Monday, April 2, 2012

The How of Happiness - summary of twelve activities proven to work

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubormirsky is a great book on the findings of positive psychology. It discusses what activities and habits have actually been shown to increase your happiness level.

For quick reference, here is a list of the 12 activities discussed in the book that research has demonstrated will increase your happiness. Lyubormirsky says that you don't need to do all these activities to be happy, and should choose the ones you think that you'll be able to adhere to over the longer term.

1. Expressing Gratitude
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude has been shown in studies to have a range of effects that surprise a skeptic (i.e., me) including improved physical health outcomes. A few methods to try: maintain a gratitude journal, set aside fixed time each week to consider your blessings, directly express your gratitude. One specific idea: send a postcard to the general manager at the last hotel you stayed at, thanking the front desk and housekeeping staff (by name, if possible.)

2. Cultivating Optimism
Study participants were asked to spend twenty minutes on four consecutive days writing a narrative description of their "best possible future selves." These study participants showed a sustained lift in mood compared to a control group that just spent 20 minutes writing about events in their lives. A few methods to try: Keep a best possible selves diary; keep a goals and subgoals diary; identify pessimistic thoughts and consciously replace them with positive thoughts. Some questions to ask to challenge your pessimistic thoughts:
+ What else could this situation or experience mean?
+ Can anything good come from it?
+ Does it present any opportunities for me?
+ What lessons can I learn and apply to the future?
+ Did I develop any strengths as a result?

3. Avoiding Overthinking
Research suggests that when you are feeling depressed that ruminating about your troubles hurts and doesn't help. A few ideas to stop overthinking and avoid social comparisons: set aside thirty minutes each day to ruminate about your problems and then during the rest of the day tell yourself you can ruminate during the scheduled time; write it down; talk to a friend; identify the triggers that activate your rumination and avoid them.

4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
If you want to get the most personal benefit out of your kindness, the recommendation is to focus on both the timing and the nature of your acts of kindness. In research, people who did five additional acts of kindness on one day during the week got more benefit that folks who did one additional act of kindness each day. The study participants who mixed it up and did a wide variety of random acts of kindness felt happier than those who did the same old acts of kindness each week.

5. Nurturing Social Relationships
Lyubomirsky mentions a book by John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, as a sound guide with tested principles on how to nurture the relationship within a marriage. A few unsurprising highlights: make time to talk; express admiration, appreciation, and affective; respond actively and constructively to the good news of your partner.
Also, focus on nurturing your relationships with friends.

6. Developing Strategies for Coping
One tip is to identify the benefit in trauma through writing or conversing. I imagine this could be pretty difficult in cases of the most painful trauma in life, such as the loss of a loved one.

7. Learning to Forgive
Research confirms what Buddha said: "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting your hand burned."
Are you still holding a grudge against someone? Whom could you forgive today? First, try imagining what forgiveness would feel like. Try writing a letter of forgiveness, even if you aren't ready to send it. Research indicates that those who forgive are happier and have better health outcomes.

8. Increasing Flow Experiences
The term 'flow' was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-SENT-me-hi). See his book Flow. Find activities were you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you don't notice time passing.

9. Savoring Life's Joys
Consciously savor those good times. Relish ordinary experiences (a hug from your child, holding hands with your spouse, walking to work on a sunny morning.) Savor and reminisce with family and friends. Transport yourself to a positive memory and relive it. Replay happy days. Celebrate good news. Notice beauty and excellence in your everyday life. Be mindful. Take pleasure in the senses. Create a savoring album. Savor with your camera. Write about it.

10. Committing to Your Goals
Research supports the idea that "people who strive for something personally significant, whether it's learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don't have strong dreams or aspirations."
Tip: it is better to phrase your goal as an "approach goal", that is, working towards something like trying to be fit, rather than an "avoidance goal" such as not being overweight.
Tip #2: People get more happiness out of an "activity goal" such as biking once a week than a "situation goal" such as having a new house or moving to a new city.
Tip #3: Write down your goals. Break them down into baby steps, so you can see yourself accomplishing sub-goals and making progress.

11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
For those who are religious, this one is straightforward. But you don't need to believe in God or a god to get the benefits. Lyubomirsky defines sprituality as "the search for the sacred - that is, a search for meaning in life through something that is larger than the individual self."

12. Taking Care of Your Body (Meditation, Physical Activity, Acting Like a Happy Person)
If you are depressed, don't wait to feel better before you start working out. Get moving. The science shows that people who start exercising show improved attitudes, are more creative and less depressed.
Also, start meditating. It has a wealth of benefits. No need for fancy meditation training. Just sit quietly, close your eyes, and follow your breath. When your attention wanders, don't beat yourself up, just bring your focus back to your breath. I suggest using an alarm to let you know when the time is up. I added a Tibetan bell ringtone to my iPhone as the alarm to end my practice.

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