Happiness: It's All In Your Head?
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Imagine the happiness associated with winning the lottery. What would you do with 314 million dollars? Now, imagine if a tragic accident put you in a wheelchair. Which would make you happier? Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert posed the same question to an audience during a 2004 TED Talk. The inquiry was based on a 1978 investigation, which compared two studies regarding the happiness of lottery winners and paraplegics. Each group self-reported their levels of happiness one year after the life-altering incidences of either winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. The results? Each indicated to have the same level of happiness.
So what exactly is happiness? Is it defined by an event? Or does each person have an innate “set point” on a spectrum of ideal happiness? According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, an experimental social psychologist, each individual has a predetermined happiness marker (think genes) that accounts for about half of our natural happiness. And while a fraction of happiness can be contributed to circumstances, nearly 40% is self-generated, meaning: we have a lot of control over our happiness. Focusing on the positive aspects of our minds, our capabilities to simulate happiness, is the theme of a budding field of psychology. Positive psychology, instead of focusing on illnesses, psychologists focus on health and happiness. The primary goal is to help people—without clinical issues—maximize their potential through the power of positivity. With the use of scientific study and empirical evidence, positive practitioners have developed many techniques to promote well-being through behavior modification.
Reboot Your Brain
One of the more popular behavior modifications is the “gratitude exercise”. For a 21-day span, people are prompted to list three things for which they are thankful. The appreciation has no parameters; people can be grateful for the significant (a spouse’s love) or the minute (the ray of sunshine dancing through the window). The results are considerable. Researchers, such as the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman, have discovered that practicing the gratitude exercise elevates contentment and even acts as a protective asset against depression. But how does it work?
The focal point of generating happiness is the lens through which each of us views the world. By creating a habit—modifying our behavior—to see the positive, we alter our perspectives. No longer does the negative invade our thoughts first. We can re-program our brains to become optimistic. And research has shown that optimism and happiness increase brain stimulation.
Positivity = Productivity
Human happiness is in the mind of the beholder. Nearly 90% of enduring joy is internal, self-made. Likewise, 75% of success and accomplishments stem from positivity. So, if we are able to create our own optimism, and optimism leads to success, then humans have an incredible control over productivity. Manufacturing happiness can spur a physiological response, provoking the brain’s release of dopamine. In turn, dopamine increases the human capacity for learning. Thus the cycle initiates a trend, and the lens had been tinted rose.
Researchers have found that the brain is 31% more productive in a positive state than negative. People in occupations, such as sales and medicine, have demonstrated great improvements in their professions through the power of positivity. Imagine the benefits to all if doctors could improve their diagnoses and treatments of patients. Imagine the advantages students could acquire through an enlightened educator. Imagine the wealth of values a father, a mother could confer to their children. The capacity is limitless. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, psychologist Shawn Achor highlights the conclusions of Lyubomirsky’s research. Maintaining positivity in the present can lead to job security, burnout reduction, and resiliency, which boost productivity and diminish turnover. Employers and employees have the advantage, making a lasting impression on familial and individual health.
Unfortunately, the expectations of society deny humans of this innate possession. In our world, success means reaching milestones. We think that we must work harder to obtain the tangible, and that when we do, we will finally be happy. But many people only raise their expectations once they’ve been met, or new demands and pressures at work and home negate the previously earned achievement. We set our sights on a future that contains happiness, once we’ve earned our degree, once we’ve fallen in love, once we retire. The human brain, naturally, resists this measurement, and with a few exercises, people can harness their own positivity.
Exercise Your Will
Empirical evidence supports many of these activities, and when a part of a disciplined effort, can provide long-lasting change of perspective.
“The Gratitude Visit”: Write a letter of appreciation to someone who has affected your life. Schedule a visit, without discussing the letter. Meet and read the letter aloud.
“What-Went-Well Exercise”: Every day, for a week, write down three positive effects of particular events. Beside each, make sure to address the reasons for this result. For example, if your child cleaned up his room, you may respond with “because he listened to my directions”.
Journaling: Try to keep a record of positive events that occur on a daily basis. You may choose to write down as many as you can, or it may only be possible to write down one per day. No matter! Shift your focus.
Meditation: Mindfulness meditation, in particular, may help you to become more aware of the concept of presence (being present in your life, not living in the past or future). It may also help you to direct your non-meditative energy toward completing one task. This type of focus will most likely result in a better product.
“Conscious Acts of Kindness”: Be spontaneous and thoughtful toward one another. Being kind not only spreads happiness, but it returns the gift through positivity.
- Melissa Lavery, M.S.
Achor, S. (2011, May 1). The happy secret to better work. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
Biswas-Diener, R. (2013, August 17). What's So Positive About Positive Psychology? Retrieved February 14, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/significant-results/201308/whats-so-positive-about-positive-psychology
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978, August 1). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=1980-01001-001
Chernoff, N. (2002, May 1). Memory Vs. Experience: Happiness is Relative. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/uncategorized/memory-vs-experience-happiness-is-relative.html
Gilbert, D. (2004, February 1). The surprising science of happiness. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy?language=en#t-177530
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008, May 4). What Influences Our Happiness the Most? Retrieved February 13, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-happiness/200805/what-influences-our-happiness-the-most
Popova, M. (n.d.). A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/02/18/martin-seligman-gratitude-visit-three-blessings/