We’ve all told ourselves “When [BLANK] happens, I’ll be successful and when I’m successful I’ll be happy.” Unfortunately, nearly every piece of modern neuroscience and psychology has shown this algorithm to be happy.
“The brain at positive is 31% more productive than at negative, neutral or stressed.” ~Shawn Achor, Harvard
Every year thousands of people try to lose weight to try and improve their self image in pursuit of ultimate happiness. Everyone is chasing that oasis of pure life bliss. Whether you join some old friends on a retreat, paddle solo through mangroves, or train your body into championship form, you’re probably doing so in search of something meaningful. Every one of these activities have something in common; the pursuit of happiness. Life is certainly a process of sculpting ones surroundings to fit ones values. I may not be able to tell you what makes you happy, but I can tell you there are a lot lean, unhappy people in this world. In this study, fitness models reported a higher level of body image anxiety than another group of ‘non-models’. People who get paid to be fit don’t necessarily get a break from the body image problem that’s so prevalent in this country.
On the other side of the coin, another study by University College London observed 1,979 obese and overweight adults and reported that those in the group who lost more than 5% of their overall rate reported more symptoms of depression than those who lost less than 5%.
Wait, an increased rate in depression with weight loss?
Well it probably depends on how you lose weight, why you lose weight and whether or not you have changed the way you live your life in general. When we do things that make ourselves unhappy we tend to develop habits that also make us unhappy. Often, one causes the other but that doesn’t mean they are synonymous.
There are tremendous benefits to losing weight, especially if you are obese. But, beginning the process from a negative place is only expounding on the thought process that got you there in the first place. Eventually you will run out of people to impress or skinny jeans to wear.
Before you actually begin the process of losing weight you should ask yourself a few questions:
Why do I want to lose weight? And if so, What is the root cause to my weight gain in the first place? You may find that the weight is just a symptom of something different which must be addressed.
In order to be happy with any component of our life we have to be able to differentiate the symptoms from the sources. Removing a symptom out of your life doesn’t mean you’ve gotten rid of the problem and if the problem is a broken body image then losing weight won’t change that underlying problem. It’s deeper. You have to remember that, in the world of aesthetics, these things aren’t cut and dry. There’s is no ideal weight or look to anyone yet the only references we have to compare ourselves to are other people who might be made of totally different body types. Plus, when you look in the mirror, the image of your body doesn’t go directly to a standardized computer software which spits out a thumbs up or thumbs down. It goes through your eyes, works it’s way through the spider webs of feelings shaped not by truth by by our perception of our own thousands of childhood memories, millions of interactions with other people, perception of social norm which is different from fashion season to season, decade to decade, culture to culture, has changed countless times through human history, and will change again.
Physical health is a part of being happy, but even though most people make a living off the selling the illusion of bliss after weight loss, it is a GROSS oversimplification. Long lasting weight loss just the result of many things coming together. Weight loss allows you physically to perform movements and activities you might not have otherwise been able to do, which can effect happiness, but it’s just one factor and happiness doesn’t begin there.
But look how happy those contestants on ‘The Biggest Loser’ are! There’s a difference between fleeting moments of bliss when one achieves something so big, only imagined in the stratosphere of their brains, and happiness. I’m talking about pure, long lasting happiness which can only be described as someones sheer contentment of their way of life. It starts inside with your perception of yourself and the manner in which you take responsibility for your actions, remain accountable for their consequences. That is happiness, and happiness has many components.
When unhappy, My immediate questions are:
- What is happiness?
- What is the root cause of my unhappiness?
This is such a complex topic that it has warranted an entire branch of psychology dedicated just to happiness (aka positive psychology). Even the science of neuroplasticity (study of the brain self-modification) has shown us that, thinking differently literally does change brain matter; something once thought to be impossible. So your thoughts do change who you are and who you are changes your thoughts.
What is happiness?
Research at UC Berkley has provided a science behind happiness and it has very little to do with weight.
Science has now confirmed that with certain practices we can change the neural pathways of our brain. Happiness is a set of skills we can learn through practice.
The research proves that happiness is possible through intentional habit changes, more than circumstantial changes. In fact, only 10% of our happiness is due to our external circumstances and a full 90% is based on our inner environment, with 50% of our happiness level coming from our genes and as much as 40% being accounted for by our intentional daily activities and the choices we make. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, et al., 2005)
They found that the people who report the highest perception of happiness share 7 TRAINABLE habits:
- MINDFULNESS- the act of being present and non-judgmental; or awareness
- GRATITUDE- counterbalancing negative thoughts with positive ones
- WELLNESS- the health of our physical body. There are also healthy ways and unhealthy ways to lose weight.
- ALTRUISM (giving)- how we spend our time and resources to help others
- VULNERABILITY- the courage to be your authentic self.
- SOCIAL INTERACTION- our happiness is dependent on the happiness of those around us.
- MEANING/PURPOSE- Living in an environment where strengths are emphasized.
Your genetics play a small role in how you feel about yourself. Some people may be more prone to negativity or depression than others. But the big takeaway here is that you have A MASSIVE amount of control over your happiness. According to this scientific research, you own 90% of your happiness. Those 7 habits make up 50% of your ultimate perception of happiness and the other 40% is a product of the environment you choose to live in. The people you surround yourself with and the way you live your life in general relates to happiness far more than body image.
Empowered by this science and years worth of happiness research, Sean Achor of Harvard University and author of the best selling book The Happiness advantage, have been able to identify key components of happiness:
The Happiness Advantage: Because positive brains have a biological advantage over brains that are neutral or negative, this principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to capitalize on positivity and improve our productivity and performance.
The Fulcrum and the Lever- How we experience the world, and our ability to succeed within it, constantly changes based on our mindset. This principle teaches us how we can adjust our mindset (our fulcrum) in a way that gives us the power (the lever) to be more fulfilled and successful.
The Tetris Effect- When our brains get stuck in a pattern that focuses on stress, negativity, and failure, we set ourselves up to fail. This principle teaches us how to retrain our brains to spot patterns of possibility, so we can see-and seize-opportunity wherever we look.
Falling Up- In the midst of defeat, stress, and crisis, our brains map different paths to help us cope. This principle is about finding the mental path that not only leads us up out of failure or suffering, but teaches us to be happier and more successful because of it.
The Zorro Circle- When challenges loom and we get over-whelmed our rational brains can get haijacked by emotions. This principle teachs us how to regain control by focusing first on small, meangeable goals, and then gradually expanding our cirlce to achieve bigger and bigger ones.
Sean Achor, pg 17 “The Happiness Advantage”
There are primary and secondary emotions we deal with on a regular basis. Secondary emotions follow primary emotions. For example if someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel very angry. The only reason I feel angry is because I am frustrated that I am late or because I believe I was entitled to that piece of road which I don’t own, maintain and may or may not drive on again. The anger was driven by a deeper, previously existing frustration. Unless I address the primary concern I will continue to find other cars to be upset with on my drive.
In this case, the weight or declined health is a secondary effect of declined happiness. Address the primary cause and you’ll eventually help the secondary more so than the other way around.
Weight gain is a secondary action and usually results in a lack of self worth, poor self image or both. Weight loss is also a secondary consequence. Because weight and self image are all so fluid, subjective and subject to change, it is not a reliable foundation for long lasting happiness.