Tag Archives: wellbeing

Three ways to increase your happiness (The pursuit of happiness, Part 2)

Last Thursday I started a short series on the pursuit of happiness.

That night, Mike and I walked down to the Khan River to try a new restaurant. It’s been storming nearly every day here for the past two weeks (something I’m very grateful for on a personal level as it cools everything down, but worried about on a broader level – these rains have started about two months too early). Everything is bursting green and both rivers – brown and increasingly turbulent – are rising every day.

Over purple sticky rice, stir-fried chicken with basil, and river fish sautéed with ginger, we talked about happiness.

“Three good things?” Mike asked me.

I would like to be able to report that I had a deep, meaningful, and lyrical reply to this shorthand query, but I can’t actually remember what I said now. I can, however, almost guarantee one (or more) of my comments centered on food – food hits my “good things” radar quite a lot at the moment. I bet I talked with anticipatory fondness of the ice cream I was determined to obtain during our walk home.

“Three good things” is something we started doing after I wrote the first chapter on positive psychology for this distance-learning course I’m drafting. It comes out of a research article on positive psychology interventions (PPI’s). In non-academic speak, PPIs are “things you can do to make yourself happier” – not just the cheery mood, buoyant, smiling, fun brand of happiness, but the deeper and calmer sort of long lasting happiness that’s more akin to wellbeing or flourishing.

There are, it turns out, a number of exercises you can do that will increase your “wellbeingness”.

In an article published in 2005 (Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions), Seligman and his co-authors tested five happiness related exercises. They found that three of them lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. As outlined during the experiment, those three exercises were:

  1. Three good things: Write down three things that went well each day, and their causes, every night for a week. These things do not have to be akin to winning the lottery or saving someone’s life. Ice cream counts.
  2. Using signature strengths in a new way: Take an inventory of character strengths and identify your top five “signature” strengths. Then use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for a week.
  3. The gratitude visit: Write, and then deliver in person, a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been especially kind to you but has never been properly thanked.

Seligman et al reported that doing one of these first two exercises every day for a week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months (measured during one month, three month, and six month follow ups). The gratitude visit caused a large positive change that lasted one month. Those participants who (of their own accord) had continued the exercises past the initial one-week period were happier than those who hadn’t.

Want to try one of these exercises? The three good things exercise is pretty self-explanatory. Mike and I have adapted three good things so that it frequently pops up in dinnertime or before-bed conversation. The gratitude visit is pretty self-explanatory as well, although somewhat harder to do if most people that have been meaningful in your life live in a different country. The third, using signature strengths may take a little more work to get going on, but it’s worth the effort.

To get started on the Using Signature Strengths exercise go to an interesting website that Seligman and his crew have created called Authentic Happiness. Register (it’s free) so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center. Then take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s not a short questionnaire, so set aside at least half an hour.

The authentic happiness site will store your results on the survey so that you can review them anytime you return. I’ve taken the VIA Survey twice, five years apart. Interestingly, three of my top five strengths were the same both times but two had changed.

My top five strengths in September last year were:

  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Capacity to love and be loved
  • Humour and playfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open mindedness.

Sound like a lovely constellation, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s leave it there and not address the fact that smack at the bottom of the list, in last place at number 24, came “Modesty and humility”.

Want to read more about happiness? Here are some references to get you started (the Wallis article and the Dan Gilbert’s TED talk are good places to start):

  1. Wallis, C. (2005). The New Science of Happiness. Time Magazine.
  2. Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  3. Seligman, M. et al. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 50(5), 410-421.
  4. Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: Why are we Happy?
  5. Nic Marks TED Talk: The Happy Planet Index
  6. Chip Conley TED Talk: Measuring what makes life worthwhile 

Still curious about this topic? Let me know your thoughts and questions and I may do a follow up post down the track…

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The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!