Research on affective forecasting has shown that people often are poor judges of what will make them happy, and tend to focus on changing things that won’t bring them lasting happiness for any length of time. Often, these changes have to do with life circumstances like physical appearance, wealth, or geographic location.
This all sounds rather pessimistic, doesn’t it? Well, that pessimism pretty much ends right now. Researches show that 50% of our happiness is genetically determined, and approximately 10% is due to circumstances. That leaves a whopping 40% essentially up to us.
From here on out, we are going to present you with activities and strategies you can employ that work within that 40% to create real and sustainable changes in your happiness level. These techniques have been tested scientifically and have been shown to be quite effective when practiced regularly and intentionally.
The first three positive intervention strategies involve changing the way you think about or construe your life. These three strategies are expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, and avoiding overthinking and social comparison.
Strategy 1: Cultivate a Sense of Gratitude
If you have even a passing familiarity with positive psychology, you have likely come across the gratitude intervention before. Although this is, arguably, the best known and most widely used of all positive interventions, many people do not fully understand why expressing gratitude boosts happiness or are not familiar with the underlying research.
This is a measure of dispositional gratitude. Some people naturally go through life and see much to value and be thankful for. For others, this does not come as naturally. But fortunately, there is reason to believe that most everyone can increase his or her experience of gratitude.
Gratitude may seem like a broad and nebulous concept. Researcher and writer Robert Emmons calls it “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” So, yes, it is somewhat broad and, therefore, it can be pursued and expressed in a variety of ways.
Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough instructed students to list five things for which they were grateful, once a week for ten weeks in a row. Responses included things like “my friends,” “my good health,” and “the Rolling Stones.” These participants were compared with control groups who were asked either to list five daily hassles or to list five major events that had happened to them. Those who expressed gratitude felt happier and more satisfied and hopeful about their lives.
Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ken Sheldon conducted several studies in which college students were told to keep a sort of “gratitude journal” with the following instructions: “There are many things in our lives, large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the events of the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things that happened for which you are grateful or thankful.”
Participants were told to do this activity either just once a week, or three times a week, over the course of six weeks. As predicted, this activity effectively boosted levels of appreciation for various aspects of life.
Strategy 2: Cultivate Optimism
Much like counting your blessings, “the power of positive thinking” is yet another apparent platitude. But the effectiveness of an optimistic mindset – essentially, interpreting life events in a positive way – has been established in numerous studies.
To encourage optimistic thinking, Laura King created the “best possible selves” activity, in which participants imagine that their life has gone as well as possible in a variety of important domains. For example, you might think of your life in ten years and visualize having a house in the country, a supportive spouse, two children, and a fulfilling career as a journalist.
Also, it is important that you aren’t comparing your current self to some idealized version of yourself that you are falling short of – not surprisingly, doing this is likely to backfire and make you feel worse. Be sure to project into the future when doing this exercise
Strategy 3: Avoid Rumination and Social Comparison
There is much evidence to suggest that overthinking, or rumination, not only prevents happiness, but is also a characteristic of depression. Rumination is a pattern of thought that involves thinking about issues or problems but not really coming up with any solution or course of action.
More common in women, it can often lead us to blow things out of proportion or make sweeping, negative generalizations about ourselves, the future, or life in general, which makes us feel worse and encourages more rumination. Remember our discussion of the upward spiral of positive emotions? Well, rumination or overthinking can be thought of as part of a downward spiral.
Strategy 4: Practicing Acts of Kindness
There is empirical evidence to suggest that, despite how aggravating or inconvenient it can be to drive a friend to the airport or volunteer on weekends, these sorts of prosocial activities are very effective at increasing happiness
Strategy 5: Nurturing Social Relationships
If your goal is to be happy, the importance of social relationships cannot be overstated. Happier people consistently report having more friends and good social support, and they are also more likely to have a romantic partner. Of course, the relationship between happiness and social relationships is most definitely bidirectional.
Happier people tend to be more extraverted and are generally more fun to be around, qualities that will certainly promote relationships.
Strategy 6: Developing Strategies for Coping
Living a rich, engaging life is impossible without opening yourself up to loss, stress, failure, and trauma, and it is vital to be able to deal with what life throws your way. Psychologists call this process coping, and it involves managing stress and negative emotions (“emotion-focused coping”), as well as figuring out the appropriate course of action for dealing with particular challenges (“problem-focused coping”)
Strategy 7: Learning to Forgive
By forgiveness, we do not mean forgetting or excusing what someone did. Instead, true forgiveness is characterized by a diminished negative reaction to the transgressor. You no longer seek to hurt him or pay him back. This shift may come about through the passage of time (“time heals all wounds”), through reflection or contemplation of the transgressor’s motives or situation at the time of the slight, or through direct contact with the person.