Sunday, April 21, 2013

Who wants to be happy?

Everybody, obviously; whatever that means. The truth is that happiness is a universally pursued state of mind, and yet remains elusive. Positive psychologists have spent the past few decades studying happiness as a human goal, mindset and motivator to understand why we want it and how we can spread it. What they’ve found is that happy people have better relationships, better health, more money and more professional success in life. Well of course, you’re probably thinking, who wouldn’t be happy if they had great relationships, professional success and money? Well, it doesn’t work that way. While this is one of those chicken-or-the-egg situations, experimental studies show that being happy is more likely to cause success and good relationships than success and good relationships are to cause happiness.

Given this important insight, researchers set out to design programs for systematically increasing happiness, and this month Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky and Dr. Kristin Layous from the University of California at Riverside published a review of what works, when, for whom and in some cases why. All of the studies were tested in a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold-standard for testing the effectiveness of treatments. All participants were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive a happiness intervention, and half of all participants were in a placebo-controlled group to control for natural fluctuations in happiness over time.
They found that there are two basic ways to increase your happiness: kindness and gratitude. One effective way of increasing happiness in your life through gratitude is to write and hand-deliver a letter of gratitude to a person who has played an important role in your life. One effective way to increase kindness is to do random acts of kindness, like compliment a customer service agent on the phone or let someone into traffic. In testing these effective happiness-increasing tactics, they found that merely practicing them didn’t increase happiness, but rather certain doses of the practice worked better than others, and some practices worked better for specific groups of people.

For example, in one study, participants were asked to practice kindness towards others in small ways. One group was asked to do 5 kind acts during each week, while another group was asked to do 5 acts of kindness within one day each week. The group who did 5 act of kindness in the same day each week had greater increases in happiness by the end of the study. This suggests that practices meant to increase kindness towards others may get “watered down” if spread out across the week, or may become habits that are inherently less intrusive in your day. There was another study interested in the impact of practicing gratitude on happiness. They asked one group of participants to count their blessings once per week, and another group was asked to count their blessings three times per week. The group who counted their blessings once per week actually increased their happiness more over time than those counting their blessings more often. Another study was interested in both kindness and gratitude, so they had half of their participants doing random acts of kindness for a series of weeks followed by a few weeks of practicing gratitude while the other half of their participants did the gratitude part first and the kindness part second. They found that participants who completed the gratitude program first (writing a gratitude letter) had greater increases in happiness than the people who had the kindness program first. This led researchers to believe that having the gratitude program first improved the participants’ close relationships which made the kindness program more effective. This is consistent with the mantra in positive psychology I have mentioned in previous posts, “Other people matter.” The road to happiness will always include other people, and anything you do to actively improve the relationships in your life will result in gains in the happiness domain.

So, now that you have ideas about what you might do today or this week to increase your happiness, there are also some findings that can guide you on where to start. First, ask yourself, “Are all of my important relationships strong, supportive and supported?” If the answer is no, the first thing you should do is give those relationships a bit of attention. Consider writing a thoughtful gratitude letter to someone in your life who deserves some appreciation. You may also ask yourself, “Am I motivated to do this?” Some studies have looked into why and how these gratitude and kindness programs actually increase happiness. It turns out that positive emotions are often the key mechanism. This means that going out and doing random acts of kindness made you have a warm, fuzzy feeling, and over time those repeated feelings led to an overall feeling of increased happiness. Many people believe that if they simply go through the motions but don’t enjoy the process, they will still experience gains in happiness, but our research shows that isn’t the case. So, if someone tells you to do something you hate, because “it has been shown to make people happy” it probably won’t work for you. Practice kindness or gratitude in a way that interests or excites you, and when the practice becomes less exciting, do something new.
Obviously we don’t have all of the answers about how to make the world a universally happy place. 

This is in part because happiness is a moving target. Human beings are naturally optimistic, thus we continually raise the bar for what happiness can look and feel like. This makes happiness very difficult to research, but all the more fascinating. Furthermore, it’s important to understand that the opposite of happiness is not depression. Many people make the mistake of trying to treat clinical depression by trying to increase happiness, which may only hurt the situation by preventing treatment of the actual condition by a trained professional.
The take home message is that more happiness is achievable in a systematic way. Contrary to many beliefs, happiness is really a skill that must be continually practiced. The question is, do you have the time to practice happiness?

Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How Do Simple Positive Activities Increase Well-Being?. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 57-62.

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