How to Be Happy

A growing number of psychologists are suggesting that happiness is not something that you wait for , or how to be happysomething that just happens to you. These psychologists believe that you can choose to be happy. You may be wondering just how you can pursue happiness. Psychologists believe it is by simply making an effort to monitor your thoughts.

Research show that a person’s “talent” for happiness is largely determined by his/her genes. Dr. David T. Lykken, psychology professor and author of the book Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says that “trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.” We each have a “happiness set point,” he contends, and that we move away from it only slightly.

But, psychologists who study happiness – Dr. Lykken included – believe we can pursue happiness. How do we go about pursuing happiness? By ridding ourselves of negative emotions such as anger, pessimism, etc. Thus, we can foster positive emotions such as serenity, empathy, and above all, gratitude.

Choose to Be Happy

The first step is to make a conscious choice to boost your happiness. As what the philosopher Bertrand Russel said in his book, The Conquest of Happiness (published in 1930), happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit. … Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of the gods, and in this achievement, effort, both inward and outward, must play a great part.”

Today’s scientists who study happiness couldn’t agree more. Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, authors of The 9Choices of Happy People, also share the same opinion saying that “Intention is the active desire and commitment to be happy,” they write. “It’s the decision to consciously choose attitudes and behaviors that lead to happiness over unhappiness.”

Dr. Tom G. Stevens, titled his book based on this proactive principle – You Can Choose to Be Happy. Stevens asserts “”Choose to make happiness a top goal. Choose to take advantage of opportunities to learn how to be happy. For example, reprogram your beliefs and values. Learn good self-management skills, good interpersonal skills, and good career-related skills. Choose to be in environments and around people that increase your probability of happiness. The persons who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth primary values.”

Which brings us back to what Lykken calls the happiness “set point”. Which is suggested that we may be born with, but we are not necessarily stuck there. Happiness also depends on how we manage our feelings and our relationships with others.

Jon Haidt, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, teaches positive psychology by actually assigning his students to make themselves happier throughout the semester.

Haidt explains, “They have to say exactly what technique they will use. They may choose to be more forgiving or more grateful. They may learn to identify negative thoughts so they can challenge them. For example, when someone crosses you, in your mind you build a case against that person, but that’s very damaging to relationships. So they may learn to shut up their inner lawyer and stop building these cases against people.”

Once you have decided to become happiest, choosing how to go about it naturally follows. Psychologists who study happiness tend to agree with arguments like this.

Cultivate Gratitude

Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Authentic Happiness, suggests doing daily “gratitude exercises”. These exercises involve making a list of the things you are grateful for. According to Seligman, this exercise diverts people away from bitterness and despair, and promotes happiness.

Foster Forgiveness

Holding a grudge or nursing resentment and grievances not only affects you mental health, but also manifests physically. This is according to a growing number of researches. To curb feelings of resentment and grievances is to foster forgiveness. Forgiveness lessens the ability of negative events to instill bitterness in people, say Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, happiness researchers and editors of the book The Psychology of Happiness.

Clinical psychologist Everett Worthington Jr. offers a way to foster forgiveness in his book Five Steps to Forgiveness through the 5-step process called REACH.

  • Recall the hurt.
  • Empathize and try to understand the act from the perpetrator’s eyes.
  • Altruism helps you remember a time in your life when you were forgiven.
  • Commit to putting your thoughts of forgiveness into words, be it in a form of a letter to the person you are forgiving, or in your own journal.
  • Hold on to the forgiveness, not to the anger, grudge or the desire for vengeance.

The alternate of forgiveness is mulling over a wrong that has been done to you. Worthington says that this is a chronic form of stress.

“Rumination is the mental health bad boy” says Worthington. “It’s associated with almost everything bad in the mental health field — obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety — probably hives, too.”

Counteract Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Jon Haidt has an interesting way of putting it – improve your mental hygiene. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt gives this metaphor: a man riding an elephant. The elephant represents powerful thoughts and feelings (mostly unconscious) that determine your behavior. The man – obviously the weakest of the pair – can still exert control over the elephant. Basically this means you can control your negative thoughts and feelings.

Haidt says “The key is a commitment to doing the things necessary to retrain the elephant,” he adds “And the evidence suggests there’s a lot you can do. It just takes work.”

Try doing one or more of the following: meditation, rhythmic breathing, yoga, or relaxation techniques. These practices can inhibit your negative feeling of helplessness and inadequacy.

“If you learn techniques for identifying negative thoughts, then it’s easier to challenge them,” Haidt said. “Sometimes just reading David Burns’ book, Feeling Good, can have a positive effect.”

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

Researches have shown that once income surpasses poverty level, more money brings very little extra happiness. But, Daniel Gilbert, author of the book Stumbling on Happiness, writes “we keep assuming that because things aren’t bringing us happiness, they’re the wrong things, rather than recognizing that the pursuit itself is futile.” He further writes that “Regardless of what we achieve in the pursuit of stuff, it’s never going to bring about an enduring state of happiness.”

Foster Friendship

There are few things in the world that can counter unhappiness close friendships with people who genuinely care for you, says David G. Myers, author of The Pursuit of Happiness. In Australia, one study found that people over 70 with the strongest network of friends lived longer.

“Unfortunately”, Myers writes, “Our increasingly individualistic society suffers from impoverished social connections, which some psychologists believe is a cause of today’s epidemic levels of depression. The social ties that bind also provide support in difficult times.”

Engage in Meaningful Activities

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that there are very few thing that can make people happier than when they are in the “flow” – a state where your mind becomes so absorbed in a meaningful task that challenges your abilities. Interestingly, the most common leisure activity of all – watching tv – reportedly produces some of the lowest levels of happiness.

“To get more out of life, we need to put more into it,” says Csikszentmihalyi. In his book Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi writes “Active leisure that helps a person grow does not come easily. “Each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable.”


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