Equipped With Happiness


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Be Happier By Finding Outlets For Bad Moods

breaking plates cartoonBad moods happen sometimes. Maybe we’re down because we had a conflict with a loved one, got sick, made a mistake, had to face disappointment, etc. Or maybe we just had a day full of little, less-than-ideal moments. When these moods happen, it is important to process them (see Be Happier By Accepting Sadness), but it is also important to figure out ways to pick ourselves up and feel happy again. One way to do this is to find an effective outlet that allows us to release the bad feelings and welcome in good ones.

Everyone is different, so the best outlets may vary from person to person. The trick is figuring out exactly what will be most effective for us as individuals. It is also useful to find more than one method that works, so we have an arsenal of happy-making activities. This may require a bit of trial-and-error, but considering some basic qualities of good outlets is a place to start.

Good outlets tend to be related to things we already like.

Some people love exercise, some love art, some love cooking, some love video games, and the list goes on. Engaging in an enjoyable activity can help remind us of the parts of life we enjoy, and the good feelings we get from having fun may be able to crowd out some of the bad ones. If we can identify some things that consistently put a smile on our face, we can turn to them when times get tough.

Good outlets allow us to release the bad stuff.

This could mean pounding on a punching bag, venting to a friend, writing a poem, or drawing pictures of our problems and setting them on fire. Sometimes finding a way to symbolically let go of negative experiences and feelings can help us feel better. And if that alone doesn’t cure the bad mood, it still makes us more prepared to feel happy when we engage in other fun activities.

Good outlets do not damage us.

Frustration, anger, and sadness can sometimes lead us to destructive behaviors masked as outlets. For example, we may turn to working out (not inherently a bad outlet), but push ourselves way too hard. Or we may find comfort in food (also not inherently a bad outlet), but overindulge to the point that we damage our health.

In order to determine whether we are partaking in an effective outlet or damaging ourselves, we need to consider our motivations and the results of our behavior. If we realize that we are motivated by a desire to punish ourselves or by an urge to give up (e.g. overeating because we have decided to give up on weight loss goals), it is likely that our actions will cause us harm. But even if we are motivated by a genuine desire to improve our mood, we should still monitor the effects of our actions to ensure we aren’t carrying a previously healthy outlet too far.

Good outlets do not damage others.

It really might improve our mood to chop off our little sister’s ponytail or knock all of someone else’s belongings off their shelves. But, ultimately these kinds of outlets are unethical and lead to greater sadness in the long term. Taking our bad moods out on other people can create a chain of bad moods if they start feeling unhappy, too. Not only that, it can damage relationships that might otherwise be a source of joy.

Identifying ways to improve a bad mood allows us to take our happiness into our own hands. While we will always have to face unhappiness from time to time, it is helpful to have some options for lessening our sadness and moving forward with life.

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A New Kind of Happy Meal

happy sandwichMoms, personal trainers, and food advertisers all like to remind us, “we are what we eat.” If they’re right, then it seems mankind has finally stumbled upon a key to lifelong joy. The secret to being happy must simply be eating happy-looking foods! And really, I think we all have a scientific obligation to test out this hypothesis. After all, even if it turns out to be a faulty theory, it still gives us an excuse to play with our food.

To ensure accurate results, it would be insufficient to simply eat some happy face pancakes and call it a day. Doing this experiment justice requires eating smiley foods at multiple meals. Here are just a few suggestions for how to proceed:

Breakfast:

Smiley-side-up eggs and bacon: Fry two eggs and put them next to each other on a plate to make eyes. Use a berry or a dab of ketchup for a nose. Then make a smile out of pieces of bacon (or sausage). If you’re really feeling adventurous, cut some toast into triangles and use them to make spikey hair or a goatee.

Fun fruit-n-nut oatmeal: Make a bowl of oatmeal thick enough to keep toppings on the surface. Arrange fruit (dried or regular) and nuts into a smiley face on top.

Happy face pancakes: It really wouldn’t be fair not to include the original smiling breakfast food. Not only that, there are so many awesome variations on this theme. You can use whipped cream, chocolate chips, fruit, syrup, and more, to customize this super-happy breakfast. And if you don’t mind entering a food coma, pancakes can even make a nice backdrop for smiley-side-up eggs and bacon.

Snack:

Goldfish crackers: These are advertised as “the snack that smiles back,” so they definitely fall into the category of happy foods. Not to mention they are deliciously cheesy. And for extra fun, you can always try to toss and catch them in your mouth or bite them in half perfectly (if you’ve never tried this, beware, it can get extremely frustrating).

Teddy Grahams: Basically like Goldfish, but sweeter. And possibly even cuter.

Orange smiles: Technically, these are just the smile, not an entire happy face. But if you eat them properly (i.e. by sticking them in your mouth rind-side-out and smiling a very orange smile) then your own face becomes the rest of the happy face. Problem solved! All you need to do is slice an orange into mouth-sized sections and enjoy.

Lunch and Dinner:

Smilin’ Sandwiches: You can make these open-faced (so your smiling creation is on display for all to see) or you can keep the happy face hidden between the bread. Either way, there are about a million ways to make happy faces on a sandwich. You can make a lunchmeat or cheese background and then use vegetables to make a face. Or you can keep it simple, and simply squirt your mustard in a smiley-face pattern. If you are looking for something sweeter you could start with a classic PB&J, and then make a face with banana slices. For an even sweeter experience, incorporate some Nutella or honey.

Peppy Pizza: Turning a pizza into a happy face can be as simple as some strategic pepperoni placement. Or you could go wild and create a perfect self-portrait out of every topping under the sun. Or perhaps a perfect portrait of your boss (any unhappiness that occurs if you decide to show them their pizza portrait should not be included in the results of this experiment).

Smile Salad: Start with a nice bed of lettuce. Then arrange any other toppings you like into the face. Some cucumber eyes with olives for pupils, a cherry tomato nose, crouton hair, and a black bean smile might do nicely.

Dessert:

Cheerful chip cookies: Take your favorite chocolate chip (or any other kind of chip) cookie recipe and give it happy twist. Instead of mixing the chips into the batter, bake the cookies without chips first. As soon as you take them out of the oven, while they are still warm, press the chips into them in the form of a happy face.

Friendly fruit and yogurt: Begin with a bowl of fruit. Use yogurt to create the happy face of your choosing. Just kidding. You could do it that way, but I recommend trying it the other way around. Also, maybe add some granola hair for a little extra pizazz.

Countenance cupcakes: The only way to improve a cupcake is to give it a face. Frost ‘em and then add some tasty decorations to make the face. If you can’t pick between all the amazing decorating options, don’t worry, because that’s an entirely reasonable justification for eating several cupcakes.

Okay, so maybe eating foods with happy faces doesn’t directly make us happy. But all the fun we have in the process definitely counts for something!


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Be Happier By Making The Right Comparisons

comparisoncartoonThe temptation to compare ourselves to others seems to affect pretty much everyone. We might find ourselves wondering if we make as much money as our coworkers. Or we might sneak a quick peek to find out if the person on the treadmill beside us is running faster than we are. Comparisons can be beneficial to us, if we approach them in the right way. But, if we aren’t careful, they can also damage our self-esteem.

Recognizing how self-image is impacted can help us learn to make more productive comparisons.

People often let the way they measure up to others determine how they feel about themselves. If we evaluate our own assets as superior to the assets of the person next to us, our self-esteem goes up. But, if that person is more successful, attractive, or talented than we are, we may start feeling rather discouraged. Neither of these scenarios is ideal.

It is important to remember that when comparisons increase our self-esteem, the effects are only temporary. If our feelings of self-worth are dependent on being better than someone else, we run the risk of our self-esteem being shattered when someone below us eventually surpasses us. Lasting confidence comes from pride in our own strengths, not pride in having more strengths than others.

Not only that, we may damage our self-esteem by cutting ourselves down when we feel inferior to others. This is unproductive, especially because the comparisons we make often aren’t entirely fair. People seem to have a tendency to compare themselves to celebrities, models, billionaires, and other uncommonly successful figures. When we do this, we set ourselves up to feel subpar. Even when we do compare ourselves to people “in our league,” we may not take the full story into account. For instance, the acquaintance whose quick climb up the corporate ladder made us question our own career choices may in fact be the CEO’s nephew (a significant advantage).

Instead of using comparisons to evaluate our worth, we should use them to help us become the people we want to be.

Comparisons can help us see ourselves more accurately: While it is certainly good base our sense of accomplishment on our individual progress, it is also valuable to understand where our abilities fit in the grand scheme of things. For example, if we begin taking piano lessons, we have every right to take pride in mastering “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But perhaps we would be wise to see how we compare to other pianists before we start calling ourselves Beethoven.

Comparisons can help us identify goals: If we do happen to find ourselves feeling insecure in response to someone else’s accomplishments, we can turn it into an opportunity to improve. Instead of convincing ourselves we are weak because we can’t lift as much weight as our friends, we could focus on creating a new workout plan that allows us to build more muscle. Not only that, if we notice the majority of our self-esteem seems to come from feeling superior to others, it is possible that we have some underlying insecurities. Awareness of our insecurities gives us a chance to examine their cause. This allows us to set, and accomplish, goals that will make us feel more confident.

If we are careful about how we use comparisons, they can help us maximize our happiness. Comparisons made in the spirit of self-improvement give us valuable opportunities to develop ourselves, and our lives, in directions that bring us greater satisfaction. We just have to make sure our self-esteem doesn’t get involved in the process.


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Seven Special Things About Spring

Photo by Debbie Mann

Photo by Debbie Mann

The time for making snowmen is drawing to a close. But the end of winter means the start of spring, which is pretty great, too.  Here are seven reasons to smile this season:

Spring-themed candy: Everywhere you look there are Cadbury Crème Eggs, Peeps, jelly beans, and giant chocolate bunnies. It’s like the world suddenly got 10 times more delicious. Also, buying M&M’s or Reese’s peanut butter cups somehow feels more justifiable when they come in pastel colors and egg shapes.

Moderate temperatures: Spring is a nice middle ground between winter and summer; it’s sort of a weather compromise. It’s the easiest time of year to get dressed because the temperature outside is closer to the temperature inside. There isn’t the need to pile on five jackets just to take out the trash without getting frostbite, or the need to pour a bottle of water over your head in the hopes of surviving the sweltering journey between the car and the store.

Outdoor sports and activities: Some people know spring by a different name: “baseball season.” But this time of year is great for all kinds of sports, from tennis or golf to Frisbee. It’s also the perfect time for hikes, picnics in the park, playing fetch in the backyard, and any other kind of outdoor fun.

The end of flu season: Even though flu season can last until May, it typically peaks in January and February (according to the CDC). This means flu season should be winding down through the beginning of spring and be officially over before the season ends. Of course, there will still be plenty of allergies to keep us sniffling. But once again we will be able to go out in public without having to dodge the coughs of half a dozen sick strangers (or maybe that’s just germaphobic me).

The fruit: Strawberry season hits in spring, bringing strawberry shortcake, chocolate covered strawberries, smoothies, and a million other wonderful things along with it. And for anyone who isn’t a strawberry fan, spring is also the season for cherries, apricots, kiwis, pineapples, and avocados (if you don’t like any of these, fret not, you’ll just have to buy extra spring candy to compensate).

April showers: Spring skies are clear, for the most part. But every once in a while the clouds roll in and give the gift of precipitation to people who aren’t ready to let go of winter just yet. These rainy days are a chance to savor a few final cups of hot chocolate and sneak in some last cozy movie-watching moments. Not only that, spring rain helps bring life back to all the lovely plants that withered away during the colder months.

Pretty flowers and adorable animals: Everything gets more colorful and lively in spring. All kinds of flowers are in bloom, and the grass looks healthy and green. The animals seem to come out of hiding, and everywhere you look there are hummingbirds, squirrels, ducks, and little baby rabbits. Awwwww, cute!!!

So go forth, with a little “spring” in your step, and enjoy this wonderful season. But maybe try not to eat that entire chocolate bunny in one sitting.


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Be Happier By Smiling More

smile cartoonAs a well-known song from Annie reminds us, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” Sure, it might be more problematic to go out in public without pants than it would be to go without a smile, but remembering to wear a smile is still beneficial. The simple act of smiling has an amazing ability to inspire happiness.

Studies show that smiling may actually generate positive emotional experiences.

The idea that facial expressions contribute to emotional states, rather than simply reflecting them, can be found as far back as the work of Charles Darwin. For many years, researchers have been performing experiments aimed at studying the effects of smiling on the experience of happiness.

These researchers have used a variety of methods to mimic the physical act of smiling (eliminating happiness as a precursor), which has enabled them to study the expression itself as a cause of emotion. Repeatedly, results have indicated that arranging the facial muscles into a smile can actually produce positive emotions.

A study conducted by Robert Zajonc, Sheila Murphy, and Marita Inglehart even found a possible reason for this phenomenon.  According to their research, the muscular movements associated with smiling cool the blood flowing to the brain through particular veins. This leads to fluctuations in brain temperature, which causes the release/blockage of emotion-related neurotransmitters (the chemicals cells use to communicate).[1]

If these studies are correct, smiling might just be the quickest and easiest way to feel happier.

Smiling also creates a happiness-inducing environment.

People generally respond more favorably to those they perceive as friendly.  When we smile, we become more approachable (and often more attractive) to others. This is likely to improve our existing relationships, as well as increasing the likelihood that we will form rewarding new connections.

A smile can also improve the moods of those around us. Think about the difference between waiting in a line of happy people having animated conversations or waiting in a line of irate customers yelling at the cashier for going too slow. It might take the same amount of time to reach the front of those two lines, but it’s pretty clear which line will leave us feeling better. Smiling helps build a positive atmosphere, which can lead to a happier experience for everyone involved.

Of course, that isn’t to say we should force ourselves to smile all the time. If we are unhappy, it is perfectly okay to feel and process those emotions, rather than hide behind a mask of happiness. But on those occasions where we find ourselves making a “neutral” face, it might be worth showing off those pearly whites (or lack thereof), instead.

 

References

[1] Zajonc, R.B., Murphy, S.T., & Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference: Implications of the vascular theory of emotion. Psychological Review 96(3), 395-416.