Are you chasing happiness away?

hap・pi・ness - a state of positive well-being

Up until 3 years ago, I would have considered myself happy. Not thriving, but content.

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Then a series of traumatic events began to unfold. First, my beloved bulldog died after a family camping trip. Seven months later, my Dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at my parents’ cabin. Five months after that I quit my 15 year career with the police. I descended into hopelessness and was desperate to climb out.

Without having the proper tools to ascend or even identify what I was feeling after this string of events, I mistakenly identified my grief as unhappiness. I longed to feel happy and content once again. I joined the self-care movement. I took courses on meditation and the science of happiness. I was determined to chase down happiness and grab on as tightly as I could.

In one of my desperate attempts to harness happiness I signed up for a certification course in applied positive psychology. I figured if I could learn scientifically proven methods that lead to happiness, I would most definitely be happy. If there was an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to happiness, I could follow it.

On the first day of my course I learned the most important rule in positive psychology: The more you chase happiness, the more unhappy you become.

Happy people don’t chase happiness.

Research actually shows that those of us who strive to feel happy all the time are destined to suffer. Being happy doesn’t mean avoiding negative emotions or events. It’s actually quite the opposite. The key is learning to process the negative emotions, express them at the right time and not get stuck in them. Learning skills and utilizing tools to work through negative emotions is key to building resilience and cultivating more positive emotions.

The first step for me was to identify that grief is not unhappiness and feeling sadness, anger and frustration was justified. The second step was to show myself some love and compassion. I just went through some seriously sad events and instead of avoiding the sadness, I needed to feel it. Lucky for me, I have amazing friends who are willing to listen and share a box of tissue with me.

There is no secret to happiness or 10 step program to guarantee it. But there are some things you can do everyday to bring more positivity into your life:

  • Connection. Research shows that social connection is a factor that always predicts happiness. Happy people have good relationships. If fact, studies show that when people are excluded or isolated, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same areas when we feel physical pain. Spend more time with the people that uplift you and less time with those who drain you.

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  • Gratitude. Having a grateful mindset predicts greater happiness, life satisfaction and optimism. Robert Emmons stated that the more you move to a grateful mindset, it’s almost physically impossible to be anxious or depressed.

  • Mindfulness. Being mindful refers to focusing our awareness to the present moment without judgement. Data Matt Killingsworth’s project trackyourhappiness.org found that people are less happy when their minds are wandering (ie. not being in the present moment). When we focus our mind to the present moment, we are less impulsive and better able to handle our emotions.

Negative emotions are part of life and we can’t avoid or run from them in the pursuit of happiness. Prioritizing positivity on a daily basis and carving out time to do more of what we love, while working through the parts we don’t love, will put us on the path to greater happiness.

Why Screen-Free Week May Be Exactly What We Need

From April 30 to May 6, North Americans will be experiencing life beyond their screens.

Screen-free week initially started as TV-Turnoff week in 1994 by the creators of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood. The founders of the program saw the benefit of a digital detox to reassess the role that screen media plays in children’s lives.

Today, the average teenager (and their parent) spends 9 hours a day in front of a screen. Tweens spend 6 hours a day and preschoolers spend as much as 4.5 hours every day looking at a screen.

So how is all this time spent engaged with digital technology effecting us? Screen time for young children is linked to speech delays and the inability to regulate emotions. An Alberta study examining how digital technology is impacting children found that students are more distracted, have a difficult time focusing and are coming to school tired. A recent study involving participants aged 19-32 showed that social media use was significantly associated with depression and multiple studies have demonstrated a link between problematic smartphone use and anxiety.  

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The more we engage with screens, the harder it is to disengage with them. Without giving ourselves a break and unplugging, we are essentially just strengthening the need to be constantly plugged in.

If you have never given yourself the gift of a digital detox, let Screen-free week be the catalyst. Reduce screen time and allow yourself and your kids to be “bored”. It will spark your imagination, ignite creative ideas, promote deep thinking and strengthen your connections with each other.

Before you start, take inventory of your family’s screen time and a mindful approach to how it may be affecting you. If you feel like a week without screens is just not possible, break it down into manageable pieces. Try eliminating screens from 4-8pm every day or going the week without social media. Whatever digital detox means to you, let this be a spark to live beyond the screen and fully engage in life!

A life looking into your phone is not a life
— Michelle Obama
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What Kids Say about their Parents’ Tech Habits

“My Mom is always on her phone”

Those are the words I hear after every presentation I give to students. At the end of my talk, I always ask the kids “when it comes to technology, what habits do your parents have that you wish you could change?” That is always the top answer.

Whether you believe it or not, you are the most important person in your child’s life. Our kids may be way ahead of us when it comes to streaming, downloading and snapping but they depend on us for our wisdom and guidance. They depend on us to model a healthy relationship with technology so they in turn can reap the benefits technology has to offer without being controlled by it.

Even though our phones allow us to connect with anyone at anytime… should we? Is our relationship with our phone bringing too much convenience to our life at the expense of our own wellbeing and therefore our children’s wellbeing?

As human beings, we crave new information. Even the thought of a new notification, message or email, causes our brain to secrete dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good. Our phone allows us to be constantly connected to the internet which in turn allows us continuous access to new information. New York Times best selling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Nicholas Carr, states the internet "allows us to live in a perpetual state of distraction and interruption.” This constant state of distraction actually interferes with the ability to transfer short term memories into long term memories. A process called memory consolidation which is required for learning.

Learning creates wisdom and our kids rely on us for our wisdom.

Some may argue that they don’t spend long periods of time on their phone. They just use it when they have a spare moment. A quick scroll through Facebook or a game of Candy Crush isn’t a big deal. Well according to Dr. Cal Newport, a computer scientist and author, this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration. When our attention is constantly fragmented, it can have long term effects on our ability to think deeply, be creative and focus.

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Deep thinking, creativity and focus allow us to better guide our kids through the obstacles life brings them.

So while it isn’t possible (and I’m not suggesting it) to completely disconnect from your smartphone, it is possible to take back control. To pay attention. To realize that when you wake up in the morning and sit in silence instead of immediately checking Instagram, you are choosing to be more focused. When you go for a walk and leave your phone on the counter, you are choosing to be more mindful. When you drive your kids to hockey and leave your phone in your bag at the red light, you are choosing to be a good role model. You are taking control over your phone and choosing to have a healthy relationship with technology.

Our kids have infinite opportunities to connect with the world but are they able to connect with us? We just have to start the conversation… ask your kid the question… “am I always on my phone?”

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
— James Baldwin
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