Pursuit of Happiness

Local mental health experts share tips on feeling joyful

By Dawn Liles

If money were the true source of happiness, then Ballantyne residents — with a median income of $153,089, according to www.city-data.com — should be some of the happiest people in the country. But some researchers say once people earn enough to meet their basic needs, there is no longer a correlation between money and happiness. Much research has been done in the past 25 years to better understand the emotion and what people can do to increase feelings of contentment.

Dr. Heidi Limbrunner, a psychologist at Southeast Psych in Ballantyne, says her clients often come to her with a sense they could be happier and more content but need advice on how to get there. She initially tells them: “Remember the simple things: eat well, get enough rest and take care of your health.”

From there, Limbrunner and Charlotte-based licensed clinical social worker Kristen McClure recommend several additional ways to help increase happiness.

Connect to Others, Values

Limbrunner suggests to clients that they develop and nurture positive relationships. Ironically, when people are pursuing their dreams, one of the first things they often neglect are relationships with friends and family members. But research points to healthy relationships as one of the biggest factors in a happy life.

Additionally, Limbrunner says, “You should engage in something meaningful to you.” This may be different for every person. For some, it’s work. For some, it’s volunteering. For others, it’s pursuing an engaging hobby.

McClure concurs. “Live a life connected to values and meaning,” she says. “I usually begin with new clients by doing a values assessment. A client may value creativity but then realize they haven’ t done anything creative in 20 years. When they take time to do something creative again, they feel happier because their values are aligned to their actions.”

Cultivate Gratitude, Self-Compassion

Gratefulness is also linked to happiness, McClure says. “It’s not as mysterious as we thought. When we feel and express gratitude for our lives, our brain actually lights up. Keeping a gratitude journal is an excellent way to increase your daily recognition of gratitude in your life.”

Another way to incorporate gratitude is to discuss it daily around the dinner table. “Have each family member say something they were grateful for that day, no matter how small,” McClure says. “It may sound corny, but re-search shows it works. Grateful people have been shown to be happier.”

Self-compassion is another trait found in people who are more joyful, say both McClure and Limbrunner. “I work with a lot of clients on self-compassion,” McClure notes.

“Self-criticism mimics the experience of stress on our bodies, leading to our flight or fight response. Cortisol rises, which leads to stress and away from a sense of contentment. Learning to be kinder to ourselves is a big factor in our happiness.”

Observes Limbrunner, “Self-care allows us to rejuvenate, to relax and to reflect. Having time to relax makes us more likely to healthfully cope with stress. I remind parents that they are role models, and they want to set a good example for their kids about the importance of self-care. Taking time for yourself likely makes you a better person and parent.”

Be Aware of ‘Negativity Bias’

Research shows the human brain reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. This is an evolutionary phenomenon based on the need to survive out in the wild, says McClure.

“Times have changed but we have to retrain our brains to focus on the positive,” she explains. “We can get up in the morning and witness a beautiful sunrise and savor a croissant and a cup of coffee, but if we spill the coffee or if our children are late for the bus, we’ll quickly forget the sunrise and the croissant and focus on the bad things that happened. By being mindful and shifting our focus, we can retrain our brain to accept the negative but remember the positive.”

Limit Social Media, News

The media you ingest can also affect your outlook, McClure says. “News is around 24/7 and can be inherently overwhelming and depressing. Be selective and don’t tune into news all day.”

Similarly, limit or get off social media all together, she adds. “Social media is a relatively new phenomenon whose effects are still being tested. But what we’re seeing so far is that being on social media decreases happiness.

We compare our lives to the artificial lives portrayed on social media, and we feel isolated and it encourages us to not have real relationships.”

Some people may be negatively wired or have bad things happen to them, but Limbrunner and McClure believe most individuals can learn to handle life’s ups and downs and not let things become overwhelming. “Every day,” McClure advises, “make an effort to try and focus your mind on the good stuff.”