3 Steps to Practicing Active Happiness
What is active happiness?
The first meaning of active happiness is about the positive impact that being physically active has on our overall well-being. I’ve long been interested in the relationship between physical health and emotional well-being. I went to grad school to explore and write about some mind-body questions rattling around in my head. The more I learned, the more I became convinced that the conceptualization of mind-body separation is a complete fallacy and that we would be better served by moving past the notion of mind-body dualism altogether.
Everything meaningful in our lives and every single perception comes to us through our physical senses. Emotions are fully embodied biochemical experiences, and each of us is a fully integrated mind-body system running on a continuous, interconnected feedback loop.
I think of it now as not mind-body “connection”—because you can’t connect something that isn’t separate, to begin with—but rather, mind-body integration, which can be harmonious or disharmonious. And striving toward the former significantly boosts our quality of life. The brain is a physical organ, very much grounded in biology, and nourishing our bodies with good nutrition, adequate sleep and water, and physical activity also nourishes our brains.
How Movement Makes Us Happier
The latest research supporting the brain benefits of exercise is astonishing. Over the last decade, science has learned that our muscles function as endocrine-producing machines. When we contract our muscles, as we do with literally any type of movement, they produce and secrete chemicals and proteins into our bloodstream that are great for our brain health and emotional well-being. In other words, we can produce our own internal antidepressants through being physically active.
If we want to experience a sense of awe, a wonderful emotion strongly associated with wellbeing, we could start with ourselves and regularly take a few moments to appreciate how truly amazing the human mind-body system is. These bodies we live in are miraculous. And embodiment is the most fundamental shared human experience. Instead of the traditional dualistic system in which physical and mental health are treated separately, I’d like to see us treating them synergistically and focusing on mind-body harmony, positive embodiment, and whole-person well-being.
Active Happiness: How We Control Our Own Well-being
The second meaning of active happiness is about having agency, that we can take an active role in creating our own well-being and be agents of our own happiness. This is the alluring promise of positive psychology, and I am fully on board.
In fact, I retrospectively believe that I’ve been “positive interventioning” myself my whole life, from long before I had ever heard of positive psychology. Exercise has always been a refuge for me, a reliable way of connecting with myself and lifting my mood since my early teens. I also intuitively cultivated a sense of gratitude and tapped into my natural sense of awe at an early age. The research showing that cultivating and savoring these emotions is an effective way of boosting our well-being resonated with me very organically when I learned more about them in my master’s program.
Yoga, Well-being, and Active Happiness
I somehow emerged from what was an unhappy and chaotic childhood home with the clear and firm conviction that there was a happy, healthy person inside of me, and it was my job to find her. I went on a largely successful quest to do just that in my 20s and 30s. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with yoga when I stumbled on it, centered my life around it, and became so passionate about sharing its benefits with others. As we now know from positive psychology, giving to others has amazing ripple effects since when you contribute to others’ well-being, you also improve your own. There are so many different ways to be actively happy. It’s so powerful that we can take charge of our own happiness by adding intentional activities, practices, and rituals that support a higher level of well-being.
At the same time, individual well-being practices on their own are not adequate to address the needs of our ailing society, systems, and planet.
We cannot focus on pursuits that support a high level of flourishing when all of our attention and resources are diverted to basic survival. Throughout history, the quest for happiness and self-actualization has largely been the purview of the upper classes, with the masses left out of “the good life.” Yet, I don’t believe we can build true happiness on the suffering of others.
Nurturing Our Collective Well-being
We are all interconnected, and, in the words of the late great Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better,” a value that seems to have been largely lost under our current neoliberal, winner-take-all society. Generous resources and a strong social safety net are so clearly the first line of defense when people are struggling economically, as far too many people today are. It is also true that we can’t be truly well in a poisoned world. The toxicity that has been allowed to build up in our air, water, and food supplies significantly deleteriously affects everyone’s health and well-being. On top of that, the threat of climate collapse that is looming over all of us has a significant mental health impact.
All of this brings me to my third meaning of active happiness: activism as a self-care strategy and a way of contributing to collective well-being. As University of California San Francisco psychologist Elisa Epel puts it, activism can be a positive antidote to “existential despair.” Succumbing to pessimism, passivity, and hopelessness is not good for anyone’s well-being. Nor is denial; whether willful or inadvertent, ignorance is not bliss. But taking action to help others and contribute to the collective good is like a well-being superpower that can positively impact our emotional health and those around us.
Active Happiness and the Truth of Interconnection
The more I’ve learned about the science of happiness, the more I’ve realized that true well-being must be for everyone. As I see it, the big issue underlying all the other issues our society is debating is whether we’re all in this together. And the answer seems clear—only realizing that we are profoundly interconnected with one another and with the planet we live on moves us toward a positive future together here on Earth. And I’m a natural optimist. I’m absolutely not willing to give up on the possibility that our species can make that evolutionary leap.
My intention is to put my own positive embodiment and sense of agency to good use by finding ways to meaningfully contribute toward a just transition to a world built around inclusive, equitable, sustainable, humanitarian values and collective well-being. It’s a big mission and a tall order. I invite you to join me. Because we truly are all in this together.