Often we may feel like we are just surviving, just barely keeping on top of our illness. Sometimes we might just feel like all we’re doing is trying not to succumb to the depression we feel creeping in on us.
But can we be happy instead? Can we feel near-constant contentment despite our disease?
In the United States, we typically define happiness in a material sense. We believe that those who are wealthy are successful, and material success is equal to happiness.
But studies have shown that this is not the case—circumstances have very little to do with our happiness levels. We see documentaries and read books about the poorest people in the world, and they are often described as the most content in their simple yet sometimes challenging situations.
We indeed can be happy, right now, in our present circumstances. But being happy doesn’t come naturally for a lot of us. Changing our thought processes and our behaviors takes intentional effort.
Happiness is intentional
A 2005 study called “The Promise of Sustainable Happiness” is a major contributor to the research on chronic happiness. Evaluating thousands of people, the study’s authors, led by University of California at Riverside professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, found that happiness and un-happiness rely on three factors:
- Life circumstances
- Set point, meaning the mixture of your personality and genetics that create your natural happiness levels
- Intentional activities
Let's take a closer look at each of these three factors.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that life circumstances only comprise a low 10 percent of our happiness levels. In fact, our well-being varies relatively little according to gender, marriage state, age, income, culture, and life events.
“Happy and unhappy people experience similar events but interpret them differently,” wrote Lyubomirsky.
In contrast, our set point constitutes 50 percent of our happiness levels and is rather unchangeable from the time our personality fully develops and onward. As humans, we typically adapt to good changes quickly and then return to our baseline happiness state.
For example, a study found that lottery winners quickly adapted to their wealthier lifestyle but, over time, were actually less content with daily activities and overall life than non-winners.
But we can prevent our happiness from waning if we are deliberate about appreciating good changes. A newly married couple can quickly revert back to their baseline happiness levels, but if they are intentional about showing gratitude for their spouse, completing acts of kindness, and savoring happy moments, their happiness can stay at a heightened level, and thus they experience chronic happiness.
This intentional behavior is the most promising way to improve our happiness. Intentional happiness is achieved through:
- Committing acts of kindness
- Expressing gratitude
- Savoring joyful events
The good thing is that this intentional activity comprises 40 percent of our happiness levels. Even if our set point or our circumstances never change, we can dramatically improve our happiness and even sustain chronic happiness if we focus on the three actions listed above.
Each of these actions comes with benefits. Practicing acts of kindness builds better social interaction and self-regard. Expressing gratitude alters our brains to interpret situations in a more positive light. Gratitude retrains your brain to think thoughts like, “Yes, I feel sick today, but the sun is shining and my son told me he loved me. So it’s a good day.” And savoring happy moments allows us to concentrate on and experience longer-lasting positive emotions.
Remember that you can always fake it until you make it. Chronic well-being and happiness don’t happen in a day. Pretend you’re happy, smile when you don’t want to, perform acts of kindness when you just want to be by yourself, and you may see your outlook changing for the better.
Happiness has health benefits
Happiness can even boost your health. Years of research suggest that not only is happiness good for the soul, but it's also beneficial in helping you manage your chronic illness. Conversely, many studies have illustrated that negative emotions may harm the body. Chronic anger or anxiety could have bad effects on the heart. Prolonged and intense stress or fear may eventually help cause illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
A 2007 study led by Laura Kubzansky, professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that “emotional vitality—a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
This emotional vitality and zest for life, mixed with optimism, support from family and friends, self-discipline, the belief that good choices are the cause of good life situations, and the avoidance of risky behaviors like overeating, excessive drinking and unsafe sex, help people avoid or healthfully manage many chronic diseases.
You can change now
Do you sometimes feel burdened by your disease? If only we could suspend these emotions for a moment and feel happy. “Everyone needs to find a way to be in the moment,” Kubzansky tells us, “to find a restorative state that allows them to put down their burdens.”
Many of us are resigned to thinking that it’s too late to change and that the effort it takes to try to be happy is too difficult. We believe that this lifting of our burdens and living in the moment is out of reach. But since there’s growing evidence that happiness can improve our health and our state of mind, it’s worth it to try.
With the persistence of intentional happy actions, chronic happiness can exist, right now, in our present circumstances.