Create your “Happiness Vaccine”: How to Inoculate Yourself Against Future Stresses

“A good way to overcome stress is to help others out of theirs.”

Dada J. P. Vaswani

Last week we looked at ways to create happiness by taking the time to contribute to the lives of others. We looked at the specific methods that can elicit happiness. I gave you some suggestions for ways to practice contribution, one of the primary methods for creating happiness at will.

In this article, we dig deeper into what can contribute to our experience of happiness, and one difficulty we face when trying to predict what will make us happy in the future.

We all know that life presents us with almost constant changes. We start to drive to work, only to discover that one tire is practically flat and needs fixing immediately. Our home air conditioning suddenly fails, and it’s been over 100 degrees for the past five days. Our laptop “decides” to break just as we are almost finished writing a report to our boss that’s due in two hours.  Need I list any more? I don’t think so. Remember: this is an article on happiness, not frustration! However, just notice what you do start to experience as you read the examples I just listed.

So, given most stressful situations and circumstances in “physical reality” are unpredictable, is there a way to train our brain toward happiness so that stressors aren’t so… well… stressful? In other words, can we create a “happiness vaccine” that allows the brain to discover ways to bring more happiness into our lives in a predictable way? 

You might think it would be easy to predict what will make us happy. However, research in the field of happiness shows that it isn’t true. It’s called Impact Bias. It could look like this:

Ben: My sweetheart and I had been planning this vacation in Hawaii for a year. We looked forward to it and had a great time looking over brochures before settling on a Kona coast trip. We planned how we would take one of the boats that take you snorkeling, with a picnic in the middle of the cruise. When we got there, it was raining. For four out of the eight days, it rained. Then, when the sun came out, we went swimming, and I got bit by some jellyfish. Man, did that hurt! The Kona coast is full of black lava that goes on for miles! And we thought Hawaii was green. It wasn’t until the last day we were there that we discovered some gardens along the coast.

Yes, it was great to get away from work. But I thought we would have had a better time.

When were Ben and his sweetheart happiest, planning the vacation or actually being on it? The answer is evident if a bit troubling. We think we can accurately predict how we, or someone else, will feel in the future. For example, we’ve all heard about people winning millions in the lottery. We guess they have it made! Their life will be excellent from here on out. However, you’ve only to go on YouTube or research on Google to find out what’s happened to people when they receive a massive windfall of money. Many end up in worse shape than before: broken relationships, missteps in investing, and so on. Our predictions fall flat. That’s Impact Bias.

Another example of Impact Bias: in a famous study published at Northwestern University in 1978, researchers discovered that the happiness levels of paraplegics and lottery winners were essentially the same within a year after the event occurred. Yes, it’s true! One group won a life-changing sum of money, and another group lost the use of  limbs, and within one year, the two groups were equally the same in terms of happiness. However, what might you have predicted about their happiness in the future?

If it’s near impossible to predict what will make us happy in the future, how do we instill a “Happiness Vaccine” to increase the chances of experiencing happiness now? After all, it’s clear that the only thing we have control over is the present. Remember that old saying:

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

By now, you’ve probably guessed the answer: enjoy the present. As Thich Nat Hahn would say: “Present moment, perfect moment.” 

So, here is your “inoculation formula” for happiness:

Consider that part of enjoying your vacation includes planning it! Even as you create your vacation, you are experiencing it! One way to do this is to design a Treasure Map of the holiday itself. How will this help how you feel once you’re there? You are creating a way for your brain to find what’s working about your vacation. You are priming yourself to enjoy it once you are there, no matter what happens! That’s just how our brains work.

  • Get a poster board of any size. Put your picture in the center. 
  • Paste five colorful pictures of your destination and at least five feeling words (happy, grateful, adventurous, etc.). 
  • Print the following: I am in (your goal) by (print the date). Keep the wording in the literary present. “I will be” puts it in the future. You want to keep it in the present tense for your brain.
  • Put this where you can see it every day.
  • You might create a small notebook where you can journal one or two sentences about how you feel now as you look at your Treasure Map.

If you aren’t planning a vacation, or even if you are, consider the following: there’s a mountain of research that everyday interventions, like moving more, seeing some trees or gardens, being of service to others, making time for friends and hobbies, and practicing gratitude will reliably increase your sense of happiness.

Here’s one way to reliably increase your sense of happiness.  It’s a powerful practice you can start today. It’s called “One Good Thing.” Each day, keep track in a notebook of one good thing that happened to you today. Did you set up lunch with a friend? Find a perfect parking place? See a beautiful garden as you walked? Get that project in on time? 

Once you begin this practice, your brain will automatically start to find evidence for this “One Good Thing.” You are, in effect, “inoculating” yourself with happiness. You are stringing together “pearls of happiness” that you can wear wherever you go and whatever you do.

Finally, the Harvard study on happiness and health, almost 80 years old, has proved that embracing community helps us live longer and be happier. (Harvard Gazette, April 11, 2017).  Is there a group, club, book study, or spiritually oriented community that you can check out? Now that we’re beginning to live in the “Post Pandemic” period, is it time for you to open or re-open your world? Check it out and try it out!

Let me know what you’re discovering as you begin to inoculate yourself with happiness as an antidote to living a stress-filled life!

You can leave a message for me at marianemeth.com.

Hugs to you all!

Wishing you all my best,