Reflections on The How of Happiness

More and more research shows that the pursuit – or creation – of happiness is not a selfish endeavor at all. Folks who deliberately cultivate happiness – in flavors of joy, contentment, love, pride, awe, – are more creative and productive, more flexible and resilient, more charitable and more cooperative, are healthier and live longer than folks who don’t.

I offer an overview of The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky’s groundbreaking compilation of research into the “What,” the “Why,” and the “How” of 12 practices that contribute to a sustainable inner happiness and peace. An entire book could be written about each one; indeed, many such books are now being written.

Here are the headlines: if you have time for only this much, you’ll find here a menu of choices that can reliably lead to more inner happiness and fulfillment.

 Practicing Gratitude and Positive Thinking

  • Express gratitude
  • Cultivate optimism
  • Avoid over-thinking and social comparison
  • Investing in Social Connections (central to health and well-being)
  • Practice acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships

Managing Stress, Hardship and Trauma

  • Develop strategies for coping
  • Learn to forgive
  • Living in the Present
  • Increase flow experiences
  • Savor life’s joys

Committing to Your Goals

  • Commit to your goals

Taking Care of Your Body and Soul

  •  Practice spirituality or religion
  •  Do physical activity

Five Supports to Sustain Happiness

1. Positive emotions

2. Optimal timing and variety

3. Social support

4. Motivation, effort and commitment

5) Habit

If you have time for more, know that Lyubomirsky’s research is presented in the context that happiness comes from within and can be cultivated and learned. Acknowledging that we can’t always change our outer circumstances nor our previous conditioning (though I think a good personal therapy can accomplish far more on that score that Lyubomirsky gives credit for) these 12 practices and 5 supports are offered as choices that require change. When we make those choices every day, over time they will increase our level of happiness beyond the limitations of circumstances or temperament.

Lyubomirsky strongly recommends beginning with one or two practices that best already suit our personality and lifestyle to build a sense of momentum and success; all of these practices require sustained effort over time to generate enduring, renewable happiness. The book offers a wealth of delightful examples and stories to illustrate the research findings as well as the finding of many different research studies that I don’t have room for here.  I describe the “What” and the “Why” of the practices in these Reflections; the “How” is offered in exercises below.

Express Gratitude

WHAT: the felt sense of thankfulness, appreciation, wonder; savoring life’s joys; not taking things for granted.

WHY:    antidotes anxiety, loneliness, envy;

  • opens the door to other positive emotions and optimism
  • promotes self-esteem and self-worth
  • helps us cope with stress and trauma
  • deepens social bonds and sense of connectedness

Cultivate Optimism

WHAT: seeing the glass half full; finding meaning or the silver lining in difficulties; noticing what’s right with this wrong; trusting yourself to get through something

WHY:    visualizing the future and the potential of dreams creates self-fulfilling prophecies; helps us realize those dreams.

  • boosts motivation and morale, enthusiasm and self-regard
  • organizes thoughts, helps us take initiative and persevere
  • helps us cope and grow, even from adversity

Avoid Over-thinking and Social Comparison

Over-thinking:

WHAT: self-focused rumination; excessively, endlessly, needlessly, passively, pondering meanings, causes, consequences of one’s character, feelings, problems. [Of course, we know from psychology and contemplative traditions, a positive inward focus can generate insight into experience, resolve problems and alleviate suffering]

WHY:    rumination perpetuates powerlessness, saps motivation;

  • negative events devolve into negative “me;”
  • interferes with resolving problems
  • de-rails concentration and initiative in face of the inner critic
  • re-directing or re-interpreting such thoughts builds capacity to handle illness, rejection, failure

Social comparison:

WHAT: external measures of success and self worth rather than inner measure. (Research shows that the happier someone is from the inside out, the less attention they pay to how others around them are doing.)

WHY: when negative, comparing ourselves can lead to envy, sense of inferiority, loss of self-esteem

Practice Acts of Kindness

WHAT: the generous thinking of and doing for others

WHY:    very much enlightened self-interest; changes self-perception toward compassion, empowerment, connectedness and meaning

Nurture Social Relationships

WHAT: investing in connection is central to health and well-being, lifelong. The two-way street of reciprocal positive regard generates an upward spiral of trust, empathy, belonging, and reliable inter-dependence

WHY: support in times of stress and trauma

  • improves health and longevity
  • generates love and meaning
  • because relationships change constantly, keeps us alive and fresh

Develop Strategies of Coping

WHAT: act in ways that alleviate pain and suffering caused by negative or traumatic events; build social support to reduce stress, and broaden perspectives

WHY: broader perspectives on events can be a wake-up call to re-organize priorities and see the value and learning in loss and trauma

  • develop maturity and strengths of character you didn’t know you had
  • move to higher level of functioning
  • deepen faith on one’s self
  • re-thinking assumptions and beliefs can lead to post-traumatic growth and personal transformation
  • discern which relationships are reliable and which ones are not, while developing greater compassion for all
  • appreciate preciousness of life and present moment

Forgiveness

WHAT: understanding, compassion, and letting go of anger or hurt from being attacked or wronged by another. Not reconciliation, condoning, excusing or minimizing, but releasing pain for our own well-being.

WHY:    lessens pain, resentment, hostility, anxiety and depression in us

Increase Flow Experiences

WHAT: absorption in activity at a level that challenges skill without creating anxiety;

  •  immerse in concentration; lose track of time; lose track of self

WHY: inherently pleasurable and fulfilling, but is also lasting and reinforcing

  • we become more competent, more complex, improves self-worth
  • generates empowerment and meaning

Savoring Life’s Joys  (stop and smell the roses)

WHAT: when we experience the positive or the good, deliberately noticing, engaging, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment

WHY:    creates resources from the past, antidotes negativity in the moment; creates optimism for the future

  • leads to more happiness and well-being
  • strengthens identity, pride, meaning and connections
  • generates new perspectives and insights
  • acts as a real morale booster as we age
  • opens us to variety and excellence; moves us toward resilience and awe.

Commit to Goals

WHAT: striving for what is personally significant ; not ego or someone else’s choices, but personally chosen and personally rewarding, intrinsic and authentic to you. As powerful as presence in the moment is for creating sustained well-being, finding a sense of meaning and purpose, the fulfillment of creativity and productivity, a raison d’etre or reason for being, are as powerful. (Lyubomirsky acknowledges it takes self-awareness and emotional intelligence to discern these goals.)

WHY: skillful action to reach a wholesome goal creates structure, purpose and meaning in one’s life

  • skillful effort generates competence, mastery, empowerment and improves self-worth
  • motivated effort leads to a balance of autonomy and relatedness; improves social connections
  • encourages tendencies to move toward experience and life rather than moving away
  • develops skills of organizing and using time well
  • the flexibility needed to realize our goals helps us cope with stress and trauma better

Practice Spirituality or Religion

WHAT   : Relationship with or transcendent experience of divine or sacred in context of community. Meditation specifically: openness to experience in non-judgmental, non-striving way, letting go of experience (rather than ruminating).

WHY:    develops a moral compass to guide our conscious living

  • we cope better with stressors
  • we are healthier, happier in relationships, live longer
  • we develop awe, reverence, compassion, gratitude, serenity, calm
  • strengthens social connections and community
  • encourages tendencies to move toward experience and life rather than moving away

Physical Activity

WHAT   : movement that increases energy expenditure above a resting level

WHY     exercise often relieves depression as effectively as medication

  • develops self-esteem and mastery
  • increases flow experiences; increases energy, vigor, enthusiasm

Science shows, all of the above practices increase our levels of happiness in a cause and effect way, not just as a correlation to or an outcome of happiness. That’s good news. That we can choose to use tools and techniques that will expand our happiness in positive reliable ways.

Lyubomirsky offers 5 further supports that renew and reinforce the happiness these practices generate, helping the happiness sustain or last in measurable ways. [Interestingly, she doesn’t focus on mindfulness practice, which science also shows is essential for any of these practices to be effective. Mindfulness is as essential, and as invisible, as breathing.]

1. Positive emotions:  Cultivating joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, delight, inspiration, awe and love broadens our horizons and builds mental, physical and social resources. Positive emotions undo negative emotions, reduce stress, and promote resilience, creativity, flexibility and optimism.

2. Optimal timing and variety:  Because human beings naturally adapt to circumstances and settle into routines, it’s helpful to vary the practices and vary the timing of when we do them (random days rather than every day or every Tuesday) to bypass that adaptation and keep the practices (and thus our mood) alive and fresh.

3. Social Support:  Necessary for practical as well as emotional resourcing; connections with others provide encouragement, reassurance and validation for all of the practices.

4. Motivation, Effort, Commitment:  Increasing happiness is a choice, and it’s a lot of work. We have to set an intention, learn what is useful, put in the effort, and sustain that effort for the long haul.

5. Habits:  We create cues as reminders to practice, to initiate practices, but researchers have found it’s less effective to do a practice in the same way every time than it is to spice it up – keep it fresh and interesting through variety, maintaining interest and curiosity by cultivating the new.