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Increasing Happiness–Scientifically

A few weeks ago, I finished an online course about global poverty.  While I enjoyed the experience, I thought I’d try something more upbeat this time around.  So I registered for The Science of Happiness sponsored by edX and the University of California–Berkeley and was not disappointed.  

Everyone wants to be happy.  Not only do you feel better emotionally, but it provides all sorts of benefits for your physical self as well. Happy people have more friends, live longer, have fewer health problems and generally enjoy life more.  But did you know that 50% of your happiness level is genetic and there’s not much you can do about that.  However, 10% is determined by life circumstances and there are some things you can do about that.  Whereas the remaining 40% is based on your actions, how you choose to live your life.  (See Happiness: it’s not just your genes, stupid!) Basically, you are in control of somewhere between 40 and 50% of your overall happiness.  Sounds good to me!

So how happy are you now?  Well, there are ways to find out!  Start with the Authentic Happiness Inventory sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania to measure your overall happiness. You have to register but it’s free.  While you are there go ahead and take the General Happiness Scale which assesses enduring happiness and the Fordyce Emotions Questionnaire which measures current happiness.  Now you have a baseline to work with.

Instead of going through why you should be happy, as the course did, I’ll just assume that you want to be happy and concentrate on that 40-50% that you have some control over. The course had a number of Happiness Practices that have been scientifically proven to increase your happiness.  Of course, the amount of happiness that you experience after applying these practices in your life varies from person to person as is to be expected. But it can’t hurt to give them a try!  Interspersed among the happiness practices are the movies that were included as part of the course syllabus.  You don’t want to miss those! I especially recommend Hector and the Search for Happiness.

Happiness practice #1: Three good things

Spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.  I already make a practice of doing this on a regular basis.  I think it really does make a difference.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening

Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. What’s your compassionate level?  Find out by taking the Compassionate Love Scale that measures your tendency to support, help, and understand other people.

Happiness Practice #3: Random Acts of Kindness

This was my favorite activity. Do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it.  If you need some inspiration try 101 Easy Ideas For Random Acts Of Kindness.

Happiness practice #4: Forgiving

Begin by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened. Not sure you need to forgive anyone? Take the Transgression Motivations Questionnaire to measures your forgiveness level.

Happiness practice #5: Mindfulness

This practice has three options.  Choose the one that works best for you.  The more you do each practice, the more happiness benefits you will reap.

Option #1 Mindful Breathing

Focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally, you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes daily. 

Option #2 Body Scan Meditation

Focus your attention on different parts of your body, from your feet to the muscles in your face. This activity is designed to help you develop a mindful awareness of your bodily sensations, and to relieve tension wherever it is found. Research suggests that this mindfulness practice can help reduce stress, improve well-being, and decrease aches and pains.  Practice 20-45 minutes, three to six days per week.

 

Option #3 Loving-Kindness Meditation

This one consists of receiving and sending loving thoughts. Practice 15-45 minutes, one to five times per week for eight weeks.

 

Happiness practice #6: Self-Compassionate Letter

Identify something about yourself that makes you feel ashamed, insecure, or not good enough. It could be something related to your personality, behavior, abilities, relationships, or any other part of your life. Once you identify something, write it down and describe how it makes you feel. The next step is to write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance for the part of yourself that you dislike.

Happiness practice #7: Best Possible Self

Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all of the relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies, and/or health. What would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future? For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be.  How optimistic are you about the future and the creation of your best possible self?  Take the Optimism Test.  Is your work an issue? Take the Work-Life Questionnaire and find out your work-life satisfaction.

Happiness practice #8: Gratitude letter

Call to mind someone who did something for you for which you are extremely grateful but to whom you never expressed your deep gratitude.  Write a letter to this person. Deliver your letter in person if possible.  Read the letter to this person.  I read my gratitude letter to my mother.  She said it made her year.  

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude Journal

Write down up to five things for which you feel grateful. The physical record is important—don’t just do this exercise in your head. Do this for at least 15 minutes per day, at least once per week for at least two weeks. Studies suggest that writing in a gratitude journal three times per week might actually have a greater impact on our happiness than journaling every day.  How grateful are you?  Take the Gratitude Survey that measures your appreciation about the past. Join Thnx and sign up for the 10-Day Intensive, or 21-Day Gratitude Challenge.

Happiness practice #10: Awe Walk

This one is so simple but so powerful.  Try to do this as much as possible. Go for a walk. Turn off your cell phone. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time.  Appreciate your surroundings.

There you have it!  Ten scientifically proven ways to make yourself happier.  Should you wish to know the reasons why these practices will make you happier,  go ahead and take the course.  It’s free, so what have you got to lose?

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