That's how I felt yesterday. This stance was ironic given my external environment - I'm in Paris - you'd think happiness would've been gushing out of my ears.
Heck, when I read what Ernest Hemingway said about Paris, I set the bar pretty high for this place:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Rather than being injected with a wanderlustic spirit upon arriving, I laid there on the hard mattress in our flat looking up at the wooden beams against the snow white ceiling thinking, "Why do I feel unhappy?"
Despondency crept in.
And then, the culture of more that has gotten beat into me into growing up in America bleed into my mind. We had arrived in Paris, and I was already mentally entertaining what Barcelona would be like.
I was supposed to be happy, but I wasn't.
Have you ever anticipated feeling happy upon arrival to some place, only to feel further away from it?
Maybe you got that promotion you worked so hard for.
Perhaps you got married.
You built a deck with your bare hands.
Or, your experience could be similar to mine: The trip you were so excited for hasn't delivered the promise of happiness you manufactured in your head.
Regardless of nuance, here is the question we both of have to confront:
"Are we spending our non-renewable asset of time, chasing happiness"?
For me, I had arrived in Paris looking for happiness.
And that was the problem.
It's was unfair to put such pressure on the city of love songs and rooftops. It's not her job to make me happy.
Her beauty is enough.
To strain her for more than what she is or what she could offer would be selfish.
From what I've learned about happiness, I knew I had to generate it rather than relying on external circumstance to provide it.
In fact, Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, reveals that our happiness is 90% genetic disposition along with intentional activities and 10% circumstantial.
In other words, we have more agency in this matter than we think - we can do specific things to significantly improve our happiness.
Reminding myself of this was a breath of fresh air to my beleaguered mind.
Here are three ways that helped me get out of my slump and avoid missing the beauty of Paris. I suggest you pocket these strategies too. They work similar to insurance: The best time to have them is when you don't need them.
3 Ways to Generate Happiness Right Now
Cultivate gratitude immediately
Before instructing ourselves to cultivate gratitude, understanding what it is puts context behind the practice.
Gratitude influences us to feel and express thankfulness and appreciation.
When we're anxious, unhappy, and scattered, we typically don't feel thankful and we often miss all of the things we can be appreciative for.
One simple way to move in the direction of gratitude from discontent is to record an experience that you're grateful for in the present moment.
Rather than waiting to journal this at the end of the day or the next morning, I like to deep dive into this short practice on the spot if possible.
Yesterday, I looked out my window and saw the Church of Saint-Merri that was built between 1500-1550 with a 16 century French style also known as "gothic flamboyant."
Once I told my mind to look for something to be grateful for, it went on a head hunt to find something to cling onto. Once I laid eyes on such a beautiful building with so much history, I felt a little better. A whisper passed through my mind and said, "I'm really lucky to be here right now."
Writing down something you're grateful for isn't some hocus pocus stuff either. Growing research on gratitude shows how it impacts our happiness. There's a laundry list of benefits to practicing gratitude including:
- Improved physical, emotional and social well-being
- Decreased stress and anxiety
- Heightened spirituality
- Improved self-care and likeliness to exercise
Although I exercised this technique in the moment, it's not a foul move to practice this at routined times during your day. For example, before you take off for work in the morning or prior to retiring for the day are also great times to practice gratitude.
Exercise for 20 minutes
I spent nearly a decade of my life as a personal trainer. I'm no stranger to the fact that exercise helps us build muscle and improves our aerobic capacities.
Metrics such as strength numbers and body-fat levels were easily quantifiable and provided measurable outcomes.
More recently however, I've spent a lot time into learning how exercise impacts not only our bodies, but our our moods too.
It turns out, exercising is a practical tool to lift our spirits when discontent makes itself at home in our head and in our hearts.
How does exercising generate happiness?
First, when you exercise your body reacts to the activity by labeling it as stress (in a good way). When this happens, your brain releases a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF is an important protein that enhances brain function and influences the growth of new neurons. Low BDNF production is associated with obesity, depression and accelerated aging.
Second, exercise releases endorphins. These are hormones that are released so our bodies manage exercise induced stress appropriately. The endorphin production from exercise has a two-fold impact: They minimize the pain you feel during exercise and following the workout they thrust you into a state of euphoria.
This combo - increased BDNF and endorphin production - largely explains why exercising generates happiness.
You don't have to try to become an Olympic athlete to reap these benefits either.
The best selling author Gretchen Reynolds says this:
"The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”
In other words, you don't need to spend a small fortune on a gym membership, new workout gear and a personal trainer to generate more happiness. All you have to do is move for 20 minutes.
For me, it was listening to Odesza coming through my ear buds as I ran through the cobblestoned streets and sidewalk cafes of Paris for 20 minutes. After my run, I felt appreciably happier.
The flurry of thoughts is what unravels me when I'm unhappy. It feels like I have to react to every thought that comes through my mind.
But the reality is that I don't have to own every thought. I don't have to absorb the worry. I can choose to create space when my thoughts are running amok.
Mindfulness meditation has helped me manage my thought life when I'm feeling anxious, discontent and unhappy.
You're sitting on the bank of a flowing river. Twigs and leaves are floating by quickly as the water takes them down stream. You can either attempt to grab the twigs and leaves or you can sit back and watch them float by.
Now, imagine the twigs and leaves as your thoughts and the river as your mind.
When I'm fretful, I have a tendency to want to grab every single twig and leaf passing by which adds to my restlessness.
Mindfulness meditation has helped me to identify this behavior. The practice also allows me to create space between my thoughts and reaction. Even though I have much to improve on, I've gotten a lot better at being able to watch the twigs and leaves float by rather than succumbing to the suffocating need to react to each one of them.
A study from the Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain scans of people before and after participating in a course on mindfulness meditation. After the course, parts of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while the parts associated with stress shrank. In other words, mindfulness mediation is a practical, and accessible tool to rewire our brains to boost happiness.
After my 20 minute run, I sat for 10 minutes for my mindfulness practice. I personally use headspace.com. It's like a personal trainer for your brain.
Happiness isn't somewhere we arrive, it's something we generate.
I'm so grateful for this fact. If it weren't true, I'd probably miss this whole trip to Europe being physically present but emotionally absent.