Happiness is all a state of mind
Misery: it’s everywhere. We are all popping happy pills, checking ourselves into clinics and stocking up on happiness books. But for every report telling us it is all down to our ever-longer working hours, additive-laden food and endless commutes, there is a growing body of scientific research suggesting that happiness is, quite literally, a state of mind.
“You have to decide to be happy,” says Paul Jenner, author of TeachYourself Happiness. “Most people think happiness is something that arrives by itself, like rain. But it isn’t.”
Scientific research is starting to back this idea up. Rather than ha-ppiness being something we earn through circumstances, it seems we can work at it like we work our bodies at the gym, reaching beyond our ‘genetic set point’, the predisposition to happiness we were born with.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California, who has been researching happiness, there is converging evidence that some people are born happier than others, but that all of us can learn from their habits to raise our own happiness levels.
How do we do this?
By adopting certain exercises or “happiness strategies” that Lyubomirsky, in her tests,
found very effective in perking people up.
“People born with a high set point will do these ‘happiness strategies’ automatically. They naturally look on the bright side and are good at maintaining relationships. But if it doesn’t come naturally, we have to work at it, in the same way someone who is genetically determined to be overweight has to watch their diet and exercise.”
This issue of “working at it” is crucial to Lyubomirsky’s approach. She has discovered that timing and persistence are crucial. Do the exercises too often, and you may get bored; don’t do them often enough, and they may not make a difference.
So can a negative person really become happier through adopting these strategies? Lyubomirsky thinks so.
The first thing to do is step off the “hedonic treadmill”: that constant hunger for new acquisitions and experiences, which is seductive but which leaves people ultimately dissatisfied and hankering for more.
One way to counter it, Lyubomirsky says, is to invest meaning in goals that we adapt to less easily, “things that challenge and surprise us”, rather than static things such as money and possessions.
Lyubomirsky calls goals “dynamic happiness strategies”: they are things such as learning a language, taking up exercise, trying to be more forgiving, or focusing more on spiritual or philosophical beliefs.
No-nos include comparing ourselves to other people and negative rumination. “Research shows that constant rumination on negative events is linked to depression. If you are mildly depressed, it will depress you even more,” she explains.
What most psychologists agree is that putting our thoughts
into writing is useful. “Writing about your goals gives you an opportunity to learn about who you really are,” says Lyubomirsky. “It helps you see the ‘big picture’ of your life.”