Could you be happier? The “positive psychology” movement began in 2000, with an important paper asking researchers, long focused on mental illness, to think more about happiness. Since that call by psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the field has blossomed. Beyond traditional advice like “Stop and smell the flowers,” and “Follow your bliss,” we now have a body of science.
Studying people who were already unusually happy became a starting point. According to one early study, very happy people are outgoing, agreeable, and have satisfying relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family. They’re typically content rather than ecstatic — even the happiest people have occasional bad days. Later research found that happy people are clear thinkers and more responsible.
This raises the question of whether the rest of us are stuck with ourselves — more or less. Evidence from twin studies suggests that happiness is only about 30 to 50 percent genetic, implying that there’s much room for potential improvement.
Dwelling on failures or hurts may be the most common habit that pushes us toward depression rather than well-being. Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, and others, has concluded that ruminating over painful events, looking for their meaning and causes, can become a form of procrastination, rather than problem-solving. Reminiscing about happy memories is a gentler form of introspection.
You can see your work as a calling, and look for creative ways to do it better — even if it doesn’t seem glamorous or interesting to others. Amy Wrzesniewski, who teaches at Yale University’s School of Management, has found that administrative assistants and hospital maintenance employees who see their jobs in this light are happier than their coworkers.
A great source of happiness are those periods of absorption when we focus so intently we lose track of time, a state Csikszentmihaly called “flow.” This happens when a task isn’t too easy or overwhelming, but just challenging or engaging enough. If you can enter a state of flow doing your work, you will boost your happiness. We can also find flow in hobbies — from gardening to sports. At all ages, people are happier when engaged in activities that add variety to your life.
Enjoying variety is not the same as continually wanting the best — or the most options. Fewer choices and accepting good enough lead to more contentment, argues Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. For example, ambition will make you anxious, if you’re always keeping your eye out for a better job. After all, perfect is the enemy of good enough, a statement often attributed to Voltaire.
Looking back over 15 years of effort, a 2015 analysis found strong research to back these proposed happiness-boosters:
Notice, appreciate, and develop your tendencies towards kindness, for example, by writing down each act of kindness for a week.
Meditate. Much science connects a regular practice — often a “loving-kindness” meditation — and mindfulness exercises with improved health and happiness.
Smile and laugh. Expressions of happiness cue the body to experience more happiness. The best proof comes in studies of “laughter yoga,” when people gather to laugh and generally find themselves laughing at the funny sounds they’re making — and feeling good afterwards.
To get started on a program to develop happiness-boosting habits, see the questionaires and resources posted by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, at his site “Authentic Happiness.” As he writes, his goal is to “study the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.”
Setting goals and monitoring your progress is conducive to happiness. Ideally, your goals will reflect your deepest values, which may go beyond a bigger house or shinier car. Growing wealth is only one sign of success, even for nations. Robert F. Kennedy put it this way, speaking in Kansas in 1968: “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
March 20, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA