“To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly,no exceptions.”
– William James
Why are some people happier than others? What are the benefits (and costs) of happiness? And is it possible to become permanently happier?
These are some of the questions that I hope to address in my new blog – the very questions that I tackled in my recent book, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. My other goal is to comment on how research on emotions and well-being can inform our understanding of current events, as well as our own behavior.
I am an experimental social psychologist who has been doing research on happiness for almost 20 years. Along with my students and my collaborator Ken Sheldon, I have conducted the first experiments (called “randomized controlled experimental intervention studies”) that try to increase and maintain people’s happiness. In broadest terms, my research suggests that lasting happiness is attainable, if you are prepared to do the work. Much like with permanent weight loss and fitness, becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes, requiring effort and commitment every day of your life.
In later blogs, I will discuss how and why this is so and identify for you the major determinants of happiness. Today, I hope to stir your interest in the topic by describing some of the happiness-increasing strategies that researchers have studied and concluded to be most successful. This list won’t make any of you spill your evening tea, but take note that all the strategies have been supported by empirical research. (They are discussed in a lot more detail in The How of Happiness.) Also, as I argue in the book, you do not need to attempt the entire list of happiness activities, but should choose to focus only on the 1 to 4 strategies that “fit” you best – the ones that seem most natural and enjoyable to you
One way to practice this strategy is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down the 3 to 5 things for which you are currently thankful – from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). Do this once a week, say, on Sunday night. Keep the strategy fresh by varying your entries and how you express them as much as possible. And if there’s a particular person who has been kind or influential in your life, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Write them a letter now, or, if possible, visit and thank them in person.
These should be both random (let the dad with the crying baby go ahead of you at the check-out counter) and systematic (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor). Being kind to others, whether friends or strangers, triggers a cascade of positive effects – it makes you feel compassionate and capable, gives you a greater sense of connection with others and earns you smiles, approval and reciprocated kindness. These are all happiness boosters.
This strategy involves such practices as looking at the bright side, finding the silver lining in a negative event, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), feeling good about one’s future and the future of the world, or simply feeling that you can get through the day. One way to practice this strategy is to sit in a quiet place and take 20 to 30 minutes to think about and write down what you expect your life to be 10 years from now. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Then, write about what you imagined.
Let go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance by writing – but, not sending – a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. The inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on.
When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called “flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. So, become fully engaged at work, at home, and at play. Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether it’s completing a project at the office, playing with your children, or enjoying a hobby. Seek work and leisure activities that engage your skills and expertise.
One of the biggest factors in happiness appears to be strong personal relationships. Indeed, having the support of someone who deeply cares about you is one of the best remedies for unhappiness. Thus, this strategy involves putting effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family and friends. Act with love, be as kind to the people close to you as you are to strangers, affirm them, share with them, and play together.
Remember the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? There’s a time to think about the bad stuff in your life, but dwelling on your problems excessively is unhealthy. Very happy people have the capacity – even during trying times like a parent’s chronic illness – to absorb themselves in an engaging activity, stay busy, and have fun. To practice this strategy, pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it when you notice yourself dwelling.
Pay close attention and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a bakery, or the warmth of the sun when you step out from the shade. Some psychologists suggest taking “mental photographs” of pleasurable moments to review in less happy times
Studies show that religious and spiritual people are happier and healthier than others, though researchers don’t yet know why. Perhaps the social support of belonging to a close-knit religious group is valuable, as is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from believing in something greater than yourself. If you are so inclined, join a church, temple, or mosque; read a spiritually-themed book; or volunteer for a faith-based charity.
People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project. However, being dedicated to any pursuit won’t make you happy if you’re just doing it for superficial reasons such as making money, boosting your ego, or succumbing to peer pressure.
Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term and promote energy and strong mental health. Practiced regularly, they can help make your daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.
Conclusion for today: The secrets to happiness are simple to learn, but not simple to carry out. However, with determined effort and commitment, anyone can learn practices and habits that will help them achieve higher levels of happiness and – even more important – to maintain those levels. You shouldn’t just “pursue” happiness – you should “construct” or “create” it yourself.