Browsing the archives for the happiness tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      


When Not to “Be Here Now”

I'm just sayin'

The mainstay New Age advice “Be here now,” is great sometimes. It’s essential for things like meditation, children’s birthday parties, May in Vermont, not letting your relatives freak you out, and dying well.

In other cases, “here and now” is overrated. Here are some suggested situations in which it’s best not to be here now:

* Figuring out where you left your keys
* Writing a novel
* Anything involving dentistry or proctology
* Using credit cards (which are more safely used while imagining your future financial state in vivid detail)
* Playing chess
* Working on your dissertation on a gorgeous Spring day when the birds are singing and [fill in outdoor activity of your choice] is calling
* Crossing the street (it’s best to think ten or fifteen seconds ahead for this)
* When now is depressing and thinking about what you can achieve in the future is inspiring
* Walking through any place where you have happy memories
* Cleaning the cat box

I’m just sayin’.

Photo by cogdogblog

2 Comments

The Surprising Impact of Getting Happy on Career Success

States of mind

Shawn Achor

An interesting article on IT World Canada last week offers some surprising job success insights from psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.

Here were some of Achor’s assertions that struck me as particularly useful (some are quotes and some paraphrases, all from the IT World Canada article):

We know that doctors, when they’re positive, perform diagnoses 19 percent more accurately.

Achor had 200 tax audit managers [practice a gratitude exercise every morning] during the 2009 tax season, which was expected to be the worst tax season on record. After 21 days, Achor measured their emotional outlook using various psychological assessment tools and found that their levels of optimism rose … Two days after the [positive psychology] training, they felt significantly higher levels of happiness and job satisfaction … Four months later, the group … had significantly higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction …

The correlation [between success and social support] is .7, which is significantly higher than the correlation between smoking and cancer.

The article is relevant to anyone who works for a living whether they’re in Information Technology or not. You can find it here: “Why Your Negative Outlook is Killing Your Career.”

No Comments

Joy and Misery for Writers

Writing

In response to my 2009 post “7 Key Self-Motivation Strategies for Writers,” Ankush commented about his own experiences applying some of the ideas in the article and then asks some thorny questions about where we go from there. One of those questions was this, which applies as well to many other areas of life as it does to writing:

Will I ever 100% enjoy writing or will it always be a cold, suffocating process to start and finish a piece?

Having talked with many dozens (possibly hundreds) of successful and aspiring writers about their process, it seems clear to me that some writers find writing is very hard work and often unpleasant; others find it to be work like any other work; and yet others find it to be loads of fun, even when it’s difficult. I know of successful writers in all three categories: none is an absolute barrier to success (though I know which approach I prefer).

Happiness vs. pleasure
The first thing to know is that happiness comes from fulfillment or satisfaction, not necessarily pleasure per se (see “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness“). A lot of activities engage us even when they don’t offer immediate pleasure, everything from performing open heart surgery to watching horror movies, from running a marathon to playing a video game (see “A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games“). We get engaged in these things because of larger goals: healing people, accomplishing something difficult, being healthy, or connecting emotionally with something we see. It’s these meanings that make our actions worthwhile even when they’re not always pleasant to experience.

A sense of rightness
This works the way it does partly because happiness has a lot to do with a sense of rightness. We might call this “pride” in the sense of our images of ourselves matching our visions for what we want to be. For instance, if I find out that someone has been entertained or helped by something I wrote, then my view of myself as an effective writer matches my aspiration to be an effective writer: all feels right with the world.

Note that we’re not talking about pride in terms of arrogance or a sense of superiority: we’re talking about something more akin to what we can sometimes feel through meditation (see “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation“). If I am meditating and I successfully let go of all of my expectations and preoccupations, even if only for a few moments, then suddenly there is nothing I want or need that I don’t have. Strangely, you can get a very similar feeling by either reaching your goals or by letting go of them. Of course, if we’d like to live a life in which we get things done, then both learning to let go of things that don’t truly matter and pushing hard to get to goals that really do matter need to fit into the equation. Getting wrapped up in too many things drags us down, and getting wrapped up in too little leaves us without an anchor.

So in a larger sense, writing (or anything else difficult that’s worth doing) is going to feel good to us to the extent that we feel like we’re doing a good job at it. This is where we come to some potentially practical ideas, because how we feel about things has a great deal to do with what we tell ourselves about those things, our internal commentary. To really delve into this idea and to understand it well enough to start turning your own moods around at will, check out “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”

Internal commentary in a nutshell
If you decide not to read that material just now, the brief explanation is this: we act as commentators on our own lives, often without realizing it. Whenever we do something or think something or experience something, we normally make judgments about that and then relay those judgments to ourselves. For instance, someone might cut me off in traffic and come close to causing an accident. I could experience this a lot of different ways, and how I experience it will change how I feel. I might think

  • That moron shouldn’t be driving!
  • Wow, that was close. I’m glad I’m OK.
  • Damn, these people come out of nowhere–there’s no way to be safe on the roads!
  • Yeah, that’s exactly how my day has been going.
  • I’m a much better driver than that guy!

I might feel proud, scared, angry, resentful, worried, relieved, or any number of other things, and how I feel is dictated in large part (though not entirely) by how I think about the situation. So too with my writing. I might write 250 words in a day and be proud that I wrote at all, annoyed that I wrote so little, delighted that I wrote something that is meaningful, despondent that what I wrote wasn’t better, and so on.

Right vision and action to match
Accordingly, it helps to have a vision of writing that you care about and can live up to–and then to pursue that vision. If you want to get more pages turned out, focus on setting daily word count goals. If you want your writing to be better, mix your writing with reading about writing, getting feedback, and critiquing other people’s work. If you want to get published more, send out more of your work. As long as you working hard on a goal that’s important to you and giving yourself credit for that work, you’re likely to feel relatively happy about what you’re doing. And of course it’s much easier to write a lot and to care about your writing if writing is a direct source of happiness for you.

To put it another way, if you’re spending your writing time beating yourself up about how bad your writing is or fretting about how slowly the novel is progressing, it will be hard to enjoy the process. If on the other hand you’re putting time and effort into aspects of writing that are important to you and giving yourself credit for doing so, it will be hard not to enjoy the process.

Don’t forget about flow
One last point about enjoyment and writing: while you can’t always be in flow (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow“), when you can achieve that state, you’ll be doing your best work and absolutely rapt.

Photo by redcargurl

PS – There’s more to say on other points Ankush brought up about knowing what to write and about genre versus literary writing, and I’m hoping to address those points in other posts in the near future.

3 Comments

Cures for Sadness, Part I: Ideas and People

Handling negative emotions

Stuck in sadness
In his classic book Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman describes one of the most common responses to sadness: rumination. Something happens; we get sad; and then that sadness encourages us to sit and think the situation over, reliving it or elaborating on it or beating ourselves up. These kinds of rumination tend to keep the sadness going.

Being sad can actually be a helpful in some circumstances, as described in “The Benefits of Feeling Bad.” For instance, if I’m sad because I’ve done something unkind to a friend so that the friend is now upset with me, ruminating may help me understand where I went wrong and how I can handle things differently next time. It can also help me formulate an apology and convince my friend that I’m truly sorry.

In many situations, though, being stuck in sadness is simply painful. When this is the case, according to the research Goleman cites and much other research that has come out since he wrote the book, we have several options for finding our way out of sadness.

Thinking our way out
One of the most powerful means of getting out of any kind of negative emotion, a mainstay of cognitive therapies, is using idea repair (officially known as “cognitive restructuring”): see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” With this approach we eavesdrop on our own thoughts, find out what it is we’re doing to make ourselves sadder, and change our thinking to relieve that pressure.

Socialization vs. sadness
Another method–one you’ve probably used on yourself or on a friend–is social time. According to research, says Goleman, sad or depressed people who spend time with people they enjoy very often experience a big boost in mood. The barrier here is that a sad or depressed person often avoids the company of others, and activities don’t sound as appealing when a person’s mood is low. This makes friends who are willing to drag you out to have fun when you’re down very valuable.

Without going into great detail, a few of the reasons social time improves mood are:

  • Moods tend to be contagious, so a single sad person in a group of happy people has a good chance of being influenced by the mood of the others.
  • A person who is out in a group is likely to make a greater effort not to act depressed, and acting out a mood is a good way of encouraging that mood. For instance, the act of smiling tends to make people happier even if the smile is completely fake.
  • In a group, broken ideas are more likely to be challenged and functional ideas more likely to be offered as replacements.

In further articles in this series, I’ll talk about other techniques for trumping sadness.

Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor

No Comments

Why Happiness Is Key

States of mind

As we wrap up 2010 and look toward all the new things that will come around in 2011, I’d like to offer a goal for the coming year: happiness.

Pursuing happiness might seem frivolous, or selfish, or distracting, but there’s a good argument for it being the single most important thing to seek in life. Happiness is more important than beauty, because what use is it to be beautiful but miserable? For the same reasons happiness can be seen as more important than wealth, success, recognition, and pleasure. To put it another way, it doesn’t much matter what we have or which of our wishes are fulfilled if our possessions and fulfilled wishes don’t make us happy … since in that case what good are these things?

Even health is arguably less important than happiness, since living a long, miserable life appears to be less rewarding than living a short, happy life.

To take a pot shot at my own argument, though, it’s true that sometimes our possessions, abilities, and advantages can be used for other people’s benefit. For instance, money can be used to buy food, clothing, a home, and better education for children. This same argument can be widened to the question of helping others in general, and to compassion: surely it’s not good to be happy if happiness makes others miserable or prevents us from helping others?

However, I would point out that in most cases happiness makes us more able to reach out, improves our influence on others’ moods (see “How Other People’s Happiness Affects Our Own“), and provides a means to improve our willpower (see “Willpower as Caring About Lasting Happiness“). It’s also true that doing good works for others is one of the most powerful ways to make ourselves happy, as shown in numerous studies. For example, in one study it was found that people were better able to increase their happiness by spending money on someone else than by spending the same amount of money on themselves.

So compassion and helping others may or may not be more important than happiness, but since they tend to go hand in hand with happiness, it’s not particularly important to choose between helping and happiness.

With all of that in mind, why not make happiness your number one priority in 2011? I don’t necessarily mean pleasure or fun (see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“), but true happiness: satisfaction and joy with your actions and choices and life.

Or to put it another way: have a very, very happy New Year!

Luc

photo by Dawn Ashley

No Comments

Meditation Mistakes

The human mind

You could make a good argument based on research that meditation is one of the best things we can do for physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and general happiness. Meditation focuses attention, relieves stress, increases the ability to cope with problems (including chronic pain), improves sleep, and provides a welcome reality check.

Popular, but not popular enough
So with that in mind, it’s a little surprising that so few people meditate regularly. According to this handy page from the National Institutes of Health citing a 2007 U.S. government survey (“Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults and children: United States, 2007“), only 9.4% of adult respondents had meditated at all in the last 12 months–and many of those 9.4% surely don’t meditate regularly. On the one hand, this is a huge number: for instance, based on that figure it seems likely that the great majority of U.S. residents, whether or not they’re aware of it, know someone who meditates at least every once in a while. On the other hand, meditation seems to benefit virtually anyone who gives it a good try, so the fact that so few Americans do meditate regularly is disappointing.

Some ideas as to why people don’t meditate
I imagine one major reason many people don’t meditate is that it still comes across as being foreign or New Agey, creating a barrier for people who aren’t comfortable with those labels. About those of us who have at least tried it, I began to realize recently when reading one woman’s account of her meditation experiences that many of us just don’t feel like we’re good at it.

That’s certainly been true of me sometimes. I’ll start meditating, and then I’ll have a thought about something, interrupting the meditation. Rather than letting the thought go, I sometimes tell myself to stop having thoughts, then chastise myself for getting into a mental conversation about thinking, then rebuke myself for chastising myself, then realize that the rebuke is a thought and tell myself to stop having thoughts. (I’m not even exaggerating.) While meditating, a person can easily feel distracted, taken by surprise by unexpected feelings or realizations, uncomfortable, unsure, or silly.

Why meditation problems are not a problem
The freeing thing to realize–or at least it’s a real help to me–is that there’s no need to be perfect at meditating for it to be helpful. It’s also likely that everyone else who learns to meditate has many of the same problems to one degree or another. Certainly, a monk who has been meditating hours per day for decades is probably going to be a lot better at the practice than you or I, but there’s no reason to believe such people didn’t originally have many of the same meditation issues that crop up for me or you, or that these issues completely prevent us from experiencing the benefits of meditation. Even poor meditation has a lot of good effects.

For more information on meditation, you may be interested in other articles on the subject on this site like “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation” and “15-Minute Online Guided Meditation from Kelly McGonigal.”

Photo by JS North

No Comments

How to Have a Good Day: 6 More Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

In a previous article, “How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before,“ I talked about ways to help make a day go well through preparation. In my last article, “How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning,” I continued the discussion by talking about things that can be done in the morning to help improve the rest of the day. This third article offers more strategies to improve a day by handling the morning well.

  • Do one constructive thing early on. Accomplishing something worthwhile, even if it’s a small thing, tends to give a boost in self-confidence and optimism, especially if it’s a task that has been lingering or that has more impact that something its size normally would.
  • Keep an eye out for broken ideas. “Broken ideas” or “cognitive distortions” are patterns of thinking that do more harm than good; you can read about them here. By reminding ourselves to be aware of our own thoughts and being vigilant for broken ideas, we can head off emotional problems and distractions.
  • Be prepared to face trouble. Any day can potentially bring trouble: unexpected expenses, illness, things breaking, people not coming through, and so on. Since trouble can’t be eradicated from our lives, it helps to be of a mind to face it. When we’re distracted, unprepared, or in a bad mood, it’s often difficult to steel ourselves to tackle problems that arise, and instead we may tend to avoid, make bad compromises, give up, or struggle unnecessarily. Reminding ourselves to do our best to take problems in stride will help lower stress and increase our ability to fix issues that come up.
  • Meditate. It’s true, meditation takes time, and it’s not easy, at least at first. But meditation has proven itself valuable again and again in studies and human experience in terms of aiding focus, lowering stress, and increasing happiness–which makes it a very useful practice for first thing in the morning. For more on this, see my article “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation.” Yoga can have similar benefits in the morning, and even beginners can benefit through use of tools like yoga DVDs.
  • Exercise early. Exercise ups metabolism, improves mood, and increases immediate physical well-being (even if you’re a little sore from the workout). It also starts the day off with a constructive accomplishment, which as we’ve already discussed, has its own good impacts.
  • Use music to your advantage. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys adding music to other activities rather than being distracted by it, you can take advantage of music’s ability to make a noticeable impact on mood and emotions. Memories and associations, rhythms, the act of singing along (if you’re inclined), and other aspects of music give it a direct line to the parts of our brains that regulate emotions. For more on this, see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Photo by Roshnii

No Comments

How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

Some days can be one problem after another; on others, everything seems to be going out way. While there are steps we can take to troubleshoot a bad day while it’s happening (see “Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“), we can also help encourage good days. In my last article (“How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before“), I offered some steps we can take at night to help make the next day as good as it can be. Today’s article continues the topic with steps we can take in the morning.

  • Set aside some time to think. It’s often inconvenient to try to make time in the morning, especially when it means getting up earlier, but doing so is powerful. When we don’t have time to think about what’s going on, we generally act on habit, so that bad habits–like being late, eating poorly, or avoiding stressful responsibilities–can often start a day off on the wrong foot. Our brains have developed to take cues from the world around us and interpret them to predict the future, so that a few bad habits first thing in the morning can set the stage for a downward spiral. By contrast, starting off with a few good choices provides encouragement, happiness, and self-confidence.
  • Remind yourself of your goals. Whenever we want to move forward with a goal, it’s worthwhile to keep that goal in mind as often as possible. If you’ve ever had the experience of making a strong resolution, keeping it for a little while, then forgetting for a few days or weeks when something else came up, you probably remember coming back to it later to feel completely derailed. Reminding ourselves clearly and explicitly of a current goal first thing in the morning helps keep our focus and mental efforts on that goal.
  • Remind yourself of immediate payoffs. Although major goals are by definition long-term, a good goal usually has short-term payoffs as well. Examples include things like feeling physically better when not eating junk food or finding things that are needed while organizing, but progress on any goal also can have the effect of increasing self-confidence, relieving stress, and generating a sense of accomplishment. Reminding ourselves of these immediate payoffs provides a reason to care about our goals even when the long-term results don’t feel important, as sometimes happens when we’re wrapped up or emotionally involved with other things.
  • Be willing to let go. Sometimes the first step in increasing happiness is being willing to surrender things we’re upset about–to stop focusing on upsetting incidents or self-defeating thoughts. As ridiculous as it sounds, I sometimes picture things like this floating away from me as helium balloons. Corny or not, an approach like this gives me a way to separate from what’s bothering me. Consciously committing to doing this when necessary through the day–and starting with any trouble that may already be brewing in the morning–can relieve stress and aid focus.

There’s more we can do in the mornings to encourage the day to go well: I’ll take up the other techniques in my next post.

Photo by OldOnliner

No Comments

How to Harness Desire for Better Willpower

States of mind

Wanting something isn’t all there is to motivation: motivation requires knowledge of what you need to do, effort, and attention, for instance. Yet desiring something–organization, health, success, an achievement–is the most basic and essential ingredient of motivation.

I haven’t written much about the importance of desire in motivation because the connection seems so basic and obvious, but recently I’ve been realizing that desire isn’t as simple as it has seemed to me.

Desires change constantly
It seems we tend to think of our desires as being very consistent over time, but in truth they can expand to fill our whole attention or dwindle away to nothing in just a few moments. For example, a person might wake up in the morning with a firm resolution to start getting really fit, but by three in the afternoon, after a particularly wearing day, care about nothing so much as chocolate, or someone might be driven to rise to the top of her profession one week and perfectly content in her current position the next.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our desires change so much and so quickly: desire is influenced by both physiology (hunger signals, tiredness, the dopamine rush of a pleasurable experience, and so on) and thinking (for instance, admiring what someone else has achieved or daydreaming about the future). Our attention, physiological state, current thoughts, immediate environment, communication from others, and other factors can change from moment to moment.

The thing to take away from this realization that desires change is that sometimes when willpower falters, the root problem is that for that moment we just don’t care about the goal.

Affecting our own desires
Knowing that our desires change and that losing desire for a goal tends to cause willpower to go down the tubes leads us to the conclusion that sometimes we will want to influence our own desires. This sounds very strange: if we don’t want something, why would we expend effort to make ourselves want it? The key realization here is that what we desire at any given moment isn’t necessarily based on what will make us feel happy and fulfilled.

For instance, I might very much want to stay up all night and watch a Gilligan’s Island marathon, but being exhausted for the next day or several days combined with the negative thoughts and feelings from knowing I was sabotaging myself would not make me happy no matter how much I wanted to stay up.

In fact, it might be fair to say that getting what we tend to desire usually doesn’t lead to lasting happiness (see my article on lottery winners, “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness,” and my article on hedonic adaptation, “Why Long-Term Happiness Levels Tend to Stay the Same.”) The exception is when we desire something that provides long-term benefits, like health or rewarding work situations. Therefore being happy, fulfilled, and empowered often means changing what we desire.

How to change what we want
Changing our own desires may sound like a strange and tricky process, but in fact we do it all the time by focusing our attention. We may choose to read about Dr. Martin Luther King and begin to feel ourselves wanting to make a positive difference in the world. We may choose to walk into an electronics store to see what the new gadgets are and become possessed for the overwhelming desire for a 3D television. We may start reading about rollerblading and find ourselves wanting to get more active.

Other articles on this site talk about changing our environment and making good connections with other people to encourage ourselves toward our goals, and these are good external ways to influence our desires. But what it often comes down to is what we choose to think about. That moment of decision during which I have the choice “Stop in at the electronics store, or pull over at the park and go for a walk?” will change not only my environment but what I have available to focus on. The moment in the restaurant when I choose to look carefully at the “heart healthy options” on the one hand or “deep fried specialties” on the other will influence what I begin to be interested in ordering.

And the wonderful thing about changing our attention is that while it takes a momentary effort, when we do it we’re not yet to the point of strongly desiring something, so it doesn’t take the kind of complete reorientation we face when we already want something but know that it isn’t a good choice.

So while focusing attention and influencing our own desires won’t on its own provide all of the motivation we’ll ever need, it is one of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of altering our minds for our own benefit.

No Comments

Great Expectations Alone Won’t Cut It

Handling negative emotions

I’ve been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, and there’s a lot for me to like in it. The thing I like the least, I’ve been thinking, is how some characters persist miserably in behavior that isn’t any good for them. Miss Havisham wallows for decade after decade in her anger and disappointment at being a jilted bride, and as she drifts ghost-like through her house in the rags of her wedding dress, I mentally shout at her, “What are you doing? Is this really what’s going to make you happy?”

And Pip, the main character, is worse: after being elevated to wealth by an unknown benefactor, he torments himself by pursuing a beautiful woman who makes him miserable, stops visiting the people who love him and make him happy because they’re beneath his station, and uses his wealth to run up huge debts by living beyond even his newly extravagant means. It makes me want to take him by the shoulders, shake him, and shout “Wake up! Why are you making yourself miserable?”

At least, it does until I realize how much I do the same things sometimes: maintaining a negative emotion because of having become attached to it, or spending huge effort pursuing an unworthy goal, or looking away from the difficult but ultimately more satisfying choices.

These are the patterns of most of our miseries, and there are five things we need to get through to go from there to a happier life:

  1. Awareness. We can’t do anything about our problems before we admit that they’re problems–which presumably is why admitting you have a problem is the foundational first step in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  2. Belief. Pip believes there’s nothing he can do about his attraction to Estella, but in fact we have enormous influence over our own beliefs, preferences, and drives. Believing that our problems can be changed is more or less essential to purposely making that change.
  3. Knowledge. It doesn’t help to want to change if we don’t know what we want to stop doing and what we need to start doing instead. Understanding what success looks like, and how that differs from what we’re doing now, gets us from just wanting to change to being able to see what that change would be.
  4. Habit. Many of our behaviors are ingrained and will stay with us unless disrupted by accident or on purpose. Even if we know how we want to change our actions, we won’t act that way automatically: we need to build new habits and disrupt old ones. (Note: this long, hard-work phase is often skipped in novels and other stories, in which the realizations alone are sometimes portrayed as being enough. In real life, not so much.)
  5. Time and attention. Our resources are limited, including our time, strength, attention, and focus. Some of these resources need to be dedicated to making a change if a change is desired, and that generally means that they have to come from somewhere else.

Dickens being Dickens, I have a hard time imagining that Pip will come to a bad end. If he does win out in the end, I’ll be interested to see how he gets through these five steps (or at least the first three) to find his real strength.

No Comments
« Older Posts
Newer Posts »


%d bloggers like this: