How To Be Happier

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Here are three simple and effective evidence based practices borrowed from the Greater Good Science Center’s recent 8-week course on happiness. They are simple exercises from the Positive Psychology movement and are things you can do right now to can help improve the quality of your life, decrease stress, anxiety and depression and increase a felt sense of happiness and meaning in your life.

Positive psychology is “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” It is concerned with what makes life rich, full, and meaningful. Traditionally psychology was always focused on mental illness and disease, going all the way back to Freud. Between 1887 and 2001, for every 21 research studies in psychology on a negative topic, there was only one related to a positive aspect of life.

The Positive Psychology movement is quite recent. It got it’s official start 1998, when Dr Martin Seligman – the founder of the movement – chose it as the theme for his term as president of the America Psychological Association. Since then it has grown and become very influential. It focuses on helping people improve the quality of their lives.

Noticing the Good

We are hardwired as human beings to remember the negative in our lives. Negative memories have a much higher retention rate than positive memories. The theory is that there was an evolutionary advantage to remembering threat and danger, and an advantage to focusing on threat for keeping ourselves in the gene pool. So negative rumination and worry helped us to survive. But they never help us to thrive.

One study – showing the power of the negative – focused on sleep deprived neonatal nurses. There is a known connection between sleep deprivation and memory loss. Sleep deprived nurses had a 40% loss of memory of general events that happened during their shift compared non sleep deprived nurses. But for negative events during that same shift, these same nurses had no statistically significant loss of memory at all

Rick Hanson, a psychologist in San Rafael, famously said that our brains are like “Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative.” However we can positively impact our mood if we take the time to focus on the positive and make our brains more like Velcro for the positive.

Practice # 1: Three Good Things

There are estimated to be 20, 000 distinct moments in each of our days. At the end of your day, about an hour before bedtime, think of just 3 good moments during that day. You can do it by yourself and write it down, or have a conversation with your spouse or partner. Share your 3 best moments. And share what made each moment powerful and positive. Again, since our minds tend to grab onto the negative, the longer you can think about and pause on the positive, the more chance your brain has to take it in.

Dr. Seligman points towards numbers of studies showing that “becoming more conscious of good events reliably increases feelings of happiness and decreases feelings of depression.” Small practices, repeated over time, can have a big impact.


University studies reviewed by the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley indicated that acts of kindness towards others boosts happiness and reduces anxiety and depression. These studies also indicate less loneliness, stronger immune systems, fewer body aches, lower levels of depression, better cardio health, and more energy and strength can come from practicing kindness towards others.

Elizabeth Dunn at University of British Columbia did a study comparing sharing resources versus keeping them for ourselves. She gave $20 to experimental subjects, who were instructed to either give it away or spend it on themselves She measured their subjective happiness before and after. People who gave money showed an increase in happiness over the day, while people who spent it on themselves showed a decrease in happiness.

Barb Fredrickson, from the University of Carolina, studied using loving kindness meditations over the course of 8 weeks. The practice was to have experimental subjects direct kind warm thoughts to other people for 5 – 10 minutes a day and then track their experience of positive emotions like contentment, amusement and joy. Over the course of 9 weeks, subjects experienced an increase in their daily experience of positive emotions.

Practice #2: Five Kind Things

This exercise comes from researcher Sonja Lyubormisky. Practice 5 kind things in a single day and write about them. These 5 kind things can be anything, large or small. Stopping to give directions a lost tourist on the street. Help a friend with a chore. Volunteer at a community agency helping other. For the best results, it’s best to mix it up and not do the same things for the same person over and over Afterwards reflect by writing about it down or describing to your partner what you did. Give your brain more of a chance to take it in.


Researchers at UC Davis, University of Miami, Eastern Washington University, and UC Riverside have studied gratitude, and shown that practicing gratitude increases feelings of happiness, optimism, satisfaction, and positive feelings towards others.

Practice #3:  Keeping a Gratitude Journal

Reflect and write about moments in the day where you felt gratitude. Include both people and things. Spend 15 minutes a day, at least once a week, for at least two weeks. There’s not one right way to do it, but here are some suggestions from the Greater Good Science Center:

  • Be as specific as possible.
  • Be as detailed as possible.
  • Get personal – focusing on experiences with other people has the biggest impact.
  • Consider what your life would be like without these good people or things.
  • See good things as gifts.
  • Notice surprises.
  • If you repeat things or people on your list, think about different aspects of that thing or person.
  • And don’t overdo it. Writing one to three times per week is can be more powerful than doing it daily.

So remember, evolution wanted us to survive and pass on our genes, but didn’t really care about whether we were happy or thriving as human beings. Our brains are like Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative.

If you want to feel happier in your life, there are simple things you can start to do today to increase the level the level of happiness you experience in your life. Think of it as an experiment and start today. See if it works for you as well as it did for the experimental subjects in some of these studies.









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