Ten ways to Happy

From the Anima Mundi Blog

Herbs and Techniques for Happiness | Roadblocks to Experiencing Greater Emotional Health

Do you ever feel like you’re doing everything you can to be “happy”, but something is still standing in the way of your authentic joy? If so, read on. This post is especially for you.

Today, we’re discussing the most pervasive habits that block our happiness, rather than allowing good vibes to follow freely. Often, we don’t even realize that we’ve developed an unhealthy pattern or “story” before we make it a permanent part of our personal belief system. Then, we look externally to find what we feel we’re lacking. What if, instead of punishing ourselves for our mistakes, we rerouted to develop new, emotionally healthy behaviors? 

The good news is we needn’t do this alone; our plant teachers, our chosen families, and our communities are also here to support our happiness. That’s why we’re sharing knowledge of powerful herbs and life hacks, while searching the globe to get to the heart of happiness.

For starters, our energetic states differ across cultures. Did you know people in the US associate happiness with “high arousal” states (excitement, elation, enthusiasm, etc.) while in Hong Kong, happiness is defined by how calm and relaxed one feels [Psychology Today]? High highs fuel Western attitudes about what it means to be happy, followed by low lows that weigh folks down.

It’s the yo-yo effect of chasing these “happy energy” spikes—much like a sugar-induced boost of energy and the resulting crash—that leaves many feeling empty. 

But there’s more good news! Mother Earth and her plant guides are here to show us infinite wisdom, how to maintain homeostasis and sustain contentment. But, before we tune in to the benefits of herbal medicine and other joy-focused practices, let’s stop getting in our own way.

  1. How You Speak - On the Buddhist Eightfold path, the concept of “right speech” dictates abstaining from false speech to avoid undue suffering. And in Don Miguel Ruiz’s bestselling guide to an emotionally healthy life, The Four Agreements, the author urges us to be impeccable with our word. “Speak with integrity,” writes Ruiz. “Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” The co-authors of Words Can Change Your Brain also argue, “There’s a lot of evidence to show that negative words and negative emotions are detrimental to the brain, while positive words and emotions are beneficial.” Think before you speak to yourself and others—make sure the words you are choosing are both positive and true in the spirit of right speech.
  1. How You Think - Neurologist-backed research on “motor imagery” (a.k.a. how we feel ourselves performing a specific physical action versus performing the action) shows that imagining movement and actually moving have the same effect on our brains. Likewise, Loretta Graziano Breuning’s feel-good book, Habits of a Happy Brain, underscores that making peace with something you can’t control is one of many science-backed ways to increase serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for modulating and stabilizing our moods. And written in the sacred Dhammapada Buddhist scriptures is the belief that “mind precedes all mental states” and “the mind is everything.” In other words, “What you think, you become.” While we may not be able to control thoughts as they arise, sacred yogic texts invite meditation practitioners to imagine their thoughts and feelings as ripples in a lake. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali say the “mind waves” should be stilled in order to tune into our deepest, most authentic selves. Practice noticing and releasing your thoughts with ease and without judgment.

  2. Who You Spend Time With - The 18th and 19th century German-born writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s most famous quote is perhaps: “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.” In the hundreds of years since, his words have also been remixed by life coaches like Tony Robbins and motivational speakers like Jim Rohn, who is attributed with the well-known belief: “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Toxicity can be contagious, but so is positivity. Choose your tribe wisely, and cut all energy vampires from your social circles.

  3. What You Eat - One University of California study asked the critical question, “Do the Types of Food You Eat Influence Your Happiness?” In short, what researchers discovered is absolutely yes, they do! “Diets that promote lasting happiness,” they argue, “are those abundant in fruits, vegetables and other unprocessed foods.” Many ancient traditions consider food and medicine as being one and the same as the foundation of their medical systems. A diet that integrates the right types of food for our personal constitutions and life seasons, among other personal factors (age, weight, gender, etc.), is one major key to a healthier, happier life. Some actions we can take include detoxing and changing our eating habits to consume nourishing foods with fewer damaging results to our precious bodies. Read more about detoxing and boosting metabolism here and here

  4. How Your Calendar Looks - Have you fallen into what The New York Times calls the “busy” trap? NYT writer Tim Kreider challenges the hysteria of busy Americans: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Similarly, writers at The Atlantic discuss why they think Finland, Denmark, and Norway are among the world’s happiest countries. In an interview with Silvia Bellezza, co-author of a paper examining “busyness and lack of leisure” as a status symbol, Belezza shares that she is “convinced” Denmark and the Netherlands have the happiness formula “most right” in terms of balancing work and leisure. She attributes this to “a mix of the legal system protecting the right to holidays and an attitude toward work which is very healthy.” Key takeaway? Leave some blank space in your calendar for spontaneous magic, and for a little dolce far niente, or what the Italians call the “sweetness of doing nothing”. 

  5. What You Watch/Listen To - Your thoughts and speech are powerful agents of change and transformation, and they are influenced by what you see and hear. In 2018, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that “reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO [fear of missing out].” If half an hour daily on your smartphone seems like an unrealistic goal, be reassured that even an increased awareness of social media use can benefit both mood and focus. While countless articles offer tips for how to minimize our screen time, more recent studies have also shown that consuming positive media can make us better people (and boost moods). But just as all good habits take time to form, positive media psychologist Sophie H. Janicke shares, “For positive media to have strong, lasting effects on us individually or collectively, I believe we need to consume it consistently, over time, just as eating right only once a week does not make us healthier.” If you don’t already, watch what you watch! 

  6. What Actions You Take - Service to others is a virtue encouraged in nearly every religious and spiritual tradition in the world. In Judaism, for example, the concepts of tzedakah (“philanthropy” loosely translated in Hebrew) and mitzvah (good deeds; as in the “mitzvah of tzedakah”) are part of what many Jews consider their social responsibility. In Hebrew, the word natan is a palindrome meaning “to give”, further deepening the idea that giving is also a way of receiving (joy, merit, blessings, etc.). Science agrees that helping others makes us happier. There’s even a psychological term for it: Helper’s High, which aims to explain the endorphin release that happens when we extend ourselves beyond our own needs. Lending a hand also fills your metaphorical cup. So, do something kind (like volunteering) today without expecting anything in return. 

  7. How You Learn to Be “Small” - Happiness doesn’t necessarily come through our massive wins or big life events. In fact, Graziano Breuning says celebrating small victories, dividing an unpleasant task into small parts, and taking small steps (rather than a huge leap) toward a new goal are all sure fire ways to feel happier by increasing your dopamine levels. This neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger traveling among neurons and gets released when your brain thinks a reward is on the way. When dopamine is released, you feel euphoria, but the “feel good” feeling is temporary. Imagine that in lieu of one dopamine release, you set yourself up for “small” thinking and small actions that add up to positive triggers. These not only make you feel happy for a moment, but also increase blood flow, digestion, sleep, stress response, and heart and kidney function, to name just a few added health benefits. Remember: “Joys divided are increased,” as Emily Dickinson’s lesser known friend, J.G. Holland once said. 

  8. Who You Trust & Who Trusts You - Once we’re more aware of the happiness blocking patterns we are co-creating, one of the other neurotransmitters we can “rewire” by developing new habits is our oxytocin circuits. Oxytocin is activated through our bonds with others. Think: falling in love or giving birth, for example. While trauma and other personal factors may render trusting others more difficult over time, Graziano Breuning recommends taking “intermediate steps” to build trust gradually. Just like the “small” theory of thoughts, speech, and actions, a bridge to trusting (especially when there’s been a rupture or betrayal) can come in the form of evaluating one commitment at a time. For instance, you can celebrate a friend calling at the time they promised to ring you, even if they were 40 minutes late to the last lunch you scheduled. You’ll still get the feel-good hormones from being happy in the present moment, rather than focusing on what transpired in the past. Similarly, oxytocin is mutually triggered and mutually beneficial, so you will feel good if you maintain a reputation as a trustworthy person. Giving and receiving trust, like love, is an underrated pleasure of all human connections. 

  9. What Stuff You’re Carrying - In the cult film classic, Fight Club, we are reminded: “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” What we “own” isn’t just limited to our material possessions, but also our memories, our ancestral traumas, and our “emotional baggage” that we drag from moment to moment. Richard Whitehead, Ph.D., has written extensively about the power of nonattachment, noting its relation to symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress, as well as its opposite ability to increase empathy, kindness and wisdom, and to help us become more self-actualized [Psychology Today]. Whitehead summarized some of the scholarship over the last decade pertaining to nonattachment, noting that “reducing fixation on the need for experience to be one way or the other is extremely healthy” and even illuminating the studies that have shown nonattachment is a “more important quality than mindfulness when explaining positive psychological outcomes” [DOI.org]. Letting go (metaphorically and literally) of things, people, ideas, pain, beliefs and anything else no longer serving us is one of the fastest ways to clear a path to lasting happiness. What one thing can you put down now? 

What makes people happy?

Ruth Whippman thinks America’s obsession with happiness is making Americans miserable. The author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks writes for Vox, “Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy into the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on Earth.” But, the author, journalist, and filmmaker is pretty convinced this quest is only making Americans crazier, not happier. If she’s right, we may want to look outside US borders to see what societies may be more successful in maintaining happy populations, happy communities, and happy families … and why that is.

How is happiness defined in cultures around the world?

For starters, language has a major impact on our brains, our perceptions, and our worldviews. At least 80 percent of the nations in this meta-analysis of the “Concepts of Happiness Across Time and Cultures” credited luck and fortune in their understanding of happiness. This was also true in ancient Greece and China, where the divine’s role in a person’s luck and fortune was directly correlated with their happiness. Alternatively, in the 1800s, the US also included luck and fortune in its definition of happiness, but no longer does today. This seemingly small shift is actually proof that happiness, as a concept and a predictor, is far from universal. It is largely dependent on the language and culture into which we’re born, as well as the society in which we are raised.

Some cultures even fear or avoid happinessbecause they believe “misfortune lurks behind joy.”

In many East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, social norms may even dictate that happiness is an ambivalent topic, meaning that it’s not necessarily viewed as good. One scene in the film Crazy Rich Asians highlights this difference, when the mother of the bride-to-be sums up the difference in Asian and Asian American cultures: “All Americans think about is their own happiness,” says Eleanor (played by Michelle Yeoh). And when her son’s chosen wife accuses her of not wanting her son to be happy, Eleanor replies, “It’s an illusion. We understand how to build things that last. Something you know nothing about.” Making sacrifices for one’s family, as this cinematic example shows, is valued in many Eastern cultures above one’s own personal happiness. 

Trying to be happy can actually make us depressed (but there’s a better way).

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Happiness is not a goal … it’s a by-product of a life well-lived.” In this spirit, it’s vital we not become obsessed with the “pursuit of happiness” because studies have proven that seeking happiness may be one reason we encounter the exact opposite feelings. Tal Ben-Shahar writes about how chasing happiness is like looking directly at the sun. “If I break down sunlight into its colors and look at the rainbow, that I can enjoy,” Ben-Shahar told Insider. “But directly pursuing happiness can hurt me.” What’s the alternative, then? The Happiness Studies author says we should instead pursue “wholeness”, or a holistic sense of wellbeing. 

Remember those habits blocking our joy? Let’s kick them to the curb, and be present in this one precious moment. Ultimately, our happiness is not a destination, but a journey. Here are some herbs and spices to help us stay whole and well as we travel the path.

  • Albizia - Dubbed the “herbal Prozac” by Chinese herbalists and acupuncturists, TCM has long revered this tree for anxiety, stress, trauma, grief, and depression relief.
  • Ashwagandha - A mood stabilizer and insomnia reliever, this evergreen adaptogenic shrub lowers cortisol levels, stress, and anxiety without any side effects or withdrawal.
  • Blue Lotus - Known as a gateway to the divine, this ancestral flower can have euphoric effects that decompress the nervous system for full mind-body relaxation. You can read more about this beautiful, meditative and medicinal plant on the blog here.
  • Cacao - A nutritive  source to help combat depression, cacao has also been scientifically proven to contain four key “bliss chemicals”: serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylethylamine, the neurotransmitters associated with wellbeing and happiness.
  • Damiana - A classic aphrodisiac native to Mexico and Central America, this shrub is both a mood, fertility, and libido booster, in addition to balancing hormones.
  • Mucuna - Also known as ‘Dopamine Bean’ or velvet bean, Mucuna pruriens is an adaptogenic legume that has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as a superfood for nutrient density, energy, and mood boosting. Indigenous peoples also used to prescribe it to those needing a boost, or as an aid for recovering from depression.
  • Rhodiola Root - Popular since ancient times in Siberia, this adaptogen has long been used to enhance mental and physical endurance. It also supports adrenal gland function and encourages a healthy response to physical, mental, and emotional stress. Rhodiola’s anti-stress and fatigue-fighting properties, in addition to its ability to jumpstart libido, reestablish balance among hormonal functions and support brain health, make it one of the greatest botanicals available anywhere today.
  • Rose - While just looking at a rose can bring relaxation and calm, according to the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, eating and drinking rose petal extracts in powder or tincture form may also uplift mood, support the heart, and reduce inflammation. For thousands of years, many cultures around the world have revered the mind, body, and spiritual healing benefits of the sacred rose. In some of the most ancient medicinal texts, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the rose held a prominent presence in a variety of formulations. Particularly those around relieving the heart, depression, anxiety and psycho-spiritual imbalances (plus many more) explicitly featured rose.
  • St. John’s Wort - Besides easing symptoms of depression, this herb is also reported to calm one’s mood, acts as a positive nerve tonic for the nervous system, and relieves anxiety, tension, stress, irritability and sleep-related issues. It also stimulates the release of the “happy hormone”, serotonin.