generous actions, about half report feeling a 'helper's high,' and 13% even experience alleviation of aches and pains," says Post, professor of preventive medicine and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

"For most people, a pretty low threshold of activity practiced well makes a difference," Post says. This might involve volunteering just one or two hours each week or doing five generous things weekly -- practices that are above and beyond what you normally do.

First documented in the 1990s, mood elevation from helping is associated with a release of serotonin, endorphins -- the body's natural opiates -- and oxytocin, a "compassion hormone" that reinforces even more helping behavior, Post says.

Could compassion be rooted in our neurobiology? A National Academy of Sciences study showed that simply thinking about contributing to a charity of choice activates a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, the brain's reward center, which is associated with feelings of joy.

"Although just thinking about giving or writing a check can increase our levels of happiness, face-to-face interactions seem to have a higher impact," Post says. "I think that's because they engage the [brain's] agents of giving more fully through tone of voice, facial expression, and the whole body."

Myth 6: One size fits all.

If you're seeking a magic bullet or mystical elixir to enhance your happiness, you're bound to be sorely disappointed. There is no "one size fits all" for happiness.

Instead, there are many ways to boost your happiness. Here are options to try:

  • Pick an activity that is meaningful to you, Cohn says. Whether you choose an activity that promotes a sense of gratitude, connectedness, forgiveness, or optimism, you'll be most successful if your choices are personally relevant to you. And, he adds, this may also keep you from adapting to them too quickly. 
  • Assess your strengths and develop practices that best use these gifts, Post suggests. Are you a good cook? Deliver a meal to a shut-in. A retired teacher? Consider tutoring a child. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. 
  • Vary your activities because promoting happiness is largely a question of finding a good fit, Lyubomirsky says. To that end, she helped Signal Patterns develop a "Live Happy" iPhone application that starts with a short survey to identify the happiness strategies that you're suited to, such as journaling or calling someone to express gratitude. "You can lose your will [to do those activities] if it's not a good fit," Lyubomirsky says.

And when it comes to happiness, maintaining your will -- and acting on it -- might just put a pleasurable, meaningful life well within reach.

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Reviewed on August 28, 2011
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