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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.

Continuing on from the previous post, we look at some research performed by the positive psychology movement. One of their main areas of research is how to make yourself happier. One study (which is summarized in the latter half of this document) looked at the effectiveness of internet based interventions on happiness.

People did a number of activities online, and their happiness and depression was measured over the next six months. For a lot of the exercises, happiness went up (and depression went down) immediately after the activities, but then returned to normal over the next few months. However, for two activities, there was an increase every each month for six months.

The two that caused an increase in happiness over the six months were: ‘using signature strengths’, and ‘three good things’. These were as follows:

  • Three good things in life. Each night, people would write down three things that went well in the day, and write down an explanation for why this had happened.
  • Using signature strengths in a new way. People took an online test to identify character strengths.  They received information about their top five strengths, and were asked to use one of these strengths in a new way each day for a week. (The online test can be found here – free registration required)

(Note, the increase in happiness was greater for people who continued these activities for longer than the week.)

So there you have it. Two ways that have been scientifically shown to improve happiness. So here’s a challenge for you. Why not give it a shot? Spend a short time each night for a week doing one of the two activities, and chances are you’ll be happier by the end of the week. What have you got to lose?

Positive psychology is a recent movement in psychology, which emphasises the scientific study of strengths as opposed to weaknesses. While Psychology has often examined what can go wrong with people, positive psychology attempts to examine what goes right with people. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on writing about some of this research. Today we’re looking at ‘Learned Optimism’

Martin Seligman is credited as being the father of positive psychology. In his earlier work, he proposed the ‘Learned Helplessness‘ theory of depression: Depressed people learn hopelessness from previous situations, and come to think that there is no way to get out of unpleasant situations. Later in his career, Seligman instead wrote about ‘Learned Optimism’ and how people can move from hopelessness to optimism (see these lecture notes  or this book review).

Optimism depends on an individuals explanatory styles:

  • Permanence. Optimistic people tend to view good things as being the norm, while negative events are viewed as ‘one offs’. Negative events set everyone back, but people viewing these events as not being permanent recover quicker.
  • Pervasiveness. Optimistic people tend to view the good things that happen to them as global, affecting all of their life, while bad things that happen only apply to the area in which the negative event occured. So, good events affect a lot, whereas negative events are somewhat isolated and meaningless.
  • Personalisation. Optimistic people tend to accept good things as being a product of their own effort, while negative events are the product of external events. So when things go wrong, it needn’t be viewed as being your fault.

In order to move from Learned Hopelessness to Learned Optimism, an ABCDE exercise similar to cognitive restructuring is suggested:

  • Adversity – Identify the negative event that is occuring
  • Belief – Identify the thoughts you have about the event
  • Consequences – Examine what happens when you think such thoughts, how it affects your feelings, and actions.
  • Disputation – There are two main ways suggested to deal with these consequences, distract yourself from such thoughts, or, for a more long term solution, dispute with the beliefs, using one of the following techniques:
    • Evidence – Often negative beliefs are unrealistic. Show yourself that the negative belief is wrong, by asking whether there is any real evidence for what you’re thinking.
    • Alternatives – There are usually a number of alternative explanations for what has happened, but people often adopt the most negative one. As yourself whether you could explain what has happened in another way
    • Implications – Even if a negative belief is correct, it’s not the end of the world. People can often make things seem a lot worse than they actually are, by expecting themselves to be perfect. Sometimes it’s just a matter of accepting that we might have a small flaw – without forgetting also have a lot of good points as well.
    • Usefulness – In some situations, it’s better to think pragmatically than being caught up by negative beliefs. Rather than thinking ‘there’s no way out of this situation’, it’s better to think ‘how can I attempt to get out of this situation?’
  • Energization – The usual product of changing beliefs like this is that you will be more likely to engage with the situation, and to come up with ways to approach whatever is affecting you in the first place, leading to you feeling better about the situation, and yourself.

So, there’s an approach that you might find helpful. It might help to go through the exercise with a past situation, or a hypothetical situation, and look at what you would do should it happen to you.

December 2019
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