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Harvesting Hapiness

By Wendy Ulrich

WHEN MY SON WAS A TEENAGER he was a little on the sober side—like Yao Ming is a little on the tall side. He kept to himself, answered questions in one-word grunts, and moaned about having to do awful things like take a vacation. He didn’t really seem depressed, but neither was he really engaged with life or people. In other words, he was a teenager.

Suddenly he started to change. He started announcing, “It’s a beautiful day” in multiple languages. His voice took on an enthusiastic lilt. He acquired a killer sense of humor. I assumed he had just grown out of his sullen phase, but years later he told me there was more to it. This is what happened:

When my husband was a bishop, his counselor Bob was an unusually funny, cheerful man. Without warning, Bob was killed—a devastating loss for his family and our entire ward. At the funeral everyone talked about what a happy person Bob was. My son was only fifteen, but he was listening. And he made a decision. A decision to be like Bob. A decision to be happy.

An entire new field, positive psychology, has developed on the premise that the pursuit of happiness deserves at least as much scientific attention as learning how not to be miserable. For decades psychology assumed its only role was to fix what was broken, to return people from acute misery to the ranks of the “worried well.” Happiness was not really on psychology’s agenda—it was something people could pursue on their own time. Now we are learning that people are more apt to stop drinking, cope with bipolar illness, get out of depression, or improve dysfunctional relationships if they directly pursue happiness in its own right, along with working to reduce their symptoms and cope with their problems.[1]

This fruitful field of positive psychology was spearheaded by the president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, an agnostic who nevertheless turned to the world’s great religions to tap humanity’s collective wisdom about what it takes to live a happy, meaningful life.[2] He and others started testing and researching this traditional wisdom the way pharmaceutical companies test traditional healing compounds, searching for the secrets to health and happiness. Positive psychologists design experiments with control groups and perform statistical analyses to find out what boosts happiness. The research-based happiness books coming out of these studies go beyond self-help formulas and anecdotes to both support what we’ve believed all along about happiness and debunk some of our “common sense” folk wisdom on the subject.

Can happiness be cultivated?

If someone asked you what makes you happy, your first guess might be burnt almond fudge ice cream, Alaska cruises, or fabulous sex, but research confirms that the impact of pleasure on happiness is fleeting. Seligman suggests a three-dimensional model of happiness that includes not only pleasure (activities that give us delight and produce positive sensations), but also engagement (activities that allow us to lose ourselves in challenging, interesting undertakings), and meaning (activities that connect us with our deepest values, God, or humanity).[3] Lasting happiness, like lasting love, is more than a good feeling. It is nourished in a context of engaging work, satisfying relationships, and spiritual connections. By the same token, even the most engaging and numinous life can bog down in drudgery without regular forays into humor, pleasure, and delight. Pleasure, engagement in challenging activities, and connection with something larger than ourselves are all vital to a sustainable good life.

Here are some of the things positive psychology has discovered that make a scientifically verifiable difference in many people’s happiness:

  1. Getting regular exercise.This not only relieves depression and anxiety as well as medications do, it also boosts happiness.
  2. Counting your blessings.Regularly taking time to write down or talk about what is going well in your life and what you are grateful for lifts your mood.
  3. Doing five small acts of kindness one day each week.A concentrated effort to help others in small ways, as long as what you do is not burdensome and repetitive, improves your sense of well-being.
  4. Pursuing interesting goals you’ve chosen yourself.Happy people are generally people with goals (as long as they are goals that interest and challenge you, not just things that evoke guilt if you don’t do them).
  5. Practicing your most defining character strengths(“signature strengths” like generosity, loyalty, integrity, or love of learning) in new and creative ways. See the free research site org to find out what your personal signature strengths are.
  6. Spending your bonus money on a series of small pleasures spread over many months.You got it right: fritter away some of that extra cash on treats and frivolities.
  7. Writing about your most traumatic memories and how you overcame them, what you learned from them, and how you grew.Trauma isn’t fun, but overcoming it feels good.
  8. Writing about what your life would be like a year or ten years from now if you accomplished all your goals.Fleshing out what your best possible self might look like, even if you don’t get there, builds optimism and hope.

 

No surprises here, right? We might expect these things to make us feel good. But wait—here are some of the things in the same categories as the above that don’t necessarily make us happier:

  1. Exercise is the best long-term happiness booster there is, but half of us feel worse rather than better when actually pumping that iron or pounding that treadmill. If you are one of these, you still benefit both physically and emotionally from exercise, but you will have to put up with not liking it while you do it. Build in other motivators, like walking with a friend or exercising while watching your favorite TV show.
  2. Counting your blessings every single night.The happiness boost wears off if you keep doing the same thing day after day—better to count your blessings once or twice a week so it doesn’t become routine and lose its savor.
  3. Volunteering at the library for an hour every day.While a great thing to do, if you clump your good works onto one day of the week and vary what you do you are more likely to take notice and actually feel better.
  4. Achieving your goals.Being goal-oriented is more happiness-inducing than being goal-accomplished. In fact, actually reaching our goals is sometimes a letdown.
  5. Working on eliminating a weakness.It’s noble, but draining. Using our character strengths in new and creative ways is energizing and enjoyable. Your spouse might appreciate it if you overcome your bad habits, but you’ll be happier if you spend most of your energy contributing to the world from your strengths.
  6. Spending your bonus money on a new boat.Sorry—the big hits are more memorable but small pleasures spread over a long time will more likely boost your mood. So for a real happiness boost, stop envying the neighbor’s toys and have some folks over for dessert and games instead.
  7. Writing about your earliest memories.Reminiscing is pleasant, but writing about your capacity for resilience (what you learned and how you grew in the face of hardship) is more happiness-boosting.
  8. Writing about an experience of yourself at your best.This might be fun to do, but it doesn’t affect long-term happiness like actually using your strengths in new and creative ways or building hope for the future.[4]

 

Caveats on happiness

So can we expect any of the first list of activities to actually make a long-term difference in how we feel, or do they provide only a temporary high? It turns out that some happiness boosters work well in the short run while others actually improve mood even months later. To get the most benefit, happiness author Sonja Lyubomirsky encourages picking activities that interest you and that you are likely to keep doing because you truly value and like them, not just ones you are doing because you think you should. These “good fit” happiness boosters have the best chance of not only working for us, but also maintaining our motivation and interest. Variety and spacing are also important—to keep the activity fresh, don’t do the same thing every day. But do keep it up. If you find something you like and will keep doing every week or two the benefits will be sustained.

However, don’t feel guilty if you don’t turn into Jay Leno overnight. One interesting finding from the happiness research is that people seem to be born with a certain “happiness set point” they revert to over time. The good news is that when we have to file for bankruptcy, the dog dies, or we lose our job, we will revert to our set point after a short-term setback. But the bad news is that when we win the lottery, fall in love, or lose weight, the boost in happiness is also temporary. This means we have to nurture happiness regularly to make a lasting difference in how we feel. Happiness is more like planting annuals than perennials. We can’t just plant the seeds of happiness once and expect a perpetual harvest.

Some of the most interesting research from the positive psychology movement looked at more than 800 individuals in Australia, measuring their depression and happiness levels as well as the amount of stress experienced in the last year and the amount of trauma experienced in their early lives. Predictably, those with high recent stress or early trauma had much more depression and anxiety—but only if they had a certain form of a certain gene, the 5-HTTLPR. About half the population has this form of the gene, while the other half has a different form not associated with depression—even if that half is stressed or victims of early trauma. With one form of the gene people did not become depressed despite early trauma or current stress. With the other form depression followed much more predictably from these stressful circumstances.[5]

What does this tell us about our potential for depression versus happiness? It reminds me that we need to be very, very kind to one another. The fact that one person struggles with depression while another sails through life has a lot to do with our early history, our current stress load, and the presence or absence of a certain gene form.

So if you aren’t blessed with good genes, benevolent upbringing, and moderate stress levels, is happiness really worth having to work hard at? Well, you tell me. For most of us, happiness is what Harvard happiness professor Tal Ben-Shahar calls “the ultimate currency.” It is the thing by which the worth of everything else in life is measured—its capacity to make us truly and lastingly happy. Happiness doesn’t just happen to us—it’s something we have to invest in, work at, learn about, and persevere with just as we would expect to work for and invest in earning monetary currency. Once we realize this, we aren’t stuck with waiting around for the bird of happiness to land upon us. We can cultivate happiness as a garden of delight, engagement, and meaning well worth the effort required.

“In all of living have much of fun and laughter. Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley.

I guess if a teenage boy can decide to be happy and succeed at it, the rest of us have a good shot at learning to enjoy life as well.

 

Notes

[1] M.E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness (New York: Free Press, 2002), 26–27.

[2] Ibid., 130–133.

 

[3] M.E.P. Seligman and T.A. Steen, “Positive Psychology Progress,” American Psychologist 60 (2005): 413.

[4] T. Ben-Shahar, Happier: Learning the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007). S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Press, 2007).

[5] S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness (New York: Penguin Press, 2007), 59.

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About Wendy Ulrich

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, is the founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah (sixteenstones.net), which offers seminar-retreats on topics such as forgiveness, abundant life, spirituality, and loss. A psychologist for twenty years, she is the author of Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up When We Let Ourselves Down.

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