High Octane Women

How superachievers can avoid burnout

Do We Choose Happiness or Does Happiness Choose Us?

Seven steps to a happier you

Dan Bowling, an expert in the fields of law and positive psychology, frequently writes about happiness amongst lawyers. Given that attorneys consistently rank higher than most professions on measures of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety, Bowling's focus on happy lawyers may seem a bit oxymoronic. But let's go with it for a minute. I mean, after all, there are happy lawyers out there. What makes them happy when so many of their peers tend to be the opposite?

In a recent guest blog on The Careerist, Bowling says that it all comes down the choices they make in their lives. He writes, "I donʼt mean choices that we think will make us happy, but courses of action that in the aggregate add up to a life well-lived." However, that philosophy doesn't only apply to happy lawyers. It applies to happy people in general.

But is it really that simple? If it was, why would anyone choose to be depressed? Experts concede that for those who are predisposed to depression or who have a glass-half-empty perspective, it's not a matter of waking up one morning, deciding to be happy, and voilà. However, sadness doesn't have to be a life sentence either. 

According to the late University of Minnesota professor emeritus David Lykken, although happiness may be genetically influenced, it is not genetically fixed. Sure, if your subjective well-being scale tends to be weighted more on the sad than the happy side, finding happiness may present more of a challenge for you than others. However, you're not condemned to a life of sadness. Lykken (and many others) believe that everyone has the ability to train their brains to live a happier life. It takes work and practice, of course, but researchers have discovered that if you "practice" happiness, you'll feel happier.

So how do we teach ourselves to be happy? The key is utilizing two basic strategies on a daily basis: 1) consciously engaging in activities and thinking that boost our mood, and 2) disengaging with or avoiding activities and mind-sets that bring us down. 

How do we put that plan into action? Naturally, some of it has to do with personal preferences. For example, some people are happy when they're fishing while others find it to be mind-numbing torture. So of course the choices of activities should be personally determined based on what floats your boat. What makes you smile? What makes you feel good? Those are the things you want to add to your life or increase in your life. However, there also are some general strategies and activities that are mood-boosting for most people. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Take a big picture perspective. Bowling suggests that you don't let the small stuff bring you down, or as a friend of mine likes to think of it, "If it's not going to matter to you in a year, don't let it bother you." In other words, you shouldn't allow short-term or small set-backs to govern your mood. Instead, focus on long-term accomplishments and successes. 

2. Nurture important and positive relationships. There are some people who make us smile the moment we see them. There are some who make us feel good just by talking to them. These are the people you want to spend as much time with as possible. Research has consistently found that positive relationships improve overall happiness and well-being.

3. Avoid interactions with those who steal your energy, leaving you feeling drained, exhausted, and unhappy. For helpful tips on dealing with these energy vampires, see How to Deal with People Who Drain You.

4. Laugh. A lot. According to clinical neurologist and comedian Dr. Matt Bellace, laughter is one of the purest forms of a natural high. Laughter, he says, releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which serves as a reward for the brain, creates a sense of euphoria, and plays a pivotal role in our motivation to continue the behavior. In addition, laughter has many long-term benefits, including improved immune functioning, stress relief, increased tolerance for pain, improved cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, and improved mood. For more about the benefits of laughter, see The Natural High of Laughter.

5. Learn Optimism. Bowling notes that a tendency toward optimism is a trait most happy people share. According to psychologist Martin Seligman, dubbed "the father of positive psychology," optimists tend to do better in school, work and extracurricular activities; perform better than predicted on aptitude tests; have better overall health; and may even live longer. That, says Seligman, is the incredible power of positive thinking. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists. For more information on the benefits of positive thinking, see The Mind and Body Benefits of Optimism.

6. Avoid overscheduling and multi-tasking. Yes, these things are a reality of the over-connected world that we live in, but too much overload is stressful and depressing. E-connect when you need to e-connect, but also make sure you take some time to smell the roses. Get some fresh air. Disconnect from your gadgets for a while and you'll be amazed at the amount of time you'll have to enjoy the simple, non-electronic beauties in life.

7. Don't immediately jump to the negative. In many cases, it's not events themselves but rather what you believe about events that happen in your life that determines how you react to them. So when you encounter a negative belief (i.e., I never get what I want), take a closer look at it. Have you really never gotten what you wanted? By looking at the factual basis for your beliefs, you can train yourself to turn negative thoughts into more realistic and positive ones.

© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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