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Happiness Can Be Learned

Scientists have known for a long time that most of us have a happiness “baseline” - we’re born pre-programmed to be upbeat or feel slightly down, and whatever events happen in our lives, we’re likely to eventually return to that baseline.

I’d say my baseline is about average. I’m generally a positive person, but I do have worries and anxieties that can bring down my day. Exciting things - my wedding, the birth of my child - greatly influenced my emotional state at the time, but I soon returned to my baseline.

But University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Richard Davidson believes that happiness, rather than something built in to us by our genes or affected primarily by outside influences, is something that we can learn.

"We don't really think of happiness as a skill, but everything we've learned about the brain suggests that it's no different than learning to play the violin or learning to engage in a complex sport," Davidson said. "If you practice at it, you'll get better at it. It’s something that can be cultivated.”

Now there’s no question that certain genetic propensities provide some broad constraints,” Davidson says,  “But within those broad constraints there’s a huge amount that each of us does that will influence our level of happiness and well-being.”

When I think about it, I do know ways I can make myself happier. I can play a playlist of uplifting songs. I can go for a walk outside in the sunshine, or dance a silly dance with my toddler son. I can practice gratitude for the things I have, and get a pleasant surprise when I look in the mirror and see my outfit is particularly flattering.

Davidson suggests a return to ancient practices such as simple meditation to alter how we respond to the challenges of life. He says we can change the way we respond to stressful life events through simple mindfulness meditation, and can also improve our ability to sustain positive emotions through meditation designed to enhance our kindness and compassion. He says all these techniques can be used in a completely secular way, and that his research has found them to alter both the brain and human behavior. 



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