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Friday 5 August 2011

5 Signs You're Not Happy

Coca-Cola would like consumers to believe that happiness can be bottled up in just 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters) of sugary goodness. The company's soda advertisements pair its products with the most enjoyable times in life -- neighborhood cookouts, movie dates and hanging out with near and dear ones. In Africa, this Coke-happiness correlation may have more behind it than just marketing dollars. In times of war and political strife in recent years, Coke sales have dipped; when stability returned, so did the soda consumption.

Monitoring someone's Coke consumption isn't the most scientific way to gauge happiness. But the Africa anecdote is an example of the relationship between emotional states and behavior. It's well understood that our feelings often impact actions. Confidence, for instance, breeds socialization, and apathy fosters withdrawal.

Interpreting the emotions behind the exhibitions isn't always simple. When asked, most people will concede that they're happy. They may not be over the moon in rapture, but they're far more likely to describe themselves as at least slightly happy than as unhappy. At the same time, the National Institutes of Health report that more than 20 million people in the United States suffer from depression.

While you can't equate depression with run-of-the-mill unhappiness, there does seem to be a disconnection between reported and actual happiness. In that case, certain behaviors can raise red flags that negative emotions are taking a toll. After recognizing them and taking action, folks can get back on track toward joy.

5: Too Much TV Time

Sometimes, a stressful day simply calls for a night of indulgent television. Kick back, relax and let your mind melt in the sea of reality shows and hospital dramas. But if this is your routine night after night, it may be wise to abandon the remote for a while. According to a 2008 study, excessive boob-tube time is a possible sign of unhappiness.

Too much TV time may be a sign of unhappiness
Since 1972, researchers at the University of Chicago have conducted the General Social Survey to evaluate the social climate in the United States. Regardless of education, income, marital status or age, happier people surveyed watched about 30 percent less television each week than unhappier participants. On average, the happier respondents watched 19 hours of television, compared to 25 hours for the unhappy set. Instead of kicking back on the couch, take a cue from the happier lot. Their leisure time involved hanging out with friends, volunteering or participating in organized activities.

4: Troubled Relationships

Relationship health can reflect unhappiness
A sure sign of growing despondency is fractured relationships. Unhappier people may have more difficultly resolving issues or project immediate problems onto the future. They may not attempt to broaden friend circles and meet new people. And when relationships turn sour, this can reinforce feelings of discontent.

The happier people included in the General Social Survey spent more time with others in one way or another. That result echoes throughout the vast body of happiness research; consistently, those with the deepest and widest social connections report the highest levels of life satisfaction. For instance, surveys demonstrate that married people are generally happier than singles. Yet, happier folks may be more likely to get married in the first place.

Reaping the benefits of bonding with friends and family can happen through online social media as well. The Virtual Happiness Project, which is evaluating the relationship between happiness and online social networking, has so far found that building relationships via online platforms can boost happiness.

3: Uncontrollable Stress

Excessive stress isn't good for the body or mind
According to positive psychology, or the science of subject well-being, environment plays an important role in people's quest for happiness. Feeling safe and comfortable generates contentment and satisfaction. Conversely, an excessively stressful environment promotes anxiety and insecurity. For instance, a study comparing controllable and uncontrollable stress found that the latter caused greater unhappiness and tension. While stress compels us to work more efficiently and achieve greater goals, too much of it can adversely affect long-term happiness.

One recent example of the stress effect is the paradoxical shift in happiness among American women in the past 35 years. Despite the progress women have made in recent decades, their rates of subjective well-being have declined overall. Researchers have attributed this to the rising stress levels women must manage while juggling a family and career. A separate comparison of how people spend their time concluded that men may be happier today because they spend less time on unpleasant tasks than women.

While we can't entirely eliminate stress from our lives, some tenets of positive psychology can help alleviate it. Specifically, positive thinking, mindfulness and optimism serve as emotional stress antidotes. When stress strikes, fight the urge to park in front of the television and try out relaxation techniques instead.

2: Constant Pleasure Seeking

Get off the hedonic treadmill and find contentment
In the late 1970s, a team of psychologists led by Philip Brickman came to a startling conclusion about humans and happiness. In comparing the happiness levels of a group of lottery winners and a group of paraplegics to that of the general population, the psychologists discovered that both life-altering events made negligible differences on the groups' well-being after a while. The researchers attributed this phenomenon to the adaptive functioning of the human spirit. Given time, people will acclimate to circumstances, whether fantastically positive or negative.

In the case of the lottery winners, a sudden jolt of wealth didn't improve their happiness in the long run. Instead, people can get trapped on what Brickman coined a hedonic treadmill, or an endless search for bigger and better material goods to bring pleasure. The problem with this pathological pleasure-seeking is its intrinsic emptiness. By definition, pleasure is momentary and fleeting -- leaving us wanting more. Contentment, on the other hand, means appreciating present circumstances and surroundings.

1: Sleepless Nights

Is unhappiness keeping you up at night?
After a night of tossing and turning in the bed, you finally nod off to sleep. Moments later -- or so it feels like -- the alarm chimes, and it's time to get up. Needless to say, this isn't the best way to start the day. A study published in the journal Science tracked 909 working women's mood shifts throughout the day. Aside from work-related stress, not getting enough quality sleep was the top predictor of unhappiness among the subjects.

Also, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan calculated the happiness boost people get from sleeping an extra hour each night as equivalent to receiving a $60,000 annual raise. This impressive effect likely relates to brain chemistry. The brains of sleep-deprived people are more sensitive to the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone.

The link between sleep and happiness begs the question of correlation versus causation. Does poor sleep make us unhappy, or is unhappiness hindering sleep? It probably depends on individual situations. Someone working 60 hours per week may be suffering from overwork and sheer lack of sleep time. On the other hand, symptoms of unhappiness, such as stress and television, don't promote quality rest, either.

Tackling the sleep issue may require a multi-pronged approach. Evaluating stress levels and exercise routines are smart places to start. After all, when you don't prepare your body for bedtime, nodding off can prove challenging no matter how happy you feel.

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Bryner, Jeanna. "Unhappy people watch more TV." MSNBC. Nov. 17, 2008. (May 28, 2009)
Carey, Benedict. "TV Time, Unlike Child Care, Ranks High in Mood Study." The New York Times. Dec. 3, 2004.
Economist. "Africa and Coca-Cola: Index of Happiness?" July 3, 2008. (May 28, 2009)
Franklin Institute. "The Human Brain: Stress, Hormones and Insomnia - Study." (May 28, 2009)
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Stevenson, Betsey and Wolfers, Justin. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." The Wharton School. University of Pennsylvania. March 28, 2009. (May 28, 2009)

Article originally published on Discovery Health, by Cristen Conger

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