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Happiness, Resilience and Managing Stress

7 min read
09/10/19 14:56

Most people have some idea about at least one of the concepts of happiness, resilience and managing stress. When I talk to people about their understanding of these things, the ideas that people express vary quite widely. For example, some people tell me that the pursuit of happiness is valuable for no reason other than to experience happiness. Some people I talk to think that we should all be aiming to eliminate stress from our lives and I’ve spoken with many people over the years who think that resilience is something that you’re either born with or not– you either have it or you don’t.


Happiness, resilience and stress management are linked in a circular way. The more we experience genuine happiness, the more likely we are to develop emotional and psychological resilience and the more we do that the more effectively we manage stress. When we manage stress well, we’re priming ourselves for experiences of happiness. I’m going to take some time now to explain these in a little more detail and show how you can generate experiences which lead to happiness, develop the foundations of resilience and effectively manage the various stresses that life tends to throw at all of us.


If you want to read about some of the great recent and current research on happiness, I recommend that you look at some of the work of Dr Darren Morton and also Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky. The pursuit of happiness is so worthwhile because it’s the gift that gives not once, not twice but has the potential to give three times. You can experience moment to moment happiness when we’re doing something that you really enjoy. We can also experience “remembered happiness” when we recall significant experiences of happiness in our lives and finally the byproducts of happiness as described in the research work of Dr Lyubomirsky really form the foundations of resilience. Let’s look at some of these in a little more detail.


People who are happy are generally also people who experience a number of other positives in their lives including factors related to income, physical and mental health, social support, social connectivity, marriage and romantic relationships and success. Other benefits include increased productivity, more energy and vitality, higher levels of activity, a greater likelihood of being charitable and generous and greater levels of self-control. I’ll unpack some of these in more detail shortly; however, it’s important to note that all these byproducts of happiness are the same factors which form the foundations of mental, emotional and psychological resilience for humans.


But there’s another really important dimension to happiness. A series of fascinating research studies which you can read about here have shown that people like to experience two different types of happiness in general, depending on the time frame that they’re thinking about (in the near versus distant future). We like to experience happiness in a particular moment and have experiences which lead us to feel happy at the time; but we also like to be able to look back and recall happy moments. This knowledge gives us some important clues about what we need to do if we want to maximise happiness across our lifetimes.


Sitting at home on a Friday night with a takeaway pizza and bingeing whole season of a new show on your favourite streaming network may lead you to experience happiness in that moment. But in 25 years time, will you remember that particular Friday evening with happiness and recall what a great time it was eating pizza and watching TV? Almost certainly not. On the other hand, it’s possible for us to have experiences which are not wall-to-wall happiness and in fact maybe characterised by some level of frustration or difficulty but still have happy moments buried within. For example you might be renovating a piece of furniture. While doing this, your drill breaks, you bend nails, you spill paint or wood stain, you spend a lot more time than you anticipated trying to restore this piece of furniture but at the end of it you have something that you can admire and feel proud of having achieved yourself. In 25 years time you probably will look back on that time and recall the pride and satisfaction and joy from completing this job and you most likely will have forgotten the minor frustrations of bent nails and broken drills. So if you want the opportunity to recall times of happiness, we must take the time to create meaningfully happy events in our lives – events which will stand the test of time and be recalled with happiness.


So here’s the first challenge in creating happiness – to make sure that we create not simply incidental events which bring us happiness in a moment but significant experiences which we will be able to look back on in many years time.


As the research reported by Dr Lyubomirsky notes, there is a wide range of beneficial byproducts from happiness including physical and mental health, income, achievement and success, productivity, energy and vitality. So how do these things fit with developing resilience?


It’s useful to first reflect on what it means to be resilient. There are many definitions which we can draw on. Some of them are formal definitions and some of them are informal. I particularly like the idea of “bouncing back”. I also like thinking about resilience in terms of being able to “roll with” a challenge. This suggests the capacity to adapt to a new and unexpected situation and in many ways this is the hallmark of what it means to be resilient. One of my favourite metaphors is that of an old oak tree. What is it that enables this tree to be so old and continue growing and thriving? It has a network of roots which anchor it firmly to its location. It’s also well nourished. And most importantly, the structure of the tree is both strong and flexible. With amazing flexibility and no strength branches would droop. With extraordinary strength and no flexibility they would snap under load. The tree needs both. And people are the same. We need both strength and flexibility to be able to manage the stresses of daily life as well as the additional unexpected stresses.


If you want to really harness the byproducts of happiness and develop greater psychological resilience then having a framework for understanding how to do this is a good place to start. It’s useful to think of resilience is having physical, psychological and social components. That’s right, even physical health and vitality contributes to our mental and psychological well-being.


The lifestyle medicine and positive psychology research tells us a lot about how we can develop resilience. Each of these is really a topic of its own but in summary we know that there are several factors which people who have high levels of resilience share.


Firstly, they live well. By this I mean that they have high levels of daily activity and get regular exercise. We need both to thrive. Aim to be active for every waking hour of the day and plan to exercise for a weekly total of at least 150 minutes. Resilient people are also well nourished. They eat food (not highly- or ultra-processed food like substances). They have a lot of plant food in their diets. They drink water, don’t smoke and minimise alcohol intake. Thirdly, they prioritise sleep. Being in bed for somewhere between seven and nine hours each day, ideally at the same time each day provides healthy adults with sufficient sleep and rest. If you’re achieving this amount of sleep, then you ought to be bouncing out of bed in the morning feeling refreshed. If you’re not, it’s worth looking a little further into that–consider chatting to your GP about what could be going on if you feel like you struggle to ever feel refreshed and revitalised after about eight hours sleep.


People who are resilient are socially connected. And importantly, they’re connected not just incidentally but they make meaningful connections with significant people in their lives. They prioritise spending focused time with people who matter to them.


People who are resilient give to others and they do it without any expectation of a return. If you’d like to watch a short video on some of the fascinating research about managing stress by giving to others, follow the link to this TEDTalk by Dr Kelly McGonigal .


So if you want to keep building your resilience, what are some things that you can start doing right now? First of all, check your sleep. Make sure you’re getting regular adequate sleep. Pay attention to how much daily activity and exercise you currently getting. If these are on the low side take some steps to increase – there’s no need to make massive changes all at once. Do it bit by bit. In fact, making small changes which you allow yourself time to adapt to will result in a greater likelihood of sustained change. Thirdly, check your diet. My favourite explanation of how humans should eat comes from the American food writer Michael Pollan. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” If you want more detail, follow his “7 Rules for Eating”. If you diet generally looks like this you’re doing well. If it doesn’t, find ways to make small changes and move in this direction.


Make a regular practice of giving to others with no expectation of return. A great way to do this is to set yourself a weekly task all doing something for someone else that you know that person would appreciate. It doesn’t need to involve money (and it’s better if it doesn’t). It should be something you’re not currently doing and you shouldn’t announce to them that you’re doing it or have done it.


Anyone who’s done any sort of training for anything will tell you that you don’t get good at something by avoiding doing it. You don’t get strong muscles by sitting at home and not lifting weights; you don’t become a fast runner by sitting at home and not putting some demands on your legs to perform. In the same way we don’t good at managing stress unless we deliberately encounter stress and challenge ourselves to manage it.


If you see stress as an opportunity to become resilient, if you deliberately engage with stressors rather than avoid them, if you seek to create times of genuine happiness in your life, if you tap into the byproducts of happiness, if you build on those byproducts by eating, sleeping and moving well and by giving to others then you’ll be putting the framework in place to grow and thrive as resilient human being.


Simon Matthews


Writing exclusively for MindRazr, Simon is the CEO Of Wellcoaches® Australia, an AHPRA Registered Psychologist, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Professional and Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. He’s also a Fitness Trainer and Nutritionist.


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