There are many practices from the field of Positive Psychology as well as from the Path to Happiness technique that improve our happiness levels through our thoughts, attitudes and actions. What we focus on, the stories we tell ourselves, the beliefs and attitudes we reinforce, and the things we do all affect our happiness and satisfaction with life. Learn more about the practice in each petal below.
Accepting ‘what is’ rather than wishing life were different increases your serenity level. When you resist what is happening around you, or to you, you are making yourself unhappy. This isn’t to say that you should accept painful situations that you can control or avoid. It does mean that accepting the weather as it is in this moment, or the body type you have, or that your plane is late, will give you greater peace of mind. Accept that a large part of the world is not in your control.
Accept Your Feelings
Having feelings is human. As Tal Ben-Shahar says, “the only people who don’t have feelings are psychopaths or dead.” This doesn’t mean you have to act out your feelings, just don’t ignore or try to suppress them. Your feelings are a result of the stories you tell yourself about what is happening to and around you. They have important messages for you, which may include an invitation to change your story or to make other changes in your life. Focus on the PositiveWhat you focus on influences how you feel. If you focus on what you wish were different, you are more likely to be unhappy than if you focus on what is beautiful and good in your life. If you focus on what you want (but don’t have), you will experience desire and scarcity, but if you focus on what you have, you will experience abundance. If you focus on what your child did well in her schoolwork, or his chores, you will be happier, and your relationship will improve. Appreciative Inquiry asks ‘what worked’ in order to figure out how to make things better, rather than focusing on problems and strategies to correct them. This practice results in much more successful interventions and builds happier teams. Educational research suggests that to create more successful achievers, schools allow students to focus more of their time on things they do well, rather than trying to boost their scores in areas that are weaknesses. Focus on what you do well, and what is working in your life. Even when bad things happen, you can ask yourself what is positive about the experience. When you find something good in your life, focus on it. As Tal Ben-Shahar says, “When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.” Plus, you will be happier in the meantime.
Let Go of Expectations
“Expectations are planned disappointments and premeditated resentments.” ~ Twelve Step wisdom Getting attached to your expectations is a prescription for unhappiness. A better attitude is to accept that we can’t predict the future, and no matter what we do to prepare, things are likely to work out differently than we planned. If you let go of attachment to an outcome, rather than being sad that things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to, you are free to discover the gifts that are presented in the way things actually happen. One of my favorite maxims is, “If you ask for what you want, and accept what you receive, you will get what you need.” One of the big expectations many of us have is thinking that we (and those we love) will live as long as the average life expectancy. We then feel cheated and angry if we face death at an earlier age. You will be happier if you accept that any day could be your last (which is true). This thought also helps you savor this particular day and what it has to offer, and encourages you to make good use of today. A helpful practice is to ask what you would do if you knew you had just one year left to live, and then do those things as much as is responsibly possible.Another expectation that makes us unhappy is the expectation that life is fair. Besides the fact that life isn’t fair, it is rare that everyone agrees on what would be fair. Again, if you focus on all the good in your life, rather than on the negative, and trust that ‘it all works out in the end’ you will be happier.
Let Go of Fear
Many people live in a state of chronic worry, which is a form of fear. This is especially prevalent in those who tend to take on responsibility for others, and even more so if you tell yourself that if you foresee every possible risk, you can prevent them from occurring. When we worry about something that hasn’t happened, our brains respond as if the event we are imagining is actually happening. It doesn’t know the difference between the imagined and the real. The same neurochemicals are released. Worry borrows trouble from tomorrow, which ruins our enjoyment of today.Fear is useful if it leads us to take action to protect ourselves (or others), but once we have taken any actions that can reduce our anxiety, dwelling on our fears is destructive to our peace of mind and to our health (and often our relationships).For those of us who regularly torment ourselves with upsetting stories that come from a vivid imagination (for instance assuming someone’s lateness is a result of a fatal car accident), it helps to remind ourselves that our fears are probably exaggerated. Even if they were to be born out, pre-traumatizing ourselves does not help us deal with them. For the one time we might be able to say, “I knew that bad thing would happen,” we will have imagined a thousand bad endings that never did. Letting go of our fears also lets us focus on the positive in the situation, another happiness booster.Let Go of ‘Shoulds’If you find yourself saying “I should…” or “I have to…,” you are likely to feel resentful about the experience and perhaps blame other people for the resentments. It is unlikely that you will enjoy the experience - it turns into a task, which then becomes much harder to complete. Question your beliefs – especially the “shoulds” and “have tos.” Investigate the consequences of not doing the thing, and imagine what it would be like to live with those consequences. This can help you either turn the “I should” into “I want to…” or let go of it.
Writing your thoughts and feelings has been shown to have a long-term impact on happiness. Studies show journaling on a regular basis for even two minutes a day can improve happiness. It is particularly helpful to write about things with emotional content (things that make you happy, or things that upset you, and how you are coping with them). Expressing yourself in a nonjudgmental forum releases the emotional energy, and often gives you the opportunity to gain perspective and further process stressful or traumatic events. Writing about good things that happened to you (for example, keeping a gratitude journal) also increases happiness.An interesting study on automotive workers who were laid off from their jobs showed that those who journaled about their feelings, including the painful ones, were happier, healthier, and even found new jobs more quickly!
What we say to ourselves matters. You can shift your habitual thought patterns by giving yourself positive messages, especially if they are personally meaningful. This is particularly useful if you have identified new beliefs you want to reinforce. Write them on post-its and put them in places you see regularly (e.g., the bathroom mirror, the steering wheel of your car). Say them out loud to yourself. Include them in a meditation practice. Check out some of the little books of affirmations that are usually carried in the addiction areas of bookstores. Use them to create a little meditation practice, and help you change your beliefs. Make your own affirmation booklet, or a card to carry with the affirmation you want to embrace.
Focusing on what is good, on what is working, and anticipating that things will work out for the best, all increase our happiness level. We can learn to be more optimistic (Martin Seligman, a major proponent of Positive Psychology, wrote a book called Learned Optimism after his earlier work on learned helplessness made him famous.) Optimism reduces the amount of distress we experience when faced with life’s inevitable disappointments. It also helps us cope more effectively leading to better outcomes as well as better feelings.You can ask yourself, “In this situation, what would an optimist think?” Remember that ‘acting as if’ you believe the optimistic view actually impacts how you feel, and it strengthens the neuron connections for positive thinking in your brain.
There has been a lot of research on the power of an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ and the long-lasting impact on happiness is impressive. A broader approach is to increase your appreciation – looking for the good in your life, and even seeing positive in the challenges. As positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says, “Appreciate the good and the good appreciates.” Check out Louis Schwartzberg’s video on gratitude with Brother David Steindl-Rast. Find some time each day to focus on things you appreciate. Some people create a daily family practice around these exercises. A lot of research has been done on the impact of writing a gratitude letter. This means writing a letter to someone about how she or he impacted your life positively. Ideally, you read the letter to him or her. It creates a big boost in the happiness of the letter-writer as well as the recipient. One reason is because it makes us feel good to make other people feel good – more about that in the relationships section. If you incorporate appreciation into everyday interactions by telling people what you appreciate about them, you will increase your ability to notice things to appreciate – making yourself happier!
This is about noticing the good in the moment, and then replaying it in your mind. It probably helps to explain why experiences tend to make us happier than material things do. To practice savoring, be mindful about your experiences, noticing all the sensory inputs, and imprint them in your memory. Whether you are savoring a delicious bite of food, or the smell and softness of a baby’s neck, or the moment of winning a challenging tennis match, it is about noticing all the pleasant sensations and then revisiting them. Just those words may have evoked a sensory memory that boosts your happiness level. Give yourself the gift of savoring by paying attention to the good things – whether the budding of a tree, or the praise of a mentor. In addition, give yourself permission to replay them – it is healthy for you!
Choose to be happier! You have found the place to learn what YOU can do to have a happier, more fulfilling life!