The pursuit of happiness has occupied humans for millennia – whether creating ancient Greek schools of philosophy, inspiring the United States Declaration of Independence, or informing Bhutan's policy of prioritizing Gross National Happiness ahead of Gross National Product. Until recently, psychological science has had very little to say on happiness, instead preferring to study, understand and relieve illness and distress. As treatments for emotional distress have improved, practitioners have observed that an absence of distress and illness does not lead to greater happiness, or result in increased life satisfaction. Simply put, not being sad is not the same as being happy. With this realisation, the study of happy people and what makes them happy has become a serious pursuit. Happiness is described by researcher Lybomirsky as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” and happiness researchers are increasingly confident in the evidence-based strategies that increase our happiness.
Happiness is serious business
Psychologists have observed that happier people appear more successful in many areas of life; they are more creative, are judged more favourably by peers and colleagues, have better social relationships, have healthier immune systems and also have longer life expectancy. Additionally, employees of happier managers are more productive, more innovative and have better problem solving skills than those of less happy counterparts. A study to explore this by Haase, Poulin and Heckhausen (2012) discovered that positive emotions act as an excellent predictor of the motivation and effort required to overcome obstacles to success. People in the study with fewer positive emotional experiences were less likely to persevere and succeed compared comparison to those who had a greater number of positive experiences, when faced with the same obstacles. Research by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener (2005) delved into the question of which comes first: success or happiness? This research identified that being happy is crucial to developing many of the desirable characteristics that lead to success.
Happiness nature and nurture
Studies of twins reveal that 50% of our capacity for happiness is accounted for by our genetics, and 10% is determined by our current circumstances, health, wealth and safety. The remaining 40% of our happiness is a result of our intentional activities and attitudes, i.e. how we spend our time, attention and energy. Studies of the happiest of people reveal that this cohort differs from their unhappy colleagues in three main areas of intentional activities (40% of our happiness). Firstly, they do things that cause them to experience pleasure and positive emotions. Secondly, they develop skills and talents and put them to use. Thirdly, they cultivate meaning in life and contribute to things bigger than themselves. While these three areas apply to all, every one of us has a slightly different appetite for each.
The unhappy truth about happiness
There are some caveats when pursuing happiness. With respect to seeking pleasure, too much pleasure-seeking behaviour makes us inflexible and leaves us feeling empty. Pleasure is designed to wear off. Once satisfied, we tend to return to our baseline mood over time. Endless feelings of satisfaction would act as a barrier to effort and progress, and drown out negative emotions, which in fact mobilise us to respond to harm and danger. Happiness, based on other’s misfortune or our own unearned achievement or social position, is corrosive to us, our relationships to others and the world. The pursuit of happiness for its own sake often sabotages happiness itself. Happiness is a result of the way we perceive our experience and how we act. Being happier is possible anywhere, only 10% of our happiness is circumstantial. If we are not happy in our current circumstance, a simple change of situation is unlikely to make much difference.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?.
Haase, C. M., Poulin, M. J., & Heckhausen, J. (2012). Happiness as a motivator: Positive affect predicts primary control striving for career and educational goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1093-1104.
Exercises for building Happiness
To measure and build happiness in a systematic way researchers have broken down happiness into five areas under the acronym PERMA.
P stands for Positive emotion.
E stands for Engagement.
R stands for Relationships.
M stands for Meaning.
A stands for Accomplishments
Six exercises to build Positive Emotion
The experience of pleasure through positive emotions is highly related to happiness. Positive emotions to practice for increased happiness are Love, Joy, Gratitude, Contentment, Interest, Hope, Pride, Amusement, Inspiration, Awe.
These emotions are cultivated in the exercises below.
Exercise: Beauty Lists
Task: Find beauty in your environment. Take a few minutes to seek out and find beauty in 5 things in your environment. Turn your attention to your surroundings and senses, pleasant sights, sounds, smells, sensations or tastes. Do this occasionally or as often as you like.
Rationale: this exercise trains us experience joy, inspiration and contentment in things we generally overlook and take for granted.
Exercise: The Gratitude Journal.
Task: Take 15 to 30 minutes once a week. Identify three things you feel genuinely grateful for. Describe about them in detail, how they came to be in your life and the positive influence they have.
Rationale: purposefully experiencing gratitude cultivates an attitude of hope and optimism about the world. It shifts our perspective from fear of threat and deprivation to one of security and confidence.
Exercise: Mental Subtraction
Task: Take 15 to 30 minutes occasionally. Identify one positive life event. Write for 5 minutes about the influence of that positive event on your life in detail. For the second half of this exercise, consider your life without this positive event and the positive influence that stemmed from it.
Rationale: this exercise cultivates an attitude of contentment and gratitude about the world.
Exercise: Acts of Kindness
Task: For most effect, aim to do 5 acts of kindness in 1 day. Do this with the intention of showing kindness to those you come across in a day. Any act, no matter how large or small, counts!
Examples of acts of kindness include a smile, a positive comment, giving a small gift, holding a door open, writing a thank you note, or helping a neighbour or colleague.
Rationale: in this exercise we experience joy and gratitude by our positive impact on others.
Exercise: Make an Effective Apology
Task: To apologise.
The best apologies have 6 important elements:
1. Acknowledge the offense
2. Seek responsibility
3. Express remorse
4. Offer redress
5. Commit to not repeat the offending act
6. Have an empathic and genuine attitude
An Example of an effective apology: “I see how what happened affected you, I‘m sorry I caused that...I will try my best to ...or not do…in the future.”
Try this out on small issues and observe the impact on both parties.
Rationale: this exercise cultivates contentment and pride.
Exercise: Finding Silver Linings
Task: Recall an experience that didn't go well. Anything from burning your toast to not getting the mortgage you applied for. Without suppressing or denying how unpleasant the situation is, look hard for 3 possible benefits that could arise from the situation, no matter how small or unlikely they may seem.
Then take a few moments to identify what character strength or virtue the unpleasant situation is challenging you to develop.
Do this daily, occasionally or as often as you like.
Rationale: This exercise cultivates optimism, hope and gratitude.
Exercises to cultivate Engagement
If you have ever become fully engrossed in a book, game or activity, and lost a sense of time or sense of self then you've already experienced 'engagement'. When we perform challenging activities with a high level of skill which have clear goals, and provide immediate feedback, we have this experience. This state is most frequently reached during hobbies and sports, often in states of study and work, only occasionally during eating and shopping, rarely during housework and TV and very rarely when idle resting (i.e. facebook scrolling).
Task: Increase engagement by any of the following.
1. Replacing some resting time with a hobby
2. Take on a greater challenge that stretches your skill level,
3. Do bursts (5-20) minutes of study or housework to the absolute best of your ability occasionally.
Six exercises to build better Relationships
Cultivating good relationships is one of the most consistent predictors of happiness. Relationship researchers at the Gottman Institute have identified six areas that can elevate or extinguish relationship happiness. Aimed at couples, they work equally well in workplace and personal relationships.
1. Know your partners world.
Continue to learn about your partner after the initial chemistry has faded. Ask questions about likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, hobbies, shows, favourite foods, songs, important memories and areas of vulnerability.
Discover how they prefer to express their affection and how they prefer having it expressed to them i.e. through words or through acts or with gifts, quality time, or with physical closeness. These are the 5 love languages.
2. Show fondness and admiration for your partner.
Make efforts after the initial chemistry of your relationship passes to continue to see what you admire in your partner. Express your fondness and admiration for them in the love languages you've discovered they prefer in step 1. above.
3. Respond to bids for connection.
A bid for connection is any attempt to connect with the attention of a partner, often they are simple passing comments and questions about ordinary things. When a bid for connection is made such as through a comment like “the garden looks good” we can response in 3 ways; we can turn toward the bid with comments such as “yeah, the good weather has really helped”; we can turn away from the bid with “uh yeah...alright”; or we can turn against the bid for connection with comments such as “you're always on about the garden”. When we turn toward bids, it conveys to our partner that we are present and interested. This builds trust, connection and security. Research evidence shows that couples who divorce turn towards bids from their partner only 33% of the time. Conversely, couples happily married after 6 years turn toward bids 86% of the time.
4. Manage conflict constructively.
Relationship conflict has 5 problematic features:
4. Meaning behind conflict
To get past criticism remember that behind every complaint is a frustrated desire, so practice raising areas of criticism positively and constructively.
Step 1: Use phrases like “I really like it when you...” or “it means a lot to me when you…” instead of “why do you always...” and “you never...”
Step 2: To diffuse feeling defensive seek responsibility where you can find it and practice the art of apology, “I see how what I did affected you, I‘m sorry I caused that… How can I make it up to you? I will try my best to…in the future.”
An attitude of contempt is the biggest emotional predictor of a relationship that will breakdown. Relationships psychologists regard contempt as a corrosive acid which dissolves affection.
Step 3: The best way to avoid contempt is to build a culture or appreciation and admiration. Contempt is expressed as hurtful comments and wounding behaviour such as mocking, eye rolling intended to diminish, punish and repel. Contempt is in the eye of the beholder, the responsibility is on the contemptuous person to catch themselves and change their perspective of their partner by finding things they are fond of and admire.
People don't argue about things, but rather argue what those things mean to them.
Step 4: Look at the topic of conflict. Find out and understand what the subject of disagreement means to each other. Discover what hopes and dreams the subject of disagreement might frustrate or what fear, danger or insecurity the subject of disagreement evokes.
Stonewalling is the biggest physiological predictor of relationships that fail. It happens when one partner abandons an argument and leaves. This serves as a protective behaviour when conflict and arguments get out of hand. When flooded with distress, our heart rate increases to over 100 beats per minute and blood oxygen is withheld from the non-essential functions of our bodies. As a result, we cannot hear what is being said to us clearly and we cannot think clearly.
Try to avoid distress getting to this stage with the steps above. When stonewalling occurs practice self-soothing, relaxation exercises and breathing exercises until the distress has reduced to a manageable level.
5. Make each other’s life dreams come true.
Discover and champion each other’s life dreams. Talk about why those dreams are important to each of you. Share your own dreams and allow them to be supported and championed by your partner. These dreams may take any form such as getting a promotion, writing a book, going on a specific trip, acquiring a particular possession or a certain achievement.
6. Create shared meaning.
This is an area of abstract but profound communication. Couples often find they have differing ideas about what family means, or what it means to be a good husband, wife, parent, mother or father. The meaning of holidays, how moments or celebration or commemoration are acknowledged are usually different in each partners family of origin. Relationships become deeply satisfying and conflict is prevented when each others assumptions about these roles, rituals and symbols are expressed, understood and shared.
Exercises to develop a deeper sense of Meaning
A sense of meaning in life often rests on a perspective that effort, hardship and challenge have value. This is like the spiritual equivalent of weightlifting. Challenges and obstacle strengthen and sculpt our moral character and can help bring meaning to our lives.
There are 6 core virtues:
These core virtues are most often called on in our service to others, in participation in groups, in family, in community, in altruistic social movements and in noble causes. They involve choosing to sacrifice some of our own comfort and energy for the improvement of someone else's life or circumstances.
Task: Reflect occasionally on the following:
- What noble cause or group are you making efforts for?
- What do you believe would make the world around you a better place?
- Which of the 6 core virtues are drawn on in your sacrificial efforts?
Exercise to cultivate a sense of Accomplishment
A sense of accomplishment cultivates a sense of self-effectiveness, which maintains healthy self-esteem, and a sense that we have influence over destiny. We fail to cultivate a sense of accomplishment because we tend to forget past efforts and achievements, looking ahead with unhelpful levels of trepidation and doubt, overlooking our capacity to influence our lives.
- Recall and record efforts and accomplishments from your past, no matter how small or big.
- Identify a number of important areas in your life such as relationships, health, career, social, emotional, financial, and hobbies.
- Focus on making efforts in just one or two areas each month.
- Set long term and short term goals for each.
- Make goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, based on outcomes, have deadlines, which are encouraging and rewarding.
- Record your effort and achievements as you go.
- Reflect on how this exercise increases your sense of mastery and influence in your life.
Do this weekly to monthly.
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