Think You Can Increase Happiness? You Can with Practice

Happy woman playing with happy dog on floorI recently attended a superb seminar titled, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Well-being, presented by Jonah Paquette, Ph.D. I wanted to share with you some notable takeaways. Let’s begin by laying out a definition of happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D.:

“The experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Something we all strive to improve, right? After the seminar I was left with a stronger belief about our capacity to improve our baseline level of happiness and wellbeing. Take this statistic, for starters:

  • Approximately 42-50% of happiness is genetically influenced (predispositions toward certain moods or ways of viewing the world)
  • Only about 10% of our happiness is determined by external circumstances (eg: where we live, how much money we have, what schools we went to)
  • According to the study, around 40% of our happiness results from our actions and thoughts.

This was a big “Whoa” moment for me. As a therapist, I’ve always believed in our capacity for behavioral and emotional change as human beings. I’ve studied evidence-based practices, read about and witnessed first-hand, people making remarkable changes in mood, life outlook, inter-personal and social skill development. But this hit me differently, I think, because it is about increasing our baseline level of happiness, not about improving on a perceived deficit.

The big take-away here, which was the jumping off point for this helpful seminar, is that our baseline level of happiness and general sense of wellbeing is changeable. That there are researched practices and habits which we can learn, and which can raise our general sense of contentment and satisfaction in a lasting way.

How does this work? Our brains are plastic, meaning they can change. The size of different areas and certain pathways can increase or decrease depending on how much we use them. Changing habits and ways of thinking can rewire thought patterns. Dr. Paquette, a psychologist and author, explained that we can, ‘use the mind to change the brain, which in turn changes the mind. In other words, we can decide (with our mind) to do certain habits and practices which in turn change the physical structure of our brain, which then increases our sense of happiness (in our mind). Got it? Another helpful analogy used by the presenter is this: It’s like building a muscle – it requires spending regular time at the mental gym.

Let’s go to the gym for a quick example. Gratitude is one of the attributes, which if practiced regularly, can increase a sense of happiness and well-being. (By the way, I encourage you to try this before dismissing it as hokey, touchy-feely nonsense;-) One way to practice gratitude is through a gratitude letter and visit. This practice comes from Martin Seligman, via Dr. Paquette’s seminar.

Think about someone in your life who has helped you along the way, but whom you have never properly thanked. Write a detailed and thorough letter of gratitude towards this person, expressing your feelings towards them. Ideally you are able to set up a meeting with this person without revealing the purpose of the meeting. When you meet with them, read the detailed letter aloud or have them read it in your presence.

According to the studies Dr. Paquette has reviewed, the interpersonal component of gratitude seems to be the most powerful, and is what is at work here. Expressing our gratefulness to another person increases closeness and connection with that individual. Benefits of gratitude include improvements in:

  • Romantic relationships (Algoe, 2010)
  • Social Bonds (McCullough, 2002)
  • Being more forgiving (Rye, 2012)
  • Lower Depression, Anxiety, Stress (Seligman, 2005)
  • Better sleep (Wood, 2009)

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to studies on how to increase happiness and and other helpful practices of positive psychology. I highly recommend the book by Jonah Paquette, Real Happiness: Proven Paths to Contentment, Peace & Wellbeing, where he lays out many of these research findings and introduces many of the practices which can help increase happiness.

References and Resources

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Psychology Today Blog: The How of Happiness: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-happiness

Free online course: Be Happy: How to Bring More Joy to Your Life

https://aarp-lifereimagined.thebigknow.com/course/be-happy/session/be-happy

Jonah Paquette: Real Happiness: Proven Paths to Contentment, Peace & Wellbeing

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