By Sonja Lyubomirsky
It may sound corny, but the research clearly demonstrates that you would be happier if you cultivated an “attitude of gratitude.”(4) However, instead of your following this advice blindly, it’s important to understand why and how expressing gratitude works to make you happier. Indeed, there are no fewer than eight reasons for why I advise people to practice it.
First, grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences. By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances. When my first child was only a few months old, an older woman approached me while I was struggling with the stroller. “Your baby is so beautiful,” she said. “Appreciate this age; it goes by so fast!” At the time I was feeling overwhelmed and sleep-deprived and, to be honest, didn’t much appreciate her glib intrusion, but it had a powerful effect. Taking time to feel grateful for this small child allowed me to step outside the dreariness of my long days caring for her and to savor the magic of the small moment I shared with my daughter.
Second, expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem. When you realize how much people have done for you or how much you have accomplished, you feel more confident and efficacious. Unfortunately, for many people, it comes more naturally to focus on failures and disappointments or on other people’s slights and hurts. Gratefulness can help you unlearn this habit. Instead of automatically thinking, “Woe is me,” in response to any setback, the practice of gratitude encourages you instead to consider what you value about your current life or how you are thankful that things aren’t worse.
Third, gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma. That is, the ability to appreciate your life circumstances may be an adaptive coping method by which you positively reinterpret stressful or negative life experiences.(5) Indeed, traumatic memories are less likely to surface – and are less intense when they do – in those who are regularly grateful.(6) Interestingly, people instinctively express gratitude when confronted with adversity. For example, in the days immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, gratitude was found to be the second most commonly experienced emotion (after sympathy).(7)
Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do. In one of my recent courses, I had a severely disabled older student named Brian. He has some mobility – but not much – in his hands and is able to control a wheelchair by pressing on a lever located near his shoulder with his bent right hand. One day the class was going around the room and talking about their happiest moments in life. This is what Brian said: “My happiest moment is kind of a perverse one. It was the day that I came home from the hospital, after my accident. I felt defiant. I said, ‘Ha! I’m still alive! I beat you!’ I don’t know who exactly I beat. But I felt grateful that I was home. It seemed like a little thing, but being home from the hospital after four months was so good.” Echoing this perspective, sixty-seven-year-old Inger, who had been given a short time to live, described her illness this way: “When you can hear the minutes ticking and you know the buzzer is going to go off in any minute and your time will be up, you see things so clearly. You just know without a doubt where your values are and why you’re alive, and you’re so grateful for each moment.”(8) Inger and Brian have a remarkable capacity for gratitude, a capacity that undoubtedly serves them well in both sickness and health.
Fourth, the expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior. As I mentioned earlier, grateful people are more likely to help others (e.g., you become aware of kind and caring acts and feel compelled to reciprocate) and less likely to be materialistic (e.g., you appreciate what you have and become less fixated on acquiring more stuff). To wit, an Auschwitz survivor was once described this way: “His life was rooted in gratitude. He was generous, because the memory of having nothing was never far from his mind.”(9) In one study, people induced to be grateful for a specific kind act were more likely to be helpful toward their benefactor, as well as toward a stranger, even when the helping involved doing an unpleasant, tedious chore.(10)
Fifth, gratitude can help build social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones.(11) Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can produce feelings of greater connectedness with others. Several studies have shown that people who feel gratitude toward particular individuals (even when they never directly express it) experience closer and “higher-quality” relationships with them.(12) As Robert Emmons argues, when you become truly aware of the value of your friends and family members, you are likely to treat them better, perhaps producing an “upward spiral,” a sort of positive feedback loop, in which strong relationships give you something to be grateful for, and in turn fortifying those very same relationships. In addition, a grateful person is a more positive person, and positive people are better liked by others and more likely to win friends.(13)
Sixth, expressing gratitude tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others. If you are genuinely thankful and appreciative for what you have (e.g., family, health, home), you are less likely to pay close attention to or envy what the Joneses have.
Seventh, the practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness, and greed.(14) As one psychiatrist has argued, “gratitude…dissolves negative feelings: anger and jealousy melt in its embrace, fear and defensiveness shrink.”(15) Indeed, it’s hard to feel guilty or resentful or infuriated when you’re feeling grateful. My friend’s sister is one of the few working moms I know who feel not an ounce of guilt. The reason is that she is a prodigy at asking friends and family for help and thanking them so profusely and sincerely afterward that they feel like rock stars.
Last but not least, gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation. If you recall, hedonic adaptation is illustrated by our remarkable capacity rapidly to adjust to any new circumstance or event. This is extremely adaptive when the new event is unpleasant, but not when a new event is positive. So, when you gain something good in your life –a romantic partner, a genial officemate, recovery from illness, a brand-new car – there is an immediate boost in happiness and contentment. Unfortunately, because of hedonic adaptation, that boost is usually short-lived. As I’ve argued earlier, adaptation to all things positive is essentially the enemy of happiness, and one of the keys to becoming happier lies in combating its effects, which gratitude does quite nicely. By preventing people from taking the good things in their lives for granted – from adapting to their positive life circumstances – the practice of gratitude can directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation.
By Lisa C Walsh, Julia K Boehm & Sonja Lyubomirsky
Work hard, become successful, then you’ll be happy. At least, that’s what many of us were taught by our parents, teachers and peers. The idea that we must pursue success in order to experience happiness is enshrined in the United States’ most treasured institutions (the Declaration of Independence), beliefs (the American dream), and stories (Rocky and Cinderella). Most people want to be happy, so we chase success like a proverbial carrot on a stick – thinking that contentment lurks just the other side of getting into college, landing a dream job, being promoted or making six figures. But for many chasers, both success and happiness remain perpetually out of reach. The problem is that the equation might be backwards.
Our hypothesis is that happiness precedes and leads to career success – not the other way around. In psychological science, ‘happiness’ relates to ‘subjective wellbeing’ and ‘positive emotions’ (we use the terms interchangeably). Those with greater wellbeing tend to be more satisfied with their lives, and also to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. Research suggests that it’s these positive emotions – such as excitement, joy, and serenity – that promote success in the workplace.
Let’s look first at the cross-sectional studies that examine people at a single point. This allows researchers to determine whether happiness and success are correlated. Relative to their glummer peers, happier people are more satisfied with their jobs; they also receive greater social support from co-workers and better performance evaluations from supervisors. Notably, it might be that bosses give happy employees higher performance evaluations due to a halo effect, where a favourable impression in one area (such as happiness) influences opinion in another area (such as work ability): eg, ‘Tim is happy, so he must be great at his job too.’ However, there’s also some evidence that people with higher wellbeing perform better on a range of work-related tasks: one pivotal study found that sales agents with a more positive outlook sold 37 per cent more life-insurance policies than their less positive colleagues.
Happiness is associated with excellent work performance in other areas as well. People who frequently experience positive emotions tend to go above and beyond for their organisations; they’re also less likely to be absent from work or quit their jobs. People with better wellbeing also tend to earn bigger salaries than those with lower wellbeing.
However, such cross-sectional research has its limits, since it can’t establish which comes first – happiness or success. Longitudinal studies can help here, as they follow people over days, weeks, months or years to see how they’ve changed over time. According to the longitudinal literature, people who start out happy eventually become successful, too. The more content a person is at an earlier point in time, the more likely she is to be clear later on about what kind of job she wants, as well as to fill out more job applications, and find employment. A key study found that young people who reported higher wellbeing than their peers just before graduating from college were more likely to receive follow-up job interviews three months later.
Positive emotions are also predictors of later achievement and earnings. In one study, happy 18-year-olds were more likely to be working in prestigious, satisfying jobs and to feel financially secure by age 26. In another, people who were more cheerful when starting college went on to have higher incomes.
But it’s not enough to establish that happiness comes before success; we want to know, does one cause the other? After all, there could be some unmeasured variable, such as intelligence or extraversion, that’s driving both wellbeing and work performance. Indeed, extraverts are more likely both to be happy and to earn greater incomes.
Well-designed experiments can control for these variables. For example, studies have randomly assigned people to situations that make them feel neutral, negative or positive emotional states, and then measured their subsequent performance on work-related tasks. These experiments showed that people who are made to feel positive emotions set more ambitious goals, persist at challenging tasks for longer, view themselves and others more favourably, and believe they will succeed. Happy people’s optimistic expectations appear to be realistic, too: on both clerical-coding assignments and digit-substitution tasks, people with positive emotions tend to do better and be more productive than those in the grip of neutral or negative emotions. The weight of experimental evidence suggests that happier people outperform less happy people, and that their positive demeanour is probably the cause.
From our review of more than 170 cross-sectional, longitudinal and experimental studies, it’s clear that wellbeing promotes career success in many ways. That’s not to say that unhappy people can’t succeed – which is just as well, as a sad person reading this and telling herself she must cheer up to be successful is unlikely to help matters! To the contrary, history demonstrates that depressed individuals such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill can accomplish incredible feats. Both negative and positive emotions are adaptive to situations – there’s a time to be sad, just like there’s a time to be happy.
So for any business leaders or managers reading this, we’d caution against hiring only overtly happy people or pressuring your employees to be more upbeat. Such strategies have backfired in the past – as in the case of the mandatory jollity imposed on staff at the US supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, where the policy ironically made workers more miserable. People and companies hoping to boost happiness in a healthier way would have better luck if they introduced positive activities, like performing acts of kindness and expressing gratitude.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1951 said that: ‘The good life, as I conceive it, is a happy life.’ But he went on: ‘I do not mean that if you are good you will be happy; I mean that if you are happy you will be good.’ When it comes to making your mark at work, we agree. If you want to be successful, don’t hang around and wait to find happiness: start there instead.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
by Jason Marsh
Few things seem more American than the pursuit of happiness, but are we going about it all wrong?
That’s one of the questions raised by The Myths of Happiness, the new book by Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology. Her previous, best-selling book, The How of Happiness, published in 2008, is chock full of the best research-based practices for increasing happiness. The Myths of Happiness follows up on that work by explaining how our assumptions about what will and won’t bring us happiness are often flat-out wrong. Understanding those myths, Lyubomirsky argues, can help us avoid the psychological barriers to a rich and happy life.
As part of our Greater Good Podcast series, she recently spoke with Editor-in-Chief Jason Marsh about why we are so often mistaken about what will make us happy—and how we can really achieve happiness.
You can listen to the interview here, and we encourage you to subscribe to the podcast series through iTunes. Below we present a condensed version of the discussion.
Jason Marsh: Your book is called The Myths of Happiness. Can you give us an example of the kind of myth you’re talking about?
Sonja Lyubomirsky: There are really two categories. The first is the idea that if we’re not happy now, then we will become happy when x, y, and z happens: When I get married I’ll be happy, when I strike it rich I’ll be happy, when I have kids, when I move to that city I’ve always wanted to live in. The problem is that those events do make us happy—but they don’t make us as happy as we hope, or for as long as we think they will.
For example, marriage does make people happy, but the most famous study on marriage shows that the happiness boost only lasts for an average of two years. We also know that passionate love—the love that media and movies and literature tell us that we should all be experiencing—tends to dissipate over time. If love survives, it tends to turn into what’s called “companionate love,” which is really more about deep friendship and loyalty. But because our culture holds passionate love up as an ideal, we think that there must be something wrong with us when our relationships aren’t as exciting to us a few years later than they were at the beginning. The same thing goes for our jobs, or the amount of money we make.
JM: Are these myths just a product of the media—or do you think they might be rooted in certain innate, perhaps psychological, propensities?
SL: Wow, that’s a good question! I do think media and the culture propagate these myths. I don’t know whether they’re hardwired or evolutionarily adaptive. I will say that the psychological phenomenon hedonic adaptation—which is a big theme of my book—does strongly affect our ideas of what makes us happy.
Hedonic adaptation means that humans beings are remarkable at getting used to changes in their lives. It is evolutionarily adaptive, and perhaps hardwired, so all of us get used to the familiar. That might be because in our ancestral environment, it was important to us to be vigilant or alert to change—a change in the environment might signal a threat, or it could signal a reward or opportunity for reward. And so when things are the same, when stimuli are constant, we don’t tend to notice them or pay attention to them very much.
But the downside of hedonic adaptation is that when a relationship becomes familiar—or when a job becomes familiar, or when your new car becomes very familiar to you—then you start taking the spouse or job or car for granted. You stop paying attention to them, and that’s when we have adapted.
JM: And that adaptation can lead to neglect or dissatisfaction. Hedonic adaptation is also called the hedonic treadmill—and that sounds kind of negative. It suggests that no matter how hard you push, you’re always going to wind up in the same place. But there’s a flip side to that story, which speaks more to human resilience.
SL: That’s right. We were just talking about the first myth of happiness, but there is a second. That’s the myth that a lot of things would make us really unhappy, maybe forever. So if we got a divorce we would be unhappy forever—if our spouse died, if we got ill, if our dreams don’t become fulfilled, then we would die unhappy.
But hedonic adaptation takes place in response to negative experiences as well, which contributes to our resilience. We are really good at adapting to negative changes.
That’s not true of every bad event—a couple of recent studies have shown that people who have experienced severe disability do adapt to some extent, but they never go back to the original baseline of happiness, and the same is true of bereavement at a later age.
But on average, people don’t seem miserable for as long as we think they do. Take divorce. It turns out that people are remarkably resilient after divorce—including the children. I was just looking at some data that show that after a few years, divorced people actually become quite a bit happier than they were before. They don’t go back to their baseline—they way exceed their baseline.
Another example is being single, not finding a partner. We think, Oh my God, if I don’t find a life partner, a soul mate, I’ll be forever unhappy. Turns out that single people are just as happy as married people. Married people are happier than divorced, separated, or widowed people, but single people are very happy.
One of my favorite findings is that lifelong singles tend to have an average of a dozen meaningful friendships that they have maintained for decades. I always think about people like me, who are married and who have kids—I mean, how many of us have a dozen friendships that we’ve maintained for decades? And single people also, of course, get meaning and purpose from their work, from hobbies, from other domains of life.
I guess the underlying theme is that nothing is as joy-producing or as misery-inducing as we think it is. There’s no sort of sure course to happiness, and there’s no sure course towards misery either.
JM: As you completed the book, you discovered you were pregnant—and you dedicated the book to your new daughter. Some research says parenthood makes us unhappier, but your lab recently published a finding that suggests that’s not exactly true. So what is the relationship between happiness and having kids?
SL: Children and happiness is actually a very complicated topic, so, of course, there are a lot of contradictory findings in the literature. Some studies show that parents are happier than non-parents, and some show that parents are less happy.
We just published a paper that has three different studies that show, in general, parents are somewhat happier, and they report more meaning in their lives. This is true as they go about their days and when they spend time with their children, as opposed to when they’re doing other things.
But, you know, after we published that paper we asked ourselves: Well, is the question whether parents are happier even a very meaningful question, because there’s so many different kinds of parents? Can you really lump together parents of newborns to parents of 30-year-olds?
I have these two great grad students, and they just wrote this really great review paper addressing that question. We looked at all the literature on parenting and happiness and we put it all together. Basically, we find that certain kinds of parents are happier: parents who are middle-aged and older, parents who are married, parents who have children in their custody, parents who have relatively trouble-free children—and fathers, actually. It turns out the happiness effect is much stronger for fathers as opposed to mothers.
So when you try to answer that question, you really have to look at the kind of parent, and the kind of child you have, and the age of the child, and the age of the parent. But I think one of the bottom lines from the research is that parents do report greater meaning and purpose in their life after they have children.
JM: Right, so in some ways it’s not just a question of what kind of parent are you talking about—but what kind of happiness are you talking about. Parenting does not give rise to the same hedonic pleasure that defines other kinds of happiness—it instead gives a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.
SL: That’s right, and they’re both part of happiness. Thank you for pointing that out: There are different kinds of happiness, and they’re both important, and they’re actually correlated—they usually go together, but not always.
JM: A lot of the work coming out of your lab takes a more nuanced approach to the many different paths to happiness. To what extent do you feel the messages from positive psychology have gotten simplified to the point that people have started to believe there’s a sure-fire formula to happiness?
SL: Let’s say you publish a study that shows being grateful makes you happy—which it does. But then the finding gets repeated over and over again in the media, and people seem to think, Oh, it’s easy, all I have to do is be grateful.
But, actually, it’s much harder than that. It’s actually very hard to be grateful, and to be grateful on a regular basis, and at the right time, and for the right things.
In my lab, we’re really interested in more than just what makes us happy. We’re trying to discover what factors impact the pursuit of happiness. We have a paper in press that introduces a model that explains all our research in one picture, about what factors impact happiness.
So, for example, some people have a lot of social support, some people have little social support, some people are extroverted, some people are introverted—you have to take into account the happiness seeker before you give them advice about what should make them happy. And then there are factors relevant to the activity that you do. How is it that you’re trying to become happier? How is it that you’re trying to stave off adaptation? Are you trying to appreciate more? Are you trying to do more acts of kindness? Are you trying to savor the moment? The kind of person you are, the different kinds of activities, and how often you do them, and where you do them—these are all going to matter.
JM: I assume you must get asked all the time, “How do I become happy?” What do you tell those people?
SL: Women’s magazines will often ask me things like, “Alright, I need six five-minute happiness strategies.” And I say, well, there aren’t any five-minute happiness strategies. This is something you have to do kind of every day for the rest of your life. Just like if you want to raise moral children, or if you want to advance in your career. It’s a goal you pursue your whole life.
by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan
When there is negative news everywhere you look and unprecedented financial and logistical challenges facing so many companies, it can be tough to advise people to stay positive. Many leaders we work with worry, especially now during the global pandemic, that trying to emphasize positivity and happiness will make them look out of touch — and rather than helping their people, it will backfire.
The findings from our multi-year research project at a hospital system in Iowa indicate quite the opposite. It’s precisely in the midst of a setback or challenging time, that leaders should be actively encouraging positivity because it will help teams weather the storm.
Three years ago, Genesis Health System, which is comprised of five hospitals and a regional health center, was not profitable. This was true for many hospitals, which were experiencing the lowest profitability since the 2008 financial crisis. Consequently, few leaders at Genesis were talking about happiness at work and Jordan Voigt, president of the largest medical center (Genesis Medical Center-Davenport), was facing a conundrum. He wanted to infuse more positivity into the culture at the medical center, but they were about to undergo two rounds of massive cost reductions and layoffs. In addition, they were asking staff to reduce their hours and take time off with or without PTO.
Still, he felt it was important to focus on the company’s culture and hypothesized that positivity could help the center at this crucial time. We worked with the medical center to roll out a series of positive psychology interventions department by department so we could test the effectiveness compared to groups that had not been exposed to the interventions. Each department designed positive changes tailored to their subculture spanning from gratitude exercises, increased praise and recognition from managers, and team-based conscious acts of kindness.
The color “orange” was adopted to symbolize positive changes. For example, in some departments, when people returned from vacation, their colleagues cover their offices with words of appreciation on orange post-it notes. The staff from the organizational behavior department bought caterpillars for every department in the entire hospital and together released the Monarch butterflies after they hatched as a symbol of change. When moms have new babies, the staff give the big brothers and sisters plush orange frogs called baby Sparks as a symbol of the kind character of the department. Employees receive a Spark Award for spreading happiness through a kind act. You can even find orange hair nets and orange oxygen carts in some departments.
In addition, the department leaders and staff were tasked with examining how to change existing work routines to create more happiness at work, like starting their meetings with three positives or adopting a praise and recognition program. We staggered the teams trained so we could effectively test in real time how different departments fared with the setbacks.
As happiness researchers, we expected the departments exposed to the interventions to do better, but even we were surprised by the extent.
For the individuals who had not yet been exposed to the positive intervention, only 23% of the team members reported they were “very expressive of optimism at work.” That jumped to 40% after participating in the positive psychology culture training (measured six weeks after the intervention). Even in the midst of the massive organizational changes, the percentage of respondents who reported that they were happy at work went from 43% to 62%. Individuals feeling burned out “often” dropped from 11% to 6%. Individuals reporting “high stress at work” dropped by 30% after they participated in the workshop on creating positive mindsets on the team. Social connection improved as well. The number of respondents who said “I feel connected at work” went from 68% to 85%. This was after staff reductions where some coworkers and friends were no longer at the organization.
In the parts of the hospital that had not been part of the intervention, only 37% of respondents claimed Genesis was going in the right direction, compared to 63% in the groups who went through the intervention. Imagine if double the number of people on your team felt like the company was going in the right direction, even in the midst of an incredibly challenging time.
Why did this work and what can you learn from it? We have written previously about the efficacy of positive psychology interventions upon performance, so we won’t rehash that here. But here are four key takeaways for leaders who want to know how to start the conversation.
Role model from the top
Oftentimes leaders give lip service to the value of a positive mindset and people being their greatest asset, but then they don’t bother to attend their own internal positive leadership workshops because they are too busy. This signals to the rest of the organization that a positive culture is in fact a much lower priority than they claimed. As president of the Medical Center, Voigt personally kicked off every workshop. He made sure to follow each round of data collection findings to determine what was working and whether to continue. He affirmed happiness as a priority, which made the topic more salient in the minds of his staff. This is the first step for leaders who want to create positive mindset in the midst of setback: show up and model that mindset yourself.
Help employees connect before asking them to change
People don’t typically make positive changes alone or in isolation. A positive mindset at work is often a collective exercise because the behaviors and attitudes are reinforced when a group does it together. At Genesis, the emphasis in the workshops was on developing positive habits, brainstorming new work routines, and discussing culture together in groups. This allowed participants to take ownership over the new mindsets, routines, and ways of working. They were creating new social scripts in real time and connecting these changes to purpose, verbalizing the significant impact their happiness and positivity can have on their patients. It’s imperative that leaders help people feel connected first and then deputize them to make positive change.
Make changes part of the routine way of doing work
As a leader, don’t just tell people “don’t worry, be happy”; work with them to create patterns that reinforce the positive. It’s too hard in the midst of stress to try to invent new ways to be positive, so creating regular patterns as a department can help sustain the positive without having to call on new brain resources. It can be as simple as routinizing celebration. For example, the endoscopy department, which was known to be toxic with a 35% vacancy rate, now has regularly scheduled potluck lunches — and a 0% vacancy rate over six months. Some departments’ leaders set the routine of starting all their staff meetings with each person saying one thing they’re grateful for. Some have areas where people can post thank yous or pictures of successes so that any staff or patient walking into that department is given a dose of visual positivity.
Track outcomes to make the changes sustainable
If there was no perceived change, or if there was no data justifying the approach, the culture change would not take root as readily. If we don’t test what works, we lack the motivation to keep that change permanent or top of mind. Positive interventions in particular get thrown by the wayside in challenging times unless you have a clearly established connection between the energy required to continue the positive change and the desired outcomes. In the end by doing a rolled out, staggered approach, other teams heard about the intervention and the results and were actually demanding the positive intervention for their teams.
All of these changes weren’t just good for the hospital staff; they benefited patients too. Patient experience rates nearly doubled within a 12-month period. Following the intervention, Genesis Medical Center-Davenport achieved profitability again and exceeded their operating budget by 35% during the first part of 2019, going from an operating loss of $2M to a profit of $8M. The medical center was recognized in 2019 by Press Ganey as one of nation’s most improved medical centers for performance and six months into the fiscal year increased total operating revenue by $15 million or 8.7%, while expenses increased only $1.9 million or 1.1%. And in October 2019, it achieved a record in the history of the medical center for gross revenue, $114 million. All of this was happening when so much of the medical industry was financially contracting.
Even in the face of dire circumstances, you can create a positive mindset at your company — one that will help your people and your customers. When is the best time to start talking about positivity at work? Maybe right now.
By Jeff Schrum
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, my wife and I worried that we were running out of time to help our two teens learn the self-care and coping skills they’ll need to launch themselves into an increasingly volatile world. No longer an elective, emotional intelligence is a prerequisite for teens coming of age in the 2020s. Thankfully, a happy and fulfilling life — which is what parents across cultures and continents say they want for their kids — is not a luxury reserved for a privileged few. Science reveals that the good life awaits those who make deliberate, daily efforts to cultivate positive emotions, such as joy, fulfillment, compassion, connectedness and resilience.
This is material I barely know myself, so when Yale’s popular “The Science of Well-Being” appeared in a list of free online personal development courses to take during the pandemic, it seemed like a good starting point. I convinced my older son, a 10th-grader, to join me, promising we could watch a few lectures, count the hours as social science credit (we home-school) and bail after a few weeks if he lost interest, a distinct possibility.
Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and head of college at Yale University, introduced the live class, “Psyc 157: Psychology and the Good Life”, in 2018, responding to an increase in anxiety and depression reported by students. “I was really seeing this mental health crisis that so many college students are facing really up close and personal in my role as head of college,” she said. Now the most popular course offered in the school’s history, “Psyc 157” arms students with evidence-based happiness strategies. After garnering worldwide interest and media attention, the university developed a free online version, called “The Science of Well-Being”, shortly thereafter. It boasts more than 2.6 million registrants — 2 million in the past two months alone. “That just made us realize that it wasn’t just Yale students who needed this content, you know, this is really the kind of thing that could help a lot of people”, Santos said. Similar free online courses from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of California, Berkeley, to name a few, show positive psychology’s high demand.
What is happiness?
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, happiness researcher and author, suggests thinking of happiness as being both happy in your life, and being happy with your life. “Being happy in your life is the experience of fairly frequent positive emotions, like tranquility, joy, curiosity, pride, affection, etc.”, Lyubomirsky said. Happiness with your life is feeling an overall sense of satisfaction, that your life is good, meaningful and worthwhile, she continued.
Happiness isn’t gratification, although we tend to equate them, said Christine
Carter, author of “The New Adolescence” and senior fellow at Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “In our culture we are wildly confused about the difference between something that is gratifying or pleasurable, and something that will actually foster a positive emotion, like happiness,” she said. Pleasure is fleeting. Positive emotions, on the other hand, persist, reversing our fight-or-flight response, and activating a part of the brain that doesn’t leave us wanting more. “Fostering positive emotions, like gratitude, is going to create a lasting sense of well-being”.
This distinction between happiness and gratification is one of many myths and misconceptions I hope this experience has helped dispel for my son. The problem isn’t just that we tend to misunderstand what may and may not create lasting happiness, putting too much faith in things such as promotions, grades and possessions. It’s also that humans usually return fairly quickly to a baseline level of happiness after a positive or negative event — a tendency called hedonic adaptation. This can throw us for a loop if we expected something — for teens, this could be a new activity or course or relationship — to change our lives. Understanding hedonic adaptation is a very important life lesson for teens, Lyubomirsky said. “When you cease to be as excited as you were, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you, or the person, or the activity, or the job or the school,” she said.
After arming us with research and tips on cultivating happiness, Santos sent us off to practice our selected happiness strategies — habits correlated to increased well-being, optimism and emotional regulation — for the next four weeks. She calls these homework assignments “rewirements,” since they’re practices aimed at rewiring our habits. Creating new habits is the goal of the course. I chose gratitude, and my son chose meditation.
I was curious to see if my son would stick with his practice, because I know from experience that meditation can be challenging for beginners. Plus, I didn’t want to nag, because Carter says that interferes with adolescents’ sense of independence. “With a teenager you always have to be willing to walk away from your own agenda,” she counseled. Happily, my son practiced his 10- to 15-minute guided meditations (he used the Calm app) with minimal coercing, and seemed on most days to enjoy, or at least tolerate, his practice.
My gratitude practice felt forced at first. I scanned my day for positive moments, feelings and sensations, savoring them in the moment, then noting them in a journal each night. I began all entries with, “Grateful today for . . . ” followed by “. . . the pastel sky on the horizon at dusk tonight” or “. . . the fragrant honeysuckle along the trail on my evening walk” or “. . . the it’ll-do quarantine haircut [my wife] gave me,” trying to be as specific and detailed as possible.
The practice eventually came more naturally, and to head off hedonic adaptation, I will probably adjust the “dosage” from daily to weekly. Finding the right dosage is important, as is ensuring the strategies you use fit your personality and culture, advised Lyubomirsky. Variety is also key. “If you engage in these activities the same way every time, they’re going to lose their power,” she said.
Six weeks after recording my first gratitude journal entry, I still find myself instinctively scanning and savoring, grateful for brief moments of joy and awe and connection. I’m happier overall (most days), both with my life and in my life. My wife and sons see an improvement in me, too. My son kept up his daily meditation, which he now practices with his mom — another bonus from this experience. While he may not notice, it’s obvious to us that his confidence and motivation have improved. Plus, he seems to have more emotional bandwidth to regulate emotions as common triggers arise. When I mentioned that he seemed calmer and happier, he agreed.
With so many variables, we can never know the degree to which taking the class improved our felt sense of happiness and overall well-being. Regardless, the magic in this experience was in sharing it. We served as new-habit partners, which studies show correlates to success. Co-learning as peers allowed him to preserve his sense of independence and competence, critical components of teens’ motivation, according to Carter. It also afforded me an authentic way to model self-care and growth. “No self-respecting teenager wants support or instruction from somebody who can’t do it themselves,” she said.
Whether my son retains much from the course is irrelevant, she said. He ended up with a practice — meditation — that research shows will benefit him “in terms of improving his overall functioning, his ability to fulfill his potential, his overall well-being”. Finally, we made a connection, the kind that seemed infinitely possible when he was younger but that I now savor as if each is the last. (This, too, we learned in the course, is a happiness strategy.) Regardless of how much he retains from the class, Carter said, “you still found a way to connect with him, to just do something next to him. And we know that that is meaningful.”
Schrum is a freelance writer, volunteer crisis counselor and home-schooling dad in Virginia.
By By Tara Parker-Pope
At a time when we are all experiencing an extraordinary level of stress, science offers a simple and effective way to bolster our own emotional health.
To help yourself, start by helping others.
Much of the scientific research on resilience — which is our ability to bounce back from adversity — has shown that having a sense of purpose, and giving support to others, has a significant impact on our well-being.
“There is a lot of evidence that one of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton and author of “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.” “The great thing about showing up for other people is that it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot or anything at all, and it ends up being beneficial to the giver.”
Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Some research has focused on the “helper’s high.” Studies show that volunteering, donating money, or even just thinking about donating money can release feel-good brain chemicals and activate the part of the brain stimulated by the pleasures of food and sex. Studies of volunteers show that do-gooders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol on days they did volunteer work.
The challenge many of us are facing today is how to give support from a distance. Rules that require us to be physically apart during the pandemic mean that our traditional ways of volunteering in person are no longer possible. The good news is that the type of support that can be helpful to both giver and receiver can be given in a variety of small and big ways. It can include giving money or time to a cause. Or it can be as simple as a phone call, giving advice or just lending a listening ear.
In fact, the act of giving advice has been shown to be more beneficial than receiving it. In a series of studies of 2,274 people, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago found that after middle-school students mentored younger students about studying, they ended up spending more time on their own homework. Overweight people who counseled others on weight loss were more motivated to lose weight themselves.
Dr. Grant said we often are better at giving advice to people other than ourselves. “One of the best things you can do is call someone else facing a similar problem and talk them through it,” said Dr. Grant, who co-founded an online networking platform called Givitas, which connects people for the purpose of asking for and giving support and advice. “When you talk other people through their problems, you come up with wiser perspectives and solutions for yourself.”
Feeling responsible for other people also can help us cope with whatever challenges life brings. Emily A. Greenfield, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University, studied a concept called “felt obligation,” which is measured by asking people questions such as how obligated they would feel to give money to a friend in need, even if it meant putting themselves in a bind. Dr. Greenfield analyzed data collected from 849 participants in an ongoing study of health and well-being, that asked about felt obligation as well as health-related declines they experienced over time, such as problems carrying groceries or walking a block.
As it turned out, the people who had higher levels of felt obligation — meaning they were the type of people to sacrifice for others — coped better with their own life challenges.
“These findings fit with the idea that an orientation to helping others is a protective factor — something that is especially important for well-being when confronted with distressing life circumstances,” Dr. Greenfield said.
She noted that caring for others helps us to regulate our own emotions and gain a sense of control. “When we remind a friend that social distancing measures are temporary, and this too shall pass, we are also, in effect, reminding ourselves and serving to regulate our own emotions,” she said.
Several studies suggest that supporting others helps buffer our bodies against the detrimental effects of stress. A five-year study of 846 people in Detroit found that stressful life events appeared to take a greater toll on people who were less helpful to others, while helping others seemed to erase the detrimental physical effects of stressful experiences.
“Small acts are important,” said Dr. Steven Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine and co-author of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.” “Part of that might have to do with just getting outside of myself, and finding meaning and purpose in something bigger than myself.”
Studies show that having a strong sense of purpose protects us from stress in the short term and predicts long-term better health, a lower risk of dying prematurely and even better financial health. Researchers say that finding meaning and purpose during social distancing may be especially important for high-school seniors and college students, who were on the cusp of discovering their purpose in life just as the coronavirus derailed graduations, internships and new jobs.
“Your purpose may be to help others in need, but it doesn’t have to be tackling big social structure issues,” said Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “It could be helping out your neighbor or just doing shopping for somebody. If your big picture goal is to help others in need, there are ways of doing that right now that may look different than how you used to do them.”