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Helping yourself

Can we be happier? Scientists say we can.
They calculate that 40% of what makes us happy is within our control. Not only that, but happiness is surprisingly infectious. There is much we can do to create an “upward spiral” of happiness for ourselves and those around us.

Becoming happier

What do scientists say we can do with our “40%” to become happier? These are some of the strategies that have worked for people:

Cultivate positive emotions. This may be even more important than trying to reduce negative emotions. The negative emotions that come with stress and adversity are part of life; research is finding that positive emotions can undo the effect of negative emotions and promote resilience, helping us bounce back. Researchers are also finding that positive emotions aren’t just the result of happiness; they also cause happiness, in an “upward spiral” of well-being. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that when people experience positive emotions three times as much as negative emotions, they are able to flourish and thrive.

Learn what makes you happy. This may sound strange; don’t we know what we want? There are several reasons this is harder than it sounds. The hedonic treadmill and impact bias mean we we’re not always accurate about what will make us happy. Negative emotions from stress can crowd out what truly makes us happy in favor of coping mechanisms. And we can get caught up in the rat race of extrinsic goals like wealth and power. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recommends keeping a diary of your activities and feelings for a while to discover what you’re doing when you’re happiest. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Set meaningful goals. Psychologist Martin Seligman describes three components of happiness: pleasure, meaning and engagement, and he says that of the three, meaning, and engagement are the most important. People whose goals are intrinsic and personally meaningful are happier than people whose goals are based on comparing themselves to others or meeting other people’s expectations. Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar recommends asking yourself three questions: What gives me meaning? What gives me pleasure? What are my strengths? When you discover the overlap between the answers, you are well on your way to creating a purpose for your life.

Choose experiences over stuff. Psychologist Ryan Howell found in his research that people felt “more alive” when reflecting on experiences compared to things—and that experiences led to more happiness in those around them than their purchases did. Howell says, "As nice as your new computer is, it's not going to make you feel alive." Lottery winners report that after a while, money and possessions don’t make them as happy as the simple pleasures they enjoyed before winning.

Exercise. We know we should exercise for our physical health. It turns out exercise can be a powerful influence on our mental outlook and emotions as well. Exercise regulates stress hormones, such as cortisol, which moderates and dissipates negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. Exercise also boosts “feel good” chemicals like endorphins. Some research has found that exercise can lower the risk of depression and help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. So exercise reduces negative emotions and increases positive emotions; sounds like a recipe for happiness.

Act the way you want to feel. In her yearlong happiness project, author Gretchen Rubin says the strategy of acting the way she wants to feel “works like magic.” Pioneering psychologist William James observed: “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” Or, in other words, one way to feel happier? Smile.

Want what you have. Researchers are finding that people who “want what they have” are more satisfied with life than those who are seeking something new. Our tendency to adapt means that the luster wears off of the new house, car, or even romance quickly. Our economy is designed to continually stimulate desire for what we don’t have. Psychologist Daniel Nettle calls this the "psychology of liking" getting drowned out by the "psychology of wanting." But people who appreciate and enjoy what they already have—whether it’s a car or a mate—report greater happiness.

What is the common thread in these strategies? Other people. Friends, family, and social networks are our greatest source of happiness; we feel more positive emotions when we’re with other people; other people give our lives meaning and are part of our happy memories; and by treasuring the people in our lives we focus on what is more important to us.

Positive emotions

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has analyzed people’s reports of positive and negative emotions in various settings—individual, marriage, and the workplace—and discovered that at a ratio of 3 to 1 positive to negative emotions, people do better than just getting by—they flourish and thrive.

Some of the positive emotions are:

  • Flow: meaningful work, creativity, exploration, open-mindedness, and initiative
  • Humor: zest, enthusiasm, playfulness, amusement
  • Gratitude: appreciation, recognizing others
  • Connection: love, friendship, meaning, and a higher purpose
  • Forgiveness: mercy, understanding
  • Contentment: joy, awe, inspiration, serenity, savoring the moment
  • Altruism: kindness, generosity, volunteerism

Tools to increase your ratio of positive emotions: (suggested by Dr. Fredrickson)

  • Be open; cultivate mindful awareness throughout your day
  • Create high-quality connections with other people
  • Cultivate kindness
  • Develop distractions to help you get your mind off of troubles
  • Dispute negative thinking; argue back to your inner critic
  • Find places close enough that you can spend a few minutes in nature frequently
  • Learn and apply your strengths
  • Meditate mindfully
  • Meditate on loving-kindness
  • Ritualize gratitude
  • Savor positive emotions
  • Visualize your future

Read more about this toolkit in her book, Positivity.


Many people are familiar with the “DSM IV”: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition. This volume, published by the American Psychiatric Association, categorizes and codes mental disorders and their symptoms.

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterman wondered why we couldn’t catalog and measure strengths as well. They argue that people have character strengths which contribute to a happy life and are protective in times of trouble. Their nonprofit, founded to study character strengths, is called the VIA Institute on Character.

The character strengths identified by Seligman and Peterman

  • Wisdom and knowledge: includes creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective
  • Courage: includes bravery, persistence, honesty, zest
  • Humanity: includes capacity to love and be loved, kindness, emotional intelligence
  • Justice: includes teamwork, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance: includes forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-control
  • Transcendence: includes appreciating beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, purpose, faith

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