“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!
And here is the third video in the series of Happiness Habits (I’m still editing the 2nd video!). It’s on a crucial skill, a skill that seems to be the most tightly connected with happiness and life satisfaction …self-compassion.
Dr. John Schinnerer
Anger Management Specialist
The United Nations declared March 20th International Happiness Day, and to mark it there will be free video presentations about how people are using Positive Psychology in their lives and careers starting tomorrow.
International Happiness Day March 20, 2014
March 20, 2014
Listen and learn from the world’s foremost experts in the application of positive psychology. Each speaker will share usable, practical, evidence-based insights to enhance your well-being personally and professionally. Celebrate the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness by learning how to create more happiness for yourself and others and increase the total tonnage of happiness in the world.
All of the talks are available at the same time so you can pick and choose what you want to hear/view, but these videos will cost a modest amount (either $25 or $50) starting on March 21. All of the presenters are graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology degree program (MAPP Program).
If you want to just register and see who is presenting and what the topics are, you can get a free ticket to use at this link: https://www.entheos.com/International-Day-Of-Happiness/ Just type in your name and email address. There’s tons of fantastic, useful info here. I’m sure you will find something helpful…fast!
To life, love and laughter!
Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Expert
Anger Management Specialist
Happiness is related to greater success at work, more resiliency, less burnout and stress, more satisfying relationships, increased creativity, intelligence and flexibility of thought, improved immune system functioning and greater productivity. Happiness is more than a mere emotion; it is a habit we can improve with specific daily practices. Science is showing that some habits cultivate more happiness than others. One of the most powerful habits for happiness and life satisfaction is self-compassion, or self-acceptance. Yet this is also one of the most secret habits, one that is least likely to be practiced.
The non-profit organization, Action for Happiness, in collaboration with Do Something Different, asked 5,000 people to rate themselves between 1 and 10 on ten habits. These ten habits have been shown in the latest scientific research as being instrumental to happiness and well-being.
The top ten habits, according to science, are…
Being kind to others (giving)
Being around others (relationships)
Appreciation of the world around you
Learning new things (approaching the world with curiosity)
Goals (having significant direction in life)
Resilience (finding ways to bounce back from challenge)
Of these valid approaches to happiness and satisfaction, most of the participants report being kind to others most frequently. And this is the most reliable way that science knows of to boost your mood to a positive place…do something kind for someone else. And fortunately, many people report doing kind acts quite frequently (7.41 out of a possible 10).
Being around others, or relationships, was a close second. Participants were asked, How often do you put effort into the relationships that matter most to you? The average score was 7.36 out of 10. And 15% of people scored the maximum 10 out of 10.
Most excitingly, the survey also looked at which habits are most closely linked to people’s life satisfaction. All 10 habits have been shown in studies to be strongly linked to life satisfaction.
Self-compassion Trumps Them All
What you may NOT know is that self-compassion, or self-acceptance, is the habit that predicts happiness most strongly. Unfortunately, self-compassion is also the least frequently practiced habit. Self-compassion was the lowest average score from the 5,000 participants (average rating of 5.56 out of 10). Only 5% of people put themselves at a 10 on the self-compassion habit. Around one in five people (19%) scored an 8 or 9; Less than a third (30%) scored a 6 or 7; and almost half (46%) of people rated themselves at 5 or less. We are not taught to be self-compassionate. We are not taught to be self-accepting. I would argue most of us are socialized in the opposite way…win at all costs, strive to be the best, you are not enough, you are not worthy, never be satisfied. This must change. And there are proven practices to do just that.
But I digress. Let me return to the study findings.
Physical exercise is another highly rated happiness habit. Yet this one came up relatively low as well. The average answer to How often do you spend at least half an hour a day being active? was just 5.88 out of 10, with 45% of people rating themselves 5 or less.
Professor Karen Pine, a University of Hertfordshire psychologist and co-founder of Do Something Different, stated: “Practicing these habits really can boost our happiness. It’s great to see so many people regularly doing things to help others — and when we make others happy we tend to feel good ourselves too. This survey shows that practicing self-acceptance is one thing that could make the biggest difference to many people’s happiness. Exercise is also known to lift mood so if people want a simple, daily way to fee happier they should get into the habit of being more physically active too.”
Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, reported: “Our society puts huge pressure on us to be successful and to constantly compare ourselves with others. This causes a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety. These findings remind us that if we can learn to be more accepting of ourselves as we really are, we’re likely to be much happier. The results also confirm us that our day-to-day habits have a much bigger impact on our happiness than we might imagine.”
So how can we practice the self-compassion habit?
Here are three positive actions shown in research by Kristin Neff from University of Texas, Austin, that people can take to increase their levels of self-compassion:
Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. Speak to yourself as if you are 4 years old when you fall short or make a mistake. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.
Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you (and let them know of their strengths too!)
Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you’re feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are. Remind yourself “I am worthy. I am worthy of love. I am worthy of success. I am worthy of happiness.”
Key Survey Question Average score (Frequency of engaging in habit)
Giving How often do you make an effort to help or be kind to others? 7.41
Relating How often do you put effort into the relationships that matter most to you? 7.36
Exercising How often do you spend at least half an hour a day being active? 5.88
Appreciating How often do you take time to notice the good things in your life? 6.57
Trying out How often do you learn or try new things? 6.26
Direction How often do you do things that contribute to your most important life goals? 6.08
Resilience How often do you find ways to bounce back quickly from problems? 6.33
Emotion How often do you do things that make you feel good? 6.74
Acceptance How often are you kind to yourself and think you’re fine as you are? 5.56
Meaning How often do you do things that give you a sense of meaning or purpose? 6.38
A final question posed was: Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
The average score was 6.49, compared to a national average of 6.34 reported in the UK National Values survey 2013.
For more info on happiness, well-being and positive psychology, check out my newest site at HowICanBeHappy.com.
To life, love and laughter,
Dr. John Schinnerer
Positive Psychology Coach
Anger Management Specialist