How To Be Happy

Shelby and Brandon WestermanMy wonderful daughter, Shelby, is one of my biggest cheerleaders. From the time she first understood speech, she heard me talking about how attitude is everything and she practices what I preach.

When she was very young, I loved the times I would tuck her in at bedtime and we would discuss what transpired during each of our days. At the time, Colleen was beginning her pursuit of fitness and Richard Simmons had a daily program on Television. Shelby would always start her day’s activity list with “I watched Richard!” Even now, as she turns 30, she still says that if I interrogate her to closely.

I was a devotee of Zig Ziglar, Denis Waitley and Earl Nightingale in those days and the concept of a “positive mental attitude” was something I tried to teach both Shelby and Brandon early on. I got a lesson in enlightenment one evening when I got ready to turn out her light and asked her, “So, do you remember what PMA is?”

She grinned from ear to ear. She knew the answer!

“Pre-Menstrual Syndrome!”

I struggled with little success in controlling my laughter. “And what does it mean?”

“It means you have to think good thoughts every day of the month!”

When I told Colleen about all of this later, she nodded her head knowingly. “She got it right after all.” she said.

Shelby sent me an article from entitled “The pursuit of happiness is easier said than done”.

Science tells us that genetics play a part in our ability to be happy. There’s no shame in being aware that you may be clinically depressed, and the cadre of medications available in that realm can truly change lives.

But psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, Riverside told LiveScience Senior Writer Clara Moskovitz that, “Despite the finding that happiness is partially genetically determined, and despite the finding that life situations have a smaller influence on our happiness than we think they do, we argue that still a large portion of happiness is in our power to change.”

51 studies reviewed by Lyumbomirsky and her colleagues tested attempts to increase happiness through different types of positive thinking. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, point to five things you can do to be happier.

1. Be grateful – Some study participants were asked to write letters of gratitude to people who had helped them in some way. The study found that these people reported a lasting increase in happiness – over weeks and even months – after implementing the habit. What’s even more surprising: Sending the letter is not necessary. Even when people wrote letters but never delivered them to the addressee, they still reported feeling better afterwards.

2. Be optimistic – Another practice that seems to help is optimistic thinking. Study participants were asked to visualize an ideal future – for example, living with a loving and supportive partner, or finding a job that was fulfilling – and describe the image in a journal entry. After doing this for a few weeks, these people too reported increased feelings of well-being.

3. Count your blessings – People who practice writing down three good things that have happened to them every week show significant boosts in happiness, studies have found. It seems the act of focusing on the positive helps people remember reasons to be glad.

4. Use your strengths – Another study asked people to identify their greatest strengths, and then to try to use these strengths in new ways. For example, someone who says they have a good sense of humor could try telling jokes to lighten up business meetings or cheer up sad friends. This habit, too, seems to heighten happiness.

5. Commit acts of kindness – It turns out helping others also helps ourselves. People who donate time or money to charity, or who altruistically assist people in need, report improvements in their own happiness.

Dr. Lyubomirsky has taken the art of happiness to the iPhone, creating an application, called Live Happy, to help people boost their well-being.

Elizabeth Scott is a PHd candidate at San Diego State. She writes about stress for Scott recommends learning the art of “reframing”.

“Reframing,” Scott says, “is a way of changing the way you look at something and, thus, changing your experience of it. Reframing can turn a stressful event into either a major trauma or a challenge to be bravely overcome. Reframing can depict a really bad day as a mildly low point in an overall wonderful life. Reframing can see a negative event as a learning experience. Reframing is a way that we can alter our perceptions of stressors and, thus, relieve significant amounts of stress and create a more positive life before actually making any changes in our circumstances.”

Reframing works because your body can’t tell the difference between real stress and perceived stress. From Scott’s February 15th essay, are four techniques to help you learn to reframe.

1. Learn About Thinking Patterns. The first step in reframing is to educate yourself about some of these negative thinking patterns that may exacerbate your stress levels. See these common cognitive distortions to see which ones, if any, may come into play in your life. Also, read about negative explanatory styles to learn the particular way that pessimists view their life experiences; since pessimists tend to experience more stress and less success than do optimists, it’s important to understand how they think, and work to adopt a positive explanatory style instead. Educating yourself about thinking patterns and how they affect people is important for laying the groundwork for understanding and change.

2. Notice Your Thoughts. The next step is to catch yourself when you’re slipping into overly negative and stress-inducing patterns of thinking. Being aware of them is an important part of challenging and ultimately changing them. One thing you can do is just become more mindful of your thoughts, as though you’re an observer. When you catch negative thinking styles, just note them at first. If you want, you can even keep a journal and start recording what’s happening in your life and your thoughts surrounding these events, and then examine these thoughts through your new ‘lens’ to get more practice in catching these thoughts. Another helpful practice is meditation, where you learn to quiet your mind and examine your thoughts. Once you become more of an observer, it’s easier to notice your thoughts rather than remaining caught up in them.

3. Challenge Your Thoughts. As you notice your negative thoughts, an effective part of reframing involves examining the truth and accuracy (or lack thereof) of these thoughts. Are the things you’re telling yourself even true? Also, what are some other ways to interpret the same set of events? Which ways of seeing things serve you better? Instead of seeing things the way you always have, challenge every negative thought, and see if you can adopt thoughts that fit your situation but reflect a more positive outlook.

4. Replace Your Thoughts With More Positive Thoughts. Have you even been to a hospital and noticed that the nurses often ask people about their ‘discomfort’ rather than their ‘pain’? That’s reframing in action. If the patient is in searing pain, the term ‘discomfort’ becomes annoying and seems to reflect a disconnect in understanding, but if the pain is mild, reframing it as ‘discomfort’ can actually minimize the experience of pain for many patients. This is a useful reframing trick that we can all put into practice. When you’re looking at something negative, see if you can change your self talk to use less strong, less negative emotions. When you’re looking at a potentially stressful situation, see if you can view it as a challenge vs. a threat. Look for the ‘gift’ in each situation, and see if you can see your stressors on the more positive edge of reality: see them in a way that still fits the facts of your situation, but that is less negative and more optimistic and positive.

With these skills in your happiness toolbox you can discover how to change your life by changing you you look at life.