Positive psychology is all the rage these days (okay it has probably been for some time) and to tell you the truth I have been drinking the Kool-Aid. One aspect of this that I find very interesting is that now it has become a science. No, really I have found article after article regarding the “science of happiness”, but what does this science say and how does it work?
After reading blog after blog and one web page after the other I have realized that they all say very much the same things just in many different ways. Some I have to admit have found very cute and interactive ways of saying it. One website I came across refers to it as happify (I found it to be a fun way of putting it). The happify website adopts an S.T.A.G.E framework which are basically five happiness skills that will help you build your happiness.
The five key happiness skills include: Savor, Thank, Aspire, Give, and Empathize.
Savoring is a quick and easy way to boost optimism and reduce stress and negative emotions. It’s the practice of being mindful and noticing the good stuff around you, taking the extra time to prolong and intensify your enjoyment of the moment, making a pleasurable experience last for as long as possible. So whether it’s preparing a meal, pausing to admire the sunset, or telling a friend your good news—the idea is to linger, take it in, and enjoy the experience. Eventually it’ll become a habit—one you’ll never want to break. Research by Dr. Fred Bryant, a professor at Loyola University Chicago who coined the term “savoring,” shows that those who regularly and frequently savor are happier, more optimistic and more satisfied with life. Bryant describes savoring as three-fold, meaning we can savor the past (by reminiscing), savor the future (through positive anticipation) or savor the present (by practicing mindfulness). There are many savoring techniques—and you may find that you gravitate towards some, but not others. Researchers Bryant and Veroff have proposed a number of ways to do this, including savoring with other people, concentrating on the meaning of an activity, incorporating humor, and writing about their experience.
The simple act of identifying and then appreciating the things people do for us is a modern-day wonder drug. It fills us with optimism and self-confidence, knowing that others are there for us. It dampens our desires for “more” of everything—and it deepens our relationships with loved ones. And when we express our gratitude to someone, we get kindness and gratitude in return. In studies led by Dr. Martin Seligman, people have written gratitude letters to someone they’ve never properly thanked, and seen immediate increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms. Bob Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading researcher in the field of gratitude and author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. He believes everyone should try practicing gratitude because the benefits are so powerful: “First, the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve. A few hours writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time.”
Feeling hopeful, having a sense of purpose, being optimistic. Study after study shows that people who have created meaning in their lives are happier and more satisfied with their lives (Steger, Oishi, & Kashdan 2008). You too can feel more upbeat about your future and your potential. And who doesn’t want that? Genuine optimism is a friend magnet. It also makes your goals seem attainable and your challenges easier to overcome. Bottom line: you’ll not only feel more successful, you’ll be more successful. A person’s level of hope is shown to correlate with how well they perform tasks. Using one’s strengths in daily life, studies have found, curbs stress and increases self-esteem and vitality. Another study found that participants who were asked to imagine their future in an optimistic light increased their levels of happiness over the next six months. Believing that your goals are within reach promotes a sense of meaning and purpose in life—a key ingredient of happiness.
Everything about giving is a no-brainer. Obviously, when you give someone something, you make them happier. But what you might not know is that the giver—not the receiver—reaps even more benefits. Numerous studies show that being kind not only makes us feel less stressed, isolated and angry, but it makes us feel considerably happier, more connected with the world, and more open to new experiences. In one famous study, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky asked students to commit five random acts of kindness each week for six weeks. Whereas the control group experienced a reduction in well-being, those who engaged in acts of kindness showed a 42% increase in happiness. We’re happier when we spend money on other people than when we spend money on ourselves. And a 2006 study found that simply reflecting on nice things we’ve done for other people can lift our mood. Dr. Stephen Post, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and founder of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, is a pioneer in the study of altruism and compassion. His research shows that when we give of ourselves, everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly affected. Mortality is delayed. Depression is reduced. Well-being and good fortune are increased.
Empathy is a powerful word packed with lots of different interpretations. It’s the ability to care about others. It’s the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, behaviors or ideas of others, including those different from ourselves. If you care about the relationships in your life—and who doesn’t?—learning the skill of empathy has enormous payoffs. When we empathize with people, we become less judgmental, less frustrated, angry or disappointed—and we develop patience. We also solidify the bonds with those closest to us. And when we really listen to the points of view of others, they’re very likely to listen to ours. Strong relationships are essential to happiness, according to Drs. Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, and practicing empathy will go far in nurturing the relationships in your life. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin—Madison, was the first to show that compassion is a skill that we can all learn. He says the brain is constantly changing in response to environmental factors, and this also extends to compassion for the self. Research by Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, suggests that people who have more self-compassion lead healthier, more productive lives than those who are self-critical.