“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 the burning 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.
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!
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!
This doesn’t have to do with positive psychology. But as a soccer coach of 10 years, this is near and dear to my heart…
I was recently approached by a major TV network to do a reality show involving coaches with severe anger problems. While this seems to be good for ratings, it does not bode well for the well-being of the coaches involved in the two week project. First, little change in long-term emotional behavior will occur in two weeks. Second, close proximity to other angry people will typically serve to reinforce outbursts of ire. Simply dropping an anger management expert into the mix is unlikely to have any real effect on anyone’s behavior. Perhaps the show can be reworked so the coaches can benefit along with the network.
Being involved in anger management, sports psychology and misbehavior coaches, it was with great interest that I came across this recent research showing that the more a coach pays attention to the opinions of others, the more likely he or she is to react with anger….
A minor league baseball coach punches his assistant coach in the face for being questioning his on-field call. A basketball coach horse collars his own player as runs by in the middle of the game. A hockey coach screams insults at his goalie for letting in the game clinching goal.
Angry coaches care more about others’ opinions of them
Coaches who focus more on internal values, their own high standards tend to be less captivated by the opinions of others and are significantly better at controlling feelings of rage and frustration, compared to coaches who focus intently on others’ opinions of their performance.
This means that the anger of coaches, and to an extent all of us, can be partially explained by being overly concerned with what others think, how others perceive us, according to new research the University of Leeds and Northumbria University.
The study found coaches who stay focused on their own internal values and standards are less interested in the opinions of others and are significantly better at managing anger than those who are acutely aware of others’ opinions (think the sports pundits on ESPN).
What are we teaching our children with the anger of youth coaches?
Dr Andrew Hill, lecturer in sports and exercise science in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences, who led the study, stated, “Outbursts of anger from coaches are a familiar feature of many sports at many different levels — from Alan Pardew’s headbutt to a recent attack by a coach on a linesman in an Under-14 rugby match. This isn’t good for anybody. You want a calm and analytic mind on the sidelines, but we found that some features of personality may make this more difficult.”
The researchers questioned 238 coaches across a wide range of sports including football, rugby, hockey, baseball, swimming and basketball. Most of the coaches were involved in amateur sport and their average age was 24.
The results show that coaches with “high personal standards”, meaning that they set their own high standards and focused less on other people’s evaluations of their performance, were better at managing their emotions. They showed more ability to reinterpret negative feelings and see situations in a more positive, prosocial manner.
On the other hand, coaches who placed more weight on perceived criticism from others were driven by a fear of making mistakes. They had less ability to manage their emotions and were more at risk of exploding in anger (and possibly uncontrollable rage).
Dr. Hill reported, “Those who believe others expect them to be perfect appear to have more difficulty controlling their emotions. As a consequence, they will be more prone to emotional outbursts.”
Co-author Dr. Paul Davis, Senior Lecturer in Sport at Northumbria University, said: “The pursuit of perfect performance drives some coaches, but the dynamic nature of sport sets them up to experience intense emotions when their standards are not met. Moreover, emotions are contagious; a coach who is unable to regulate their own anger may actually undermine an athlete’s performance. In a worst case scenario, a coach who has limited capacity to regulate their emotions is putting themselves in a position where they may end up doing the one thing they really want to avoid.”
As we gain more awareness of what good coaching entails, it is my fervent hope that coaches will begin to take responsibility for their own emotional states and work diligently to manage their emotions in a constructive manner whereby the needs of the players, the needs of the team and the pursuit of winning are balanced with awareness and intention.
Let’s keep trying. We can do better.
Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist