Did you know that psychology used to be the realm of pathology? That is, viewing mental health as something we only address when a person already has a psychological problem.
Today things are changing, and scientists and psychologists such as Martin Seligman are studying the art of Positive Psychology, and wellbeing-focused methods. Although these methods can be great for people who are going through difficulties, they can also be used as preventative measures.
A third route to happiness is through understanding underlying issues that we may not realize we have to deal with,as explained in the work of Gabor Maté and Bessel Van der Kolk.
Here is some of the best wisdom in the study of happiness.
1) Identify past trauma
Although some might feel that trauma is an overused word, Psychologist Dr Gabor Maté believes it is at the root of most of our problems, both psychological and mental. Especially as he doesn’t see the body and mind as divorced from each other.
How does Dr Maté define trauma?
“Trauma is a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop…
Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.”
This helps us to understand why for some, a breakup involving cheating might feel very sad or upsetting but not traumatic. While for others, it can result in a form of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
But here’s where it gets really interesting.
In this video interview, Maté describes how often trauma starts in childhood. And like many of his patients, maybe you are thinking – I had a perfect childhood! But Dr Maté often finds that after just a few minutes of talking the patients often uncover lots of unhealed hurts.
It is then that we can go to the next step which is:
2) Heal the trauma
Why do we want to identify our trauma? Because this is the first step to healing it!
Dr Maté isn’t suggesting that we adopt a victim mentality, or blame our parents (or ourselves!) for instance. Rather, it’s a matter of common sense.
If we have an infected wound that the skin has healed over, and now we have a fever, we have to understand the root cause. Sure you can just take a paracetamol and lower your temperature, but then what?
Or to put it in psychological terms, if we have depression but we don’t understand why, it’s going to be difficult to truly eliminate it from our psyche. We can use antidepressants (which can be invaluable for many people), but to be truly healed, more is needed.
Most of Dr Maté’s suggestions involve connecting with the body in some way. This might involve movement, such as ecstatic dance, or connecting feelings in our body with our conscious mind. Maté mentions trauma-informed therapies including Internal Family Systems developed by Dr Richard Schwartz, Dr Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, Bodywork such as massages, or Gabor Maté’s own modality Compassionate Enquiry.
For those who don’t have access to these therapies, reading books by these authors and spending time alone with the mind, mindfulness and meditation are also suggestions.
3) Find dopamine balance
You may have heard of the term ‘dopamine detoxing’ as a way to reset your dopamine levels. Although this isn’t a scientifically correct understanding of dopamine, because we are always producing it, the point is valid.
Dr Andrew Huberman is qualified in both psychology and neuroscience. Although explaining the ways that dopamine works is beyond the scope of this article (but you can listen to it all here in his podcast Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction), I can give you the TLDR.
Essentially, almost everything that gives you a spike in dopamine – from a fun night out, playing video games, or an addictive illegal drug like cocaine or methamphetamine – will result in a crash in your dopamine levels. Even things like using your smartphone cause dopamine hits.
So what’s the solution?
Firstly, don’t stack your dopamine! So for instance, if you really enjoy something, such as walking or working out, don’t add other things like music or rewards. Why? Because it has been scientifically proven that you will enjoy those activities less in the future!
Secondly, take time out from dopaminergic activities. If you’ve had a lot of excitement, seek balance. Perhaps spend some time alone with your phone away.
Thirdly, don’t do cocaine or methamphetamine! These substances not only cause massive dopamine spikes but also make you less receptive to dopamine in general. Meaning that it will be harder for you to experience pleasure in future.
4) Work on your health (mental and physical)
So if you recall Dr Maté talking about the mind and body, you’ll know that he and others believe that the Cartesian split between the two has been very unhelpful for health. As a Focusing guide and existential well-being coach, I’ve learned that some of the most basic things are true when it comes to feeling happy – regular exercise, eating well and living well.
But there’s more.
Science and professors like Dr Huberman recommend things like saunas and ice baths. Although not for everyone, these tools have been proven to have massive benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing, including improving your immune system, and circulation, slowing Alzheimer’s disease, and potentially extending your lifespan.
That said: Always check with your doctor before trying something new! In this case especially if you have a heart condition.
5) Be socially connected to fight loneliness
Speaking of immune systems… Loneliness is something that is on the rise in modern society, especially in big cities. Believe it or not, it’s actually possible to die of loneliness, due to the stress and negative effects on your well-being and immune system.
The first step to reducing loneliness is to grow your social circle. This might mean taking up a new hobby or reconnecting with old friends. If you are making new friends then be sure to put the effort in, and follow up with them. You may have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. This is good for you!
But there’s more.
As psychologist Carl Jung said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.”
So working on your self-esteem, letting go of shame, and improving your communication skills will also help you to feel more connected to others.
6) Find or give meaning to your life
Dr Mia Leijssen is a psychologist, Focusing guide, and existential wellbeing therapist, who believes that meaning and purpose in life are central to human well-being and fulfillment.
In her view, the quest for meaning is an intrinsic part of the human experience. She defines meaning as a profound sense of significance and connectedness in one’s life, where people find purpose and value in their existence. Without this, we can end up falling short of happiness, even when other things are good in our lives.
Dr Leijssen suggests that we consider the following things when we are searching for meaning in life:
- Relationship and connection
- Life projects and goals
- Acceptance of life’s transience
But how can you practically apply this?
Self-exploration is crucial and involves deeply examining your core values, dreams, and aspirations to understand what matters most. That self-reflection helps you find purpose.
She believes living authentically – making choices that align with your true self – is vital for meaning. It’s about honoring your values over societal pressure.
Meaningful relationships provide a sense of belonging, in Leijssen’s view. And we do this by genuinely connecting with and enriching others’ lives.
Setting goals for projects that excite you and reflect your values gives a feeling of purpose. But she advises ensuring they contribute positively to both your life and others.
Leijssen reminds us that life brings suffering and transience. However she sees challenges as opportunities for growth in the quest for meaning. Fully embracing life’s ups and downs is part of that search and will also lead to greater levels of overall well-being.
7) Try positive psychology tips
Do you want some ideas that you can take action on today? As well as the ideas above, here are some tips from the pioneers of Positive Psychology
Gratitude journaling is kind of a cliché these days, but people keep talking about it because it really can rewire your brain to focus more on positive things. Set aside a few minutes every day. Jot down some things you’re thankful for. Even tiny stuff counts.
Make a list of your superpowers. What are you naturally good at or what strengths do you have? Maybe you’re an amazing listener or can fix anything. See if you can use those skills more in daily life. Leverage your secret superpowers for good!
Doing small acts of kindness gives you a helper’s high. Hold the door for someone, let that car merge into your lane, donate old clothes to charity – little things to make someone else’s day. And doing good makes you feel good too.
Appreciate the little moments when something nice happens. Maybe your barista gives you a free coffee, you see a beautiful sunset, or your dog cuddles up on your lap – and then you take a second to be present. Soak in the sights, sounds, and feelings. Appreciate the little moments.
Set some goals to give yourself a sense of purpose. This doesn’t have to be huge life-changing ones either. Maybe you want to read 12 books this year or learn Italian. Accomplishing goals feels rewarding.
Use positive affirmations. When negative thoughts creep up, counter them with positive affirmations. Remind yourself that you’re talented, smart, caring, etc. Don’t dwell on negative self-talk.
Find work or hobbies that make you feel meaningful. Volunteer at an animal shelter, join an environmental group, or take an art class. Using your strengths to help others is emotionally fulfilling!