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I recently read the book ‘The How of Happiness‘ by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The book shows some of what has been scientifically been shown to improve happiness. The book is primarily aimed at people without depression, but the author notes that while this book wouldn’t cure depression, people with depression can probably benefit from reading the book.

The main part of the book is divided up into a variety of exercises that one can do to improve one’s happiness, which I may go into a little in later posts, but for now I’m going to deal with the earlier section of the book, which deals with what it is that makes us happy, and what doesn’t make us happy (in the long term).

People, myself included, can be tempted think that our happiness depends on what happens to us. It comes down to the statement; “If … I’d be happy”. If I had a boy/girlfriend I’d be happy. If I was rich I’d be happy. If I was able to loose weight I’d be happy. If I got on with my family I’d be happy. You’ve probably heard other people express similar sentiments, and perhaps even thought such things yourself.

But Lyubomirsky argues that while happiness may be affected by our circumstances, only about 10% of our overall happiness is because of what happens to us. One reason for this is that changes in circumstances only make us happy for relatively short periods of time. While winning the lotto may make you euphoric in the short term, studies looking at lotto winners a year later have shown that a year later their happiness has returned to normal. Similar things have been shown with marriage, where happiness on the wedding day is rated highly, but happiness returns to normal after a couple of years.

A bigger factor in our happiness is how we deal with circumstances. How we deal with our circumstances accounts for four times as much happiness as the circumstances themselves. For instance, when something goes wrong, say we lose a job, we can treat this as the end of the world, or we can treat it as a difficulty, but one that can be overcome – we might be able to find a far better job, and it was time for a change anyway. Alternatively when something goes our way, when we find that better job, we can treat it as a one off event, the result of chance, or we can treat it as something to be celebrated, that shows that we have skills that an employer might want. Reframing activities, like as those used in CBT, are based on this idea.

How we deal with circumstances is quite a big topic, but the important thing to remember is that while our happiness may be affected by circumstances, our happiness is also affected by how we deal with circumstances. This means we don’t have to be victims of circumstance. When things don’t go our way, which they will, and we are going to feel a degree of unhappiness about them. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story – how we deal with circumstances has a big effect on how happy we’re going to be.

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You have probably heard of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a popular form of talking therapy. One study found CBT to be as effective as antidepressants to treat depression, with around half the participants showing recovery (around 80% showing recovery if they’re also on antidepressants – if you want to look up the original study, see here).

A new form of CBT is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which combines CBT with mindfulness, a concept from eastern meditation practice. CBT is concerned with dealing with changing your thoughts, with the idea that if you can replace negative thoughts with realistic thoughts, this will affect your emotions in a positive manner. Mindfulness is intended to complement this by enabling you to become more aware of what is going on in your mind, and with this perspective you are more able to let negative thoughts come and go without them spiralling downwards.

It may sound a bit mystical, but it has potential. If you’re interested to know more, you could check it out on Wikipedia article, or the MBCT website. If you wanted to try out some mindfulness exercises, I found a couple of exercises on google that look ok: The Virtual Mindfullness Center (a variety of different exercises, follow the links), The meditation site (there’s a lot of advertising and links on this one, I’d just stick with the exercises in the main text).

July 2019
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