How Can I Be Happy? Using Science to Increase Your Happiness

How Can I Be Happy? Scientifically-Proven Techniques to Increase Your Happiness

By John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Founder Guide to Self

If I had to live my life again, I would … read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.’’ Charles Darwin

The questions ‘Where can I find happiness?’, ‘How can we be happy?’, and ‘How can I be happy?’ have been asked by philosophers for thousands of years. Only in the past 20 years has science taken a research approach to answering such questions. This burgeoning field is known as positive psychology and tests which exercises, mindsets and activities truly add to our happiness, our well-being.

Here are 7 of the top scientific answers to the question, ‘How can I be happy?

Positive psychology answers question...How Can I Be Happy?
Positive psychology answers question…How Can I Be Happy?

 

1.     How Can I Be Happy? Practice Self-compassion

While self-esteem has to do with how you feel about yourself generally, self-compassion involves how you treat yourself when things go badly. The goal is to treat yourself with the same type of kindness and compassion that most people extend to loved ones when they fail. When someone else makes a mistake, most people will react with some degree of kindness and understanding. Self-compassion seems to turn down the volume on anger typically associated with huge mistakes while still maintaining your sense of personal responsibility. A 2007 study at Duke University found that ‘inducing self-compassion may decouple the relationship between taking responsibility and experiencing negative affect.’ The way in which you do this is to speak to yourself as if you were a three-year-old child. This allows for mistakes (which are a major path for learning), screw ups, and errors. Self-compassion seems to be related to greater resiliency (i.e., the ability to bounce back from difficulty). Work at speaking to yourself with kindness.

 

2.     How Can I Be Happy? Pursue life goals with meaning.

What is the meaning of your life? Having life goals which are personally meaningful is a major facet of happiness, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at U.C. Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Those folks who pursue wealth or fame won’t boost their satisfaction with life because, just like new possessions (think of the new BMW!), they bring only passing joy. This is due to the idea of the hedonic treadmill – you adjust to new situations and possessions remarkably quickly. Once you adjust, the happiness fades. On the other hand, goals that increase happiness are challenging yet attainable, involve personal growth, and have some internal value. So, what is it you love to do? In what areas of life does time seem to stop? In which activities do you lose yourself? Look at these questions to discern where your meaningful goals lie.

 

3.     How Can I Be Happy? Breathe.

Most adults only use 20% of their lung capacity. This means that you are frequently oxygen deprived. As the brain runs on oxygen (and glucose), it is critical to remind yourself to take deep breaths throughout the day to increase happiness, psychological flexibility and the more positive emotions.

Take a deep breath in through your nose for 6 seconds. Hold your breath for 2 seconds. Breathe out for 8 seconds. Breathe into your abdomen or belly. As you breathe in, your belly should inflate like a balloon. As you exhale, your abdomen should collapse or be pulled in toward your spine. Focus on breathing out all the old stale air in your lungs. Repeat 5 times. Your breath is one of your most powerful tools to break the cycle of negative emotions and cultivate positive ones.

 

4.     How Can I Be Happy? Get out in nature.

Take a leisurely stroll outside. Gaze at the trees, the clouds, the plants and the birds. Studies have shown that a mere 20 minutes spent in a natural environment has a restorative effect on the mind. Remember to breathe deeply during your stroll. Recently, a study came out in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showing the vast mental health benefits of spending 20 minutes per day in nature.  Twenty minutes surrounded by trees, birds, plants and fresh air decreases anger, increases vitality, energy, mood and happiness. One of the best ways to get feeling better is to reconnect with nature. Numerous studies have linked increased energy and well-being to exposure to nature.  A simple wilderness walk leads to increased feelings of happiness, less anger, and better immune system functioning.

5.     How Can I Be Happy? Exercise.

Studies show that individuals who exercise more than 20 minutes per day, sleep at least 7 hours per night, and eat healthy foods that are naturally colorful have reduced feelings of anger and irritation, higher levels of happiness and well-being.  Have you worked out today? If not, take a brisk walk for 15-20 minutes (outside in nature of course!) to increase your level of happiness and satisfaction with life. Studies show that sweating three times per week reduces symptoms of depression roughly as well as antidepressants.   Exercise ups the production of “feel good” neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, and of proteins that improve connections between brain nerve cells.

6.     How Can I Be Happy? Focus on Gratitude

Practicing gratitude, the simple act of counting your blessings, has been demonstrated to increase levels of happiness, according to Lyubomirsky. One critical component to cultivating happiness seems to lie in spending time with others who are less fortunate than you. This is largely because the mind naturally makes comparisons. When you compare yourself to someone more fortunate than you in some way (e.g., wealthier, prettier, smarter, more successful), you feel worse about yourself. Yet when you compare yourself to someone less fortunate than you, you feel better about your situation.  So volunteer, visit an old relative, and be grateful for all that you have…the clothes on your back, a bed to sleep in, a roof over your head, the ability to walk on your own, and so on. Get specific. Get back to basics. Appreciate all that you normally take for granted. It will make you happier!

Positive psychology coach john schinnerer phd emotion expert
How can i be happy? Practice gratitude

 

7.     How Can I Be Happy?  Learn Realistic Optimism

The simple explanation of realistic optimism is that it is the practice of looking for the best in each person and situation. Studies show that practicing being more optimistic can improve your outlook on life. Martin Seligman found that participants who learned realistic optimism had a significant increase in happiness and a reduction in depressive symptoms.  Lyubomirsky had volunteers write for 10 minutes per week about their dreams for the future and ways they could achieve them. Six months later, she checked in with them again, and found that they were happier, even if they had stopped their journaling.  What’s more, you can start with little steps.  Whenever something bad occurs, think of the positive that might come out of it.  It takes practice. It feels uncomfortable at first. But it gets easier. Keep at it!

 

 

About the Author

John Schinnerer, Ph.D., an expert in positive psychology, is revolutionizing the way in which people make sense of the mind, behavior and emotion. In December of 2011, he was one of three emotion experts (along with Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner) to consult with Pixar on a feature-length movie in which the main characters are emotions. Much of his time is spent in private practice teaching clients the latest ways to turn down the volume on negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and stress. He has developed a unique coaching methodology which combines the best aspects of entertainment, humor, positive psychology and emotional management techniques. His offices are in Danville, California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley Summa Cum Laude with a Ph.D. in educational psychology.  He has been an executive, speaker and coach for over 14 years.  He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area.    He wrote the award-winning book, ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,’ which is available at Amazon.com (you can get a free PDF copy of the book by visiting Guide To Self and entering your name and email address!).  His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recently recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (drjohnblog.guidetoself.com). His new video blog teaches people the latest ways to manage anger using positive psychology. (WebAngerManagement.com). He is currently working on a destination site to teach individuals paths to sustainable happiness via positive psychology and ongoing practice at HowICanBeHappy.com.

 

John_Schinnerer_200px_Suit_Square_Anger_Management

 

About John Schinnerer

John Schinnerer, Ph.D. is a U.C. Berkeley-trained emotion expert and founder of Guide To Self, a company that focuses on coaching individuals and groups to their potential using strengths-based development and positive psychology (the science of optimal human functioning). His private practice is located at 913 San Ramon Valley Blvd. #280, Danville, CA 94526. He may be reached at John @GuideToSelf.com. Most recently, Dr. John hosted Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. John has been a coach and psychologist for over 10 years. Dr. John’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development to parenting. He is a noted writer and speaker on topics such as employee engagement, emotional intelligence, making a good brain great, and creating a healthy and efficient workplace. His award-winning book is on proven ways to lead a meaningful and happy life and is entitled, “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought.” He has written articles on corporate ethics and EQ in the workplace for Workspan magazine, HR.com, and Business Ethics. He has given numerous presentations and consulted with tens of thousands of people for organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, Pixar, Sutter Health, SHRM, NCHRA, KNEW and KDIA. For over 17 years, Dr. John has been a loving father to four children.
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