I sure can’t think of one. So, why not want more of it? My husband and I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Happy, which explores human happiness through interviews with people from all walks of life in 14 different countries. I highly recommend this movie for a number of reasons, but mostly because it discusses the science behind happiness and gives a perspective of what happiness is and means in different cultures around the world. The takeaway message was simple: we all can do things to increase our levels of happiness, and what we think might make us happy is often actually not the case at all. Here is a little preview:
Two days ago I came across a conversation between Erin, Beth, and Amy about a happiness challenge called 100 Happy Days. I was intrigued and inspired. I decided to commit to the challenge and document each day a thing or things that bring me happiness. I found this challenge to be quite interesting because of what I know about the science behind happiness.
Something I have always been interested in is the positive side of human behavior and thinking. At Oregon State University, I actually developed and taught an advanced level course on Positive Psychology, where the primary focus was on the good and positive in our lives. Much of the field of Psychology is centered around cognition, emotion, and behavior in it’s negative form, and while it is important to understand where these negative processes come from, it is just as important to recognize and understand the good and positive side of being as well. Thus, the field of Positive Psychology was born.
One of the first things I had my Positive Psychology students do in the classroom was to identify their character strengths. I highly recommend you do this too – go to http://www.authentichappiness.org and complete the VIA Survey of Character Strengths – it takes some time, but is well worth it. Character strengths are universal natural strengths that require no effort, make us feel energized, and are connected to six core virtues. The more we use our strengths, the more they can lead to fulfillment, growth, self-acceptance, positive affect, stronger relations with others, and greater well-being. These strengths are classified under the six core virtues:
The students then had to complete a project where they used their top three character strengths in unique ways over the term, and to observe and evaluate how it affected them and those around them. It was fascinating to read and listen to their stories, and the overwhelmingly positive response that I received from integrating day-to-day life into the course through this assignment. My top three strengths are zest/energy, social intelligence, and hope/optimism/future mindedness.
Another thing we discussed throughout the term were the ways in which we can control and increase our own levels of happiness. According to researchers who study happiness, 50 percent of our happiness is instilled in our genetics, 10 percent is due to uncontrollable circumstances, and about 40 percent of our happiness is under our own control.
Therefore, 40 percent of our happiness depends on what we do, how we live, and day to day thoughts that play out in our interactions and behaviors. Of course researchers have jumped all over the concept of what we can control and how we can all go about being happier. Scientific attempts to boost happiness have shown that there are several things we can do, and little changes we can make on a daily basis to become happier. Some, but not all, of these things include:
1) Expressing gratitude – Writing a letter, saying thank you, keeping a gratitude journal, or just being more appreciative of what we have are all ways that we can be more grateful of what we have. Many of us may feel grateful, but outwardly showing and expressing gratitude has a much greater impact.
2) Performing acts of kindness – Volunteering or doing a good deed for another without any expectations in return has immediate effects on happiness and serves to better both parties involved.
3) Counting blessings – Write down three (or more) good things every day before going to bed. When we acknowledge and think about the good in our day, especially before we fall asleep, we are more likely to sleep soundly and wake up in a more positive mood.
4) Engaging in activities that produce FLOW – I mentioned the idea of flow in a previous post, but it is the idea that we need to take time to do the things that make us feel exhilarated and produce optimal experiences where we can perform at our best. Here is one way to think of how flow is produced – the right amount of challenge given a certain level of skill.
5) Physical activity and exercise – No surprise here. There is a plethora of research that reveals the more we integrate movement into our lives, the healthier and more energetic we will feel. Not to mention, exercise is also a buffer against mental illness and can alleviate symptoms of mild depression and anxiety.
6) Savoring and mindfulness – Often times we get ahead of ourselves and are thinking about the next task or thing we need to do before finishing the task at hand. By being mindful of the moment and/or savoring something that often is devalued, we can live more in the present and slow down. When we think too much about the past or future, anxiety is likely to occur.
One of the tasks I had my students do was to take a moment and truly savor something that would commonly be overlooked or devalued. Their choices ranged from preparing a meal and eating, to walking from one class to another on campus and enjoying the people and scenery around them, to making their bed and cleaning up their room. It was interesting to see how much more thought and appreciation they had for these everyday tasks.
7) Meditate – Taking some quiet time each day to clear our thoughts and relax our body can not only reduce stress, but induce feelings of calm and contentment.
8) Prioritizing our close relationships – Building close relations with others is one of the most rewarding and powerful things we can do with our time. Humans have a strong need to belong and find acceptance from those around them, and in doing so, can find much joy in these relations. However, not all relationships are created equal. Connecting with those who build us up, not bring us down, is the key to generating positive outcomes.
9) Sleep – When we don’t get enough sleep, particularly over long periods of time, our mood can take a substantial hit and we live in a very fatigued state of mind. Our bodies not only need sleep for physical reasons, but for mental and emotional reasons as well. Try going a week with only a few hours of sleep a night and then ask those around you how fun you are to be around. 🙂
10) Using our character strengths – Whether at work, in school, at home, or while engaged in a hobby, when we start integrating our strengths in new and novel ways, it can lead to greater success and more pleasing outcomes.
11) Be happy – Sounds cliché, but the more we make an effort to act happy, smile, and be more optimistic, the more that going through the motions can lead to positive emotions. Plus, happiness can be contagious. Your smile might cause someone else to smile, and so on. Likewise, when we are having a bad day, sometimes just one positive interaction can lift a spirit.
Each week during the term, I had my students complete one of these tasks that coincided with the topics and material that was presented during the week. I was amazed by the subtle changes I saw in my students and the connections that were made within a classroom of 25. People opened up, showed support for one another, and it seemingly made the learning environment more natural and comfortable for all. Even those who had been quiet and indifferent in other classes of mine were able to open up and break out of their shell.
Although I have been unable to teach this course on campus given my new position with the Ecampus program, I still enjoy sharing my knowledge and trying to live in a way that represents many of these ideals. The 100 Happy Days project reminded me of yet another way in which we can take control of our emotions and live in a way that acknowledges and appreciates the good that we have in our lives.
Who wouldn’t want to be happy?
If you took the strengths test, what were your top three strengths?
Which of these techniques do you use or could you use more to increase happiness?
Do you do anything that isn’t mentioned here? What are your secrets to happiness?