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See Inside April 2005

Make Yourself Happy

Small acts that create immediate pleasures can add up to long-term satisfaction

Try to get ideas from people in as many different social groups as possible. Certainly ask your favorite co-worker, but also approach your son's kindergarten teacher, the neighborhood bricklayer, even your 14-year-old daughter—despite her adolescent behavior that sometimes leaves you wondering how sound her thinking really is. Often those whose minds have stored experiences through very different connections produce the most surprising and helpful ideas. Once your suggestion basket is full, choose several options that could reduce the negative aspects and then resolve to act on them. Even if you cannot fully transform the negative into a positive in a given situation, curing it even halfway can greatly improve your happiness.

Long-Term Satisfaction

By creating an ongoing series of short-term highs and reversing lows, you are already on your way to long-term, habitual happiness. This state expresses itself as an all-encompassing feeling of satisfaction with life. According to psychological surveys, factors that can strongly contribute to this state are financial security, a well-ordered social environment and a trusting relationship. And yet many people experience a “dissatisfaction dilemma”—they just do not feel happy even when they have in place favorable life circumstances, such as the ones just mentioned. The way to resolve the dilemma is to squeeze into each day as much immediate happiness as possible. By using every opportunity to feel happy, you awaken positive feelings that can buoy your spirits.

Here are just a few possibilities:

 

  • In the morning, become aware of the rising sun; at breakfast deeply inhale the fragrance of your coffee.
  • While riding to work on the train, watch the landscape rather than pointlessly rifling through papers from the office.
  • When you get to work, greet your co-workers with a “good morning” before you check your e-mails.
  • After an hour or two, take a small break; you will feel better, and it will improve your concentration on the next task as well.
  • Buy a flower during lunchtime and beautify your desk.

 

There is only one important rule here: the more the better. It is the number of such happiness motivators that count—not their quality. Many seemingly trivial acts add up to the joy of living.

You can also stimulate long-term satisfaction intellectually. If you maintain positive thoughts, you will indeed start to feel happier. This is not to say that habitual happiness can be grounded in figments of the imagination. It must be based on a solid foundation, which means fulfilling your desires, hopes and expectations as best as you can. But to do so, you first have to know what you want. On this score, somatic markers can help.

Scientists now know that sensory information is under permanent scrutiny by an automatic, internal process that promptly monitors experiences that pour in from our external world. The ability of an individual to know what is good for him or her is relative to how carefully the person can perceive and heed this internal commentary of somatic markers. Such markers are perceived either as a physical sensation or as a feeling, or a mixture of both. They originate in our emotional memory of experiences, which is a group of brain structures that store and evaluate every meaningful moment we have gone through. Bad experiences send out negative somatic markers; pleasant ones produce positive signals.

You can train yourself to be consciously aware of your somatic-marker signals. By doing so, you will build that intellectual foundation of positive thoughts. In the long run, only individuals who have the self-confidence to guide their lives by their own system of values, regardless of public opinion or fashionable trends, can find true satisfaction. Somatic markers can provide invaluable guidance, helping you make the right decisions, realize long-term goals, and find the necessary motivation to transform your resolutions into action. In the process, you will create the preconditions that ensure long-term happiness.

This article was originally published with the title "Think Better: Make Yourself Happy."

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