Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Happiness Advantage

I’ve taken to calling the flight in April my “near-death experience”, and although most of the pilots on the forums I’ve read would probably argue that it was nothing of the sort, it still kind of jolted me into an increased self-awareness about the fragility of our time on earth. Our arrival back was interestingly timed with a webinar that was offered to us at work, a 2-hour session with a “happiness psychologist”, the American Shawn Achor. Whether it’s that I was just more open to receiving some tips or whether he’s just brilliant, I don’t know, but these two hours have really helped shaped my thinking in the 6 weeks since I watched it.

His philosophy hinges on something he calls the “happiness advantage”, which is that people who act happier and try to be happier are naturally more successful. He explained that many of us think we are working toward a goal or an objective with the aim to feel “happy” at the end of the project, but it’s the more successful people who recognize that if they take pride and feel achievement along the journey, they will be more happy; we will likely never reach absolutely all our goals or ambitions – or if we do, we’ll keep coming up with more things we want to do, so being happier on a day-to-day basis means we can achieve more as opposed to seeking an unattainable goal. He outlined some specific strategies for trying to adopt the mentality of being happier, and I have followed 2 of them pretty rigorously for a few weeks now and am loving how I feel. I’ll summarize them below:

- Daily gratitudes: it’s impossible to have a good day, every day, but he argues that there are always things to be thankful and happy for. This practice is about recording, every day for 21 days, 3 things in that day for which you are happy or grateful. They need to be specific, so writing down “I’m grateful for good health” is perhaps too all-encompassing. He told a story of a senior financial executive who introduced this with her family as part of their dinnertime routine: they would all go around and say 3 things for which they were grateful. On some day back in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, the executive came home and with the burden of a financial disaster on her shoulders, she was too distracted to ask her family for their gratitudes. It was only when her daughter asked her why they hadn’t done them that the exec stopped and realized that although the days’ events were bad, there were some things that she could do to help resolve some problems and that she needed to be positive to make a plan to do that. [if you’re cynical of bankers, you may disagree, but don’t discount this practice because of that!]. Achor also reported that after 6 months of doing the daily gratitudes, something like 75% of people reported finding their partners more attractive.

- Exercise: he mentions that regular exercise is as effective as taking an anti-depressant, so I’ve been running 3 times a week in the build-up to a 5K run in July. I never really liked running, but it’s been very liberating to be able to just open the door in the evening and head out for half an hour of peace and quiet, and time to think . Of course it is the summer, when the days are long and the weather is good; God knows what I’ll think when November rolls around and it gets dark at 4:30 pm, but for now I’m enjoying my runs.

- Journaling about meaningful events: if you’re unsure about what gives you a feeling of purpose or meaning, Achor says to pick one event or activity from your day from which you felt a sense of meaning or purpose. Describe it in writing (with pen/paper or electronically), spending about 45 seconds to 2 minutes just writing about what it meant to you and why it was positive. If you do this for 3 weeks, you can then look back and try to find a theme or a thread of those things that give you a sense of purpose. He mentions that in re-living the event, people actually embellish the facts so that it mentally becomes even more positive after the fact!

- Tapping into your social network to spread happiness: Achor says positive people make other people around them more positive. He mentions a study where two people were paired up with one being given specific instructions not to smile at the other person no matter what they said. When faced with a smiling person, most people – even though they had been told not to – could not stop themselves from smiling. In this exercise, you reach out to people with happy thoughts, things like a “hello” or a message of thanks. The likelihood is that they will respond in kind, and the feelings of happiness can then radiate back and forth between you. Being kind and happy toward others will make them be more positive and happy to you, and so on, and so on.

Now I know that none of this sounds like rocket science, and some things – especially exercise being good for - seem very obvious. But there was something about the way he presented these theories and encouraged us to adopt them, that was so effective for me. I’ve been doing the daily gratitudes and the exercise and have generally had such a more positive outlook on life. I love it! Have a go and see if it works for you…

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