I consider myself a positive psychologist. Not really sure what that means, but ever since I did a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology I felt like I found my niche. I believe pursuing well-being and happiness and flourishing are a valid goal in life. While alleviating pain and disease is important for a good life, for psychology I’m dubious as to whether alleviating disease is the only route towards increasing well-being and experiencing happiness.
Having said all of this I’m not completely convinced that happiness and well-being as most people conceptualize it is always attainable. First let’s define happiness, I think the most common definition is experiencing positive emotions. According to the Greater Good Science Center Magazine happiness involves feeling positive generally and about life overall. I’ve come to believe that it’s not always possible to feel positive in general or about life overall.
Life happens, suffering happens, ill-being happens, there’s no getting away from it. After many years of teaching about resilience and happiness, I’ve come to embrace the idea that maybe feeling less bad is a goal that is almost as worthy as feeling happy or experiencing well-being, it is a positive psychology concept. I’m not advocating for feeling less bad all the time, but I am advocating for some self-compassion during those times of difficulty and opting to try and feel less bad. I find myself telling students that if you add up feeling less bad over time, it could feel pretty darn good. Many times feeling less bad is easier to achieve than feeling happy.
Starting today what can you do differently to accept the idea of feeling less bad as good enough? Well first understand what happiness really is, dismystify the concept, most people feel they should just know what happiness is. Next, during those difficult times practice self-compassion. And lastly, plain and simply give yourself permission not to always need to be happy.
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t want to be happy. So what is keeping us from being happy?
Actually the Declaration of Independence tells us what is keeping people from being happy. Most people focus on the happiness part of the pursuit of happiness. They seem to over look the pursuit part, as I see it this is a big problem. As I’ve said many times, contrary to what most people think, we aren’t entitled to be happy just because we think we are, or because we wake up in the morning or because … you name it. Happiness is really hard work.
Why don’t people work as hard to become happy as they do to become physically fit, learn something new or make more money? I think it is because many people have the misconception that happiness is a destination. The belief is, if I (fill this in with anything – marry, make more money, have fun) then I will be happy. Happiness is not a destination, it’s not Miami Beach. Happiness is more like Disneyland. You can visit it, and you can visit more and more often the harder you work at it. The irony here is that, in theory, working hard and achieving something tends to make us happy, except most people don’t know that, so they just feel sorry for themselves for having to work so hard (at something that should just happen). No one leaves this earth having lived happily ever after without having worked hard at it.
Starting today what can you do differently to work hard to make yourself happy. You can set goals, achievable, relevant ones. Ones you can break down into small steps, so that you can actively pursue them. You can join a group, a charity, a religious group or a political group. Being part of something bigger than yourself gives life meaning and it also makes you feel good. You can learn something new, preferably something that will challenge you. According to Michael Csikszentmihalyi the most productive state a person can enter is a state of flow, when the task at hand is challenging but not overly challenging. The bonus here is that learning something new also gives us a sense of achievement and according to Martin Seligman achievement is a pillar of happiness. You can learn some form of mindfulness meditation. Again learning something new tends to make people happy. And needless to say learning to be mindful, being in the present also tends to make us happy.
Starting today what will you choose to do differently?
How do you respond to the people in your life when they choose to share good news with you? Do you authentically share in their good fortune? Or do you change the subject and talk about something else?
There is little doubt that social support is critical to well-being. Social support is defined as having people in your life for whom you care and who care about you, it’s a mutual relationship. Truth be told the quality of your relationships defines the quality of your life. Let me clarify a very important point. When we talk about social network we aren’t talking about social media friends. We are talking about people you can count on and know they can count on you. How do you develop that supportive social network?
According to Shelly Gable one way to develop a supportive social network is to respond to those in your network active and constructively. We all know how to respond to people in the hard times, however few of us seem to know how to respond to people in the good times. And responding to someone in the good times is just as important, if not more so, than responding in the bad times. Responding active constructively in the good times builds relationships.
So what is an active constructive response? When you respond active constructively you show sincere and deep interest in the other person’s news by discovering more about the source of their good fortune. When you truly share in the other person’s joy, you magnify and enrich the positive experience. In doing so you enrich the relationship.
What does an active constructive response look like? Let’s say your son shares with you his excitement about doing well on a test. An active constructive response could be, “Wow, you must be so proud of yourself! I bet you studied really hard. How do you feel? How do you want to celebrate? Tell me what you did to get such a good grade?” The answers to these questions are fertilizer for further questions.
Starting today what can you do differently? First you can reflect upon your habitual response to others’ good news. Next you can consciously practice active constructively responding by writing down what you would say to someone when they share their good news. Finally you can actively seek out someone to practice with.
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As I’ve said before I think it is pretty safe to say most people want to be happy. What keeps them from being happy? I believe the many myths of happiness keep people from being happy.
The biggest myth of happiness is you are who you are, as in you can’t get happier. Granted some people have a sunnier disposition than others and we do have what is called a set point for happiness, however, this does not mean we can’t make ourselves happier. We might not become as jolly as our jolliest friend, nevertheless, with a little effort, we can make ourselves happier, we can move that set point.
The second biggest myth of happiness is believing when I get that raise, promotion, married, children I will be so happy. Happiness isn’t a state we can achieve, it isn’t an end product, it’s a by product. Happiness isn’t a place you can arrive to and stay permanently if you work hard enough. Happiness is a place you can go to more and more frequently, but not a place you can hope to stay permanently. The irony here is if you can accept this fact you can visit happyland more often and for longer. Extrinsic goals don’t bring us happiness.
Another myth of happiness is believing that when you become happy you only experience positive emotions. This is very far from the truth. Happiness is about experiencing the whole range of emotions equally. Granted the optimum is experiencing more positive emotions than negative, but not experiencing any negative emotions does not equate to greater happiness. Experiencing only positive emotions doesn’t bring us happiness
Another myth of happiness is believing that material goods bring happiness. Because of hedonic adaptation this notion is very far from true. We adapt easily to both the good and the bad, when we get that raise, that big house, the shinny car or whatever, truth be told we will adapt to it, the joy will wear off and we will move on to wanting the next thing. Material goods don’t bring us happiness.
Starting today what can you do differently? You can start by being more realistic about being happy. When you feel bad, instead of trying to push the bad feelings away, invite them in. I’m not suggesting to wallow in anger, self-pity, jealousy etc, etc, I’m suggesting to acknowledge the feeling, feel the feeling, it will make it easier to move on. You can remember that material goods don’t bring happiness, however, how you use those material goods does. Remember doing for others and being with others brings happiness.
Starting today what will you do differently?
The questions we ask create the world we live in. The questions we ask determine our actions. Not only do questions determine our actions, they also determine our interactions.
The answer we give to the questions we ask pave the road we walk on. They pave the road we walk on by determining where we place our focus. Most people tend not to give too much thought to their questions. However, if questions create the world we live in, it might be a good idea to pose the type of question that creates the type of world we’d like to inhabit. And the thing about questions is we ask a lot of them, all day long.
For example you get up in the morning and ask yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” This question determines your subsequent behavior, the road you shall walk down. The answer you give to this question can take you in many directions and create a variety of outcomes, it can create all kinds of worlds. If you answer, “Well I’ll just have something quick,” you might grab the cold pizza left over from last night. If you answer, “I’d really like to have something healthy and nutritious,” you might consider whipping up a bowl of oatmeal. The answer to your original question plants the first paver on the road to a type of life. So maybe, instead of asking yourself, “What shall I have for breakfast?” consider changing the question by asking yourself, “What is the healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” If you want to loose weight. Or if you are in a hurry but still want to eat healthy, “What’s the quickest, healthiest thing I can have for breakfast?” Remember the questions you ask create the world you live in.
Questions also determine our interactions. Your child/spouse/roommate comes home from school/work and you ask, “How was your day?” The answer you get will determine the ensuing interaction. Do you get a grunt, a roll of the eyes, a “Fine!” or a long complaint of what went wrong? So maybe instead of asking “How was your day?” How about changing up your question and asking the kind of question that will create the kind of world you’d like to live in? If you want a pleasant light interaction, maybe “What was the best part of your day?” would be better. If you want an in depth conversation, maybe “What was the most interesting part of your day?” would be better.
Remember, most people don’t pay too much attention to the questions they ask. Also remember, however, that questions create the world we live in. What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of questions do you need to ask to have that world? Starting today begin to ask the kinds of questions that create the kind of world you want to inhabit.
We all experience good events in our lives, however that does not necessarily mean we appreciate them, much less savor them. Truth be told we tend to be a deficit oriented society. We tend to focus more on the negative, the bad and what’s wrong than on the positive, the good and what is going well. I would venture to say that most likely more good things happen to most people in a day, however, the one bad thing is what usually sticks, it overshadows all the good. This doesn’t have to be the case.
We can choose to engage with the world differently. It’s not easy, it takes effort but it is possible to consciously choose to savor the good. According to Bryant and Veroff savoring is defined as any thoughts, or behaviors capable of generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. Savoring is like swishing a positive experience around in your mind. Savoring is about turning something good into something even better.
According to Bryant and Veroff savoring can occur in three different time frames. We can savor the anticipation of something good to come. We can savor the present moment. Or we can savor the memories of good times past. As long as you savor, the time frame doesn’t really matter.
Now the question becomes how do we savor in the different time frames. If you are an anticipatory savorer you can plan in as much detail as possible the good things to come. If you are a present moment savorer you can learn to really immerse yourself in the moment by focusing on a particular sense as opposed to mental reflection. If you are a savorer of memories, take pictures of good times, keep reminders of good times and look at them as often as possible.
Again, as long as you are able to savor, the time frame does not matter.
Focusing on the good doesn’t come easy, we are a deficit oriented society. We are interested in bad news, we love to solve problems, we readily empathize with life’s difficulties. Anything negative calls our attention. The bad is like velcro – it just sticks to us, the good like teflon – it just rolls right off of us. There are many reasons for this phenomenon.
First there is something called the negativity bias. According to Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman we give greater weight to the negative than we do to the positive. We have better recall for the negative and the negative impacts us more than does the positive. Your boss tells you how well you did on the report you just presented, he was impressed with the content and found it very helpful. He asks, however, for the next time, that you summarize the findings better. What stays with you? The two compliments or the correction about the findings? For most people it is the correction. We give greater weight to the negative or what we perceive as negative than we do to the positive, the negative just calls to us and sticks.
Why is this the case? According to Evolutionary Psychology this is the case because focusing on the negative served a purpose. Primitive man would have not survived if he didn’t focus on the negative. The positive offers no survival information, the negative does. You ignore the positive, nothing happens. You ignore the negative, potentially you don’t live another day. Hence our focus on the negative.
Having said all of the above, we know that our attention is like a spotlight, we can choose to place it anywhere we want. It’s not easy, but it can be done. We can actively drag our attention to wherever we want to put it. We can do this in many ways. We can practice mindfulness. We can practice gratitude. We can change our questions. Or we can simply make a conscious effort to hunt the good stuff. Whichever method you choose attending to the good in our lives offers a slew of benefits.
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human right, the Declaration of Independence says so. The operative word here being pursuit. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say you are guaranteed to be happy just because…, it says you are guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.
So what is happiness anyway? Before I tell you how happiness is defined, let me first tell you what it isn’t. It’s not marrying prince or princess charming, it isn’t having all the money in the world. Happiness isn’t a destination. You don’t achieve happiness as a permanent state. Happiness isn’t being in a good mood all the time and smiling all the time. It isn’t avoiding upsetting or negative feelings (actually it’s quite the opposite).
So how is happiness defined? According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky happiness is defined as a combination of feeling positive emotions and experiencing a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. I’d say the positive emotions part is pretty self explanatory. So what gives our lives meaning, makes them good and worthwhile? Well, many things give our life meaning and value – organized religion, social support is a big one, service – as in doing for others, goal achieving, among other things. Let me give you an example. For the most part parents believe that children give their lives meaning and value. Children aren’t always a source of positive emotions (to put it mildly) but most parents unequivocally claim that, in the big picture, their children give their lives meaning and value and thus are a great source of happiness.
The last part of Dr. Lyubomirsky’s definition is important because we all engage in activities that, at the moment might not bring us positive emotions, they might not make us happy or bring us joy, however when all is said and done, these activities bring us immense satisfaction and happiness. It is kind of counter intuitive to the idea of happiness and the whole notion of positive emotions as a source of happiness. However, if we are talking about real, lasting happiness this idea is very important. Think about it, when you work really hard on a project that turns out well, you might not feel happy while you are working hard, but when it’s over you feel immense happiness and that happiness lasts for awhile. Same goes for when you exercise, try something new or do anything that challenges you. If being happy is so important, then I believe it is just as important to be aware that the activities that give our lives meaning and value and happiness might not be the same (by a long shot) as the ones that give us immediate positive emotions.
Awareness of our self-talk is a key resilience skill. Being aware of what we are telling ourselves when we experience difficulty offers us the opportunity to take the unproductive, unrealistic, inaccurate thoughts that are causing us to feel and behave in self-defeating ways and challenge them. Like someone standing up to a bully, when we challenge our thoughts that are destructive, we can stop the damage they inflict on our well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves. If we aren’t aware of what we are saying to ourselves, it’s hard to change our thoughts. When this happens, when we can’t hear our self-talk, we can at least try to be aware of the cognitive distortions we are using. While cognitive distortions can be automatic, we can usually listen for certain words we are using – shoulds, terrible, always, never, etc, which signal a cognitive distortion. Once we notice these words we can begin to challenge the thoughts which encase these distortions.
There are many ways to challenge cognitive distortions, the goal of challenging our cognitive distortions is to find a more realistic, balanced way to explain to ourselves why something happened. It’s like being the judge of your own thoughts – are these thoughts facts or opinions. If our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real then they are opinions not facts, therefore we can replace one belief for another one. We can look for a more accurate, balanced belief to replace it with. When we challenge our cognitive distortions we are making our thinking more accurate. When we think more accurately we tend to feel less bad. Please note – we are not going for thinking positively, we are going for thinking more accurately and feeling less bad. This is a very important distinction, the objective is a more balanced and helpful way of thinking. It’s important to emphasize that we will not eliminate all difficult emotions when we challenge our cognitive distortions, that’s not what well-being is about.
Again, what we are going for when we challenge our thoughts is accurate, realistic thinking, the kind of thinking that is in your own best interest. We are NOT looking to eliminate negative feelings. Knowing how to cope with the whole spectrum of feelings is part of being resilient. We are looking to eliminate inaccurate, unrealistic negative feelings.
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.