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Happiness Is Not a Feeling — It Is Doing

In order to feel happy, you have to "do" happy.

Happy people view things differently than unhappy people: They are more positive and more solution-focused. They look at things in terms of gain rather than loss. More importantly, though, they have a distinctly different set of habits. The small things that happy people do, day to day, are subtly different from what unhappy people do.

Happiness is the consequence of what we do and how we behave. So when a person who is unhappy shifts their focus and does something different, they help themselves become happier. Trying to think yourself happier is difficult. Happiness comes when you change what you do.

We tend to think of happiness as subjective well-being, with a set of emotions and feelings. Wikipedia says, "Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.”

And of course, if you ask someone if they are happy, they will probably reflect on how they feel. An unhappy person will bring to mind their feelings of sadness, perhaps some negative emotions or absence of joy. And most would say they want to feel better.

It’s not easy, as any unhappy person will tell you, to think yourself happy. But you can boost your happiness by your actions. And you can sustain and nurture your happiness with what you do. Simply put, if you want to be happier you have to do something different — you have to do new things.

Recent attempts to synthesise happiness research are beginning to recognise the centrality of what people do. In his 2011 book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Professor Martin Seligman abandons the simplistic notions of happiness and suggests how people can flourish.

For Seligman, the key elements to flourish he labels PERMA — i.e., to flourish, you need to change how you behave to improve your positive emotion (P), your engagement (E), relationships (R), meaning (M), and sense of accomplishment (A). You cannot flourish just by trying to think differently, because positive thinking has to be accompanied by coherent behaviours. To flourish, you have to Do Something Different.

Happiness is action but happy habits are not hedonic habits, as Action for Happiness recognises in their Ten Keys to Happier Living — synthesised from all the happiness research. Their GREAT DREAM advocates:

  • Giving – do things for others
  • Relating – connect with people
  • Exercising – taking care of your body
  • Appreciating – awareness of what you do and the world around you
  • Trying Out – doing new things
  • Direction – doing things towards a goal
  • Resilience – bouncing back after something negative
  • Emotion – being positive about what you do
  • Acceptance - that we all have faults and that things go wrong
  • Meaning – being part of something bigger

Happiness scores go up when people break habits and behave differently. For example, in 2005 Seligman* and his team compared over 400 people who either:

  1. Used one of their strengths in new or different ways every day for a week ("do something different"), or
  2. Noted and identified their strengths but were not instructed to use them in a new way ("old ways").

The researchers measured happiness and depression levels in all participants after one week, one month, three months and six months. For a relatively small Do Something Different-style intervention, the results were astounding. The group that did something different had significantly higher happiness scores. And the uplift was still present after six months. Their depression scores were also much better and remained so. There were no effects at all at any measurement stage for the control or "old ways" conditions.

So the "feeling" of happiness comes from "doing." That means doing more of the things known to make people feel happy. It means training yourself to be happy with new behaviours, with changes in what you do.

By aligning our habits and behaviours with the GREAT DREAM or PERMA factors we can all boost our happiness levels. Do Something Different has translated the key Action for Happiness variables into actions (Dos) and created a Do Happiness programme. Do Happiness measures individuals on each of the GREAT DREAM factors, and builds a bespoke programme of simple "Dos" for them, so they "Do" happy to feel happy.

How are your own happy habits? Click here to do a quick test.


*Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421