Mark Holder, Ph.D.

The Happiness Doctor

The First Step to Happiness

Where do I Start?

Posted Nov 05, 2016

"Colours of Happiness"/Camdiluv/Wikimedia Commons
Source: "Colours of Happiness"/Camdiluv/Wikimedia Commons

“Where do I start?”

As an associate professor in psychology who leads a research team studying the science of happiness, I get asked this question a lot. With the emergence of positive psychology, we now have an arsenal of possibilities to increase our happiness. But where do we start? People want to increase their happiness and this desire has been demonstrated across cultures and history. But what is the first step? Do you enroll in a meditation class? Perform random acts of kindness? Make a gratitude list? A friend I know who works in the publishing industry told me that there are over 5000 new articles every month on happiness. The amount of information is overwhelming, making it difficult to know what your first step should be.

Along with my colleagues Andrew Howell and Holli-Anne Passmore, I have just published a series of studies on happiness that help answer the question: “Where do I start?”

We assessed people’s beliefs about how much they can change their well-being. We found that there is a wide range of opinions. Some people believed that well-being was fixed and couldn’t be changed. Others believed that well-being was in their control and could be changed. People who believed that their well-being could be changed had advantages. They experienced fewer depressive symptoms and they had higher levels of happiness.

However, these findings were correlational. To take our research to the next level, we completed an experimental study. We randomly assigned people to one of two groups. The first group got a list of research-based facts supporting the conclusion that their happiness was relatively fixed. For example, one fact talked about the strong role that genetics plays in determining one’s happiness. The second group got a list of facts supporting the conclusion that they could readily change their happiness. For example, one fact talked about the many interventions that researchers have shown to be effective in increasing happiness. For both groups, the facts were true – but they were cherry picked to lead people to different conclusions about how much they could change their happiness.

So what did we find? People who read the list indicating that happiness could be changed adopted a view that happiness is more in their control. Furthermore, these people valued interventions to increase happiness more.

This matters. Positive psychology interventions are a little like New Year’s resolutions. There are many barely used exercise treadmills for sale a few months after New Year’s.  People start off with good intentions, but they often don’t stick with their programs – including programs to increase happiness.

So, you want to be happier, but what is the best first step? Where do you start? You start with yourself and your own beliefs. By adopting the belief that you can change your happiness, you will value programs to increase your happiness more. And you will be more likely to stick with these programs.

My blog will focus on research that will helps us better understand happiness, and it will discuss research-based ways to increase your happiness, as well as the happiness of your children, romantic partners, co-workers, and friends.

This post is based on the following research article:

Howell, A., Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, Mark D. (in press). Implicit Theories of Well-Being Predict Well-Being and the Endorsement of Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi:10.1007/s10902-015-9697-6