The How of Happiness

How to be happier?

A review and executive summary of the book by  Sonja Lyubomirsky

Are you unhappy? Do you know why?

If you blame your unhappiness on things like lack of money, a lousy job, the world’s worst boss/spouse/children you just might be barking up the wrong tree looking for your happy place.

If you think winning the lottery will make you happy, it will… for a while, but then you’ll probably just return to the same level of happiness you had before. You’ll become used to your new state of being, a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.

Wealth, health and work etc. are, of course, not irrelevant, but have less influence over your happiness than you think they do.

I have been doing extensive research into happiness for a few years now.  In my opinion, it comes down to two things.

  1. Positive psychology
  2. Gut bugs

This post is about positive psychology. I have written about gut bugs elsewhere!

Positive psychology

Positive psychology has been defined as:

“[being] is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living” (Peterson, 2008).

The Positive Psychology Institute defines it as

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities and organisations to thrive (Gable & Haidt, 2005, Sheldon & King, 2001).

The concept has been around for a while, and Martin Seligman is cited as the father (or perhaps grandfather by now) of positive psychology. His book Flourish is an excellent starting point. I have read it a few times to keep me on track and have the tenets of happiness in front of mind.

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This month I have read Sonja  Lyubomirsky’s The How Of Happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want.  (Penguin Books 2007) It’s not a new book either, but my goodness it’s a simple to read, based-in-science guide book that makes a whole bunch of sense! I loved it!

 

This post gives you some of the main points but get your own hard copy because you’ll want to write all over it!  You’ll be underlining the important bits, completing the short quizzes and answering her questions out loud as you read through it.

The basic idea is that you can make yourself happier. It takes some effort and determination and like most things in life, it is something you will actually have to DO on purpose. It won’t fall in your lap. It is something I have been working towards for the last 10 years in my road to recovery from divorce.

How much of your happiness is under your control?

The answer is very nearly 42! According to Sonja, 50% of your happiness is down to a “set point”, 10% is circumstance, and 40% is created by intentional activities on your part.  Your set point is determined by your genetics and your personality and stays pretty much the same throughout your life. Some people are just happier than others.

Circumstances account for a tiny 10% of happiness. A poor person can be just as happy as a rich person. Where you live doesn’t really matter that much. A bigger house, a better car, a different job will not matter much either!

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However, you can control the remaining 40% of your own happiness by intentionally choosing to commit to some “happiness activities”. Lyubomirsky posits twelve categories of happiness activities. You don’t need to do all 12 to be happier. In fact, she suggests that you concentrate on  3 – 4 that will work best for you based on your set point, personality and interests. How do you know which ones to pick? There, is a questionnaire that will point you in the appropriate direction. After doing the questionnaire you can read the sections relevant to you.

This link will take you to a very brief summary of the happiness activities identified by Lyubomirsky and her researchers. Click through the arrows at the bottom of the page. It only scratches the surface and obviously does not give the depth of detail as in her book, but it will give you the road map and hopefully spark your interest.

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The link takes you to a Prezi site. Best viewed on a larger screen. You don’t need to sign in.

The last chapters give the “Five hows behind sustainable happiness” which are:

1. The upward spiral of positive emotion: one positive act will lead to another

2. Optimal timing and variety: mix it up and time it right to get maximum benefit and prevent hedonic adaptation.

3.  Social support

4. Motivation, effort and commitment: you are going to have to work at it and keep working at it.

5. Make it a habit!

 

My Happiness Activities Profile

After I did the questionnaire, the recommended happiness strategies for me were:

1. Committing to goals

2. Savouring life’s joys

3. Practising acts of kindness. (I have a post here about that)

4.  Taking care of body and Soul

None of these really surprised me. I feel like I already have the goals and taking care of body aspects under control.  I am going to make more of an effort for savouring, and while my physical health is good, I would like to learn how to meditate. So I’ll add these to the to-do list!

Negative emotions

Negative emotions should not be avoided at all costs. Negative emotions have their place. I am no way suggesting that you be 100% deliriously happy at all time. It is vital that you feel some struggle in your life and that there will be difficult times to face. You can’t and shouldn’t go around this world being ignorant of negative emotions that have a relevant and important role to play.

My philosophy is that you should tend towards a life, that, on the whole, is pleasant, fulfilling and purposeful. This is turn will be a life that is more likely to be a happy one.

Furthermore, happiness should not be confused with pleasure. Some things that make us happy are not pleasurable. For instance, running a marathon might not be pleasurable but leads to happiness because you achieved a goal.

Sonja also gives some advice to people suffering from depression, which you should read first if applicable.

 

 

 

 

 

A consuming interest

At the start of the financial year[1] I set myself a challenging goal.

Not to buy anything NEW for a whole year. There are a few caveats around the goal:

  1. It does not include consumables such as food and cleaning products.
  2. If something essential breaks or wears out I can replace it, preferably with something second hand.
  3. It does not include experiences.

After six months in I am doing OK, I have not brought anything new into my home.

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I tried to argue with my accountability partner that magazines and books were experiences and not stuff, but she said they were stuff because I could borrow them from the library or read them online, so I cancelled the subscriptions I had.

Have I missed buying stuff? So far –  no. I have made do with what I have. The hardest thing so far was what to do about gifts. With the holiday season looming I was not sure what to do. For the most part, I bought experiences or perishables or gave second-hand stuff. As a last resort, I decided that since it was not coming into my home, a new book and essentials like socks were OK. (This may be cheating a little bit I think!)

Over these last six months, people have asked me why?  Why would I set out not to buy anything new for a year? “That’s crazy” they’d say.

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It wasn’t about saving money – although I have. It’s not because I am a hoarder, although I do sometimes feel crowded in my little home. The real why emerges out of several interlocking events and ideas that have been with me for a few years and which all came together in a flash of realisation.

The interlocking events included

  • Growth coaching
  • Some workshops on mental health first aid and positive psychology
  • My discovery of the Minimalist podcast[2]
  • My only daughter’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism
  • The ABC TV show War on Waste[3].
  • The Story of Stuff[4].
  • Having lots of time to think and reflect

The interlocking events led to my quest for a richer, more meaningful life. In this post, I will only elaborate on one aspect of the jigsaw. Positive mental health.

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I previously talked about[5] the foundations for wellbeing.  These being

  • to give,
  • to connect,
  • to be active,
  • to take notice and
  • to keep learning.

I discovered these foundations when I attended some workshops about student and teacher wellbeing as part of my day job and much of it began to resonate with me personally.

Some other workshops suggested that there was a very strong connection between positive mental health, diet and exercise. While I initially began the research to help students and teachers at my school, I was able to apply what I found out to myself.

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A small part of one Christmas’ horde

I started investigating my diet and the link between gut microflora and mental health. I had already read some books about positive psychology such as Flourish by Martin Seligman. I disappeared down the google-search-vortex as one thing led to another. I eventually found a paper[6] called A Wonderful Life:  Experiential consumption and the pursuit of happiness.

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The abstract to this article states:

This research indicates that experiential purchases provide greater satisfaction and happiness because:

(1) Experiential purchases enhance social relations more readily and effectively than material goods;

(2) Experiential purchases form a bigger part of a person’s identity; and

(3) Experiential purchases are evaluated more on their own terms and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases.

It all boils down to the fact that money can buy happiness, as long as you buy experiences and not things (material goods) . Things give you short-lived happiness. You quickly tire of them and want something else. Something bigger. Something brighter. Something that needs to be stored when you grow tired of it. Experiences, on the other hand, give you memories. You can reflect back on them. They give you something to talk about. They put you in a social space with social beings that you can form connections with. They help you learn about yourself and other people. They help you learn about the world.  They hit on at least four of the five pillars of positive mental health. If you choose to experience the world by helping others you can hit on all five.

If you are waking up from a “stuff-hangover” now that Christmas is over maybe next year you can think of buying the things that make memories. The only place you need to store them, is in your (digital) photo album and your brain.

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[1] July 1 in Australia

[2]https://www.theminimalists.com/

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/ourfocus/waronwaste

[4] https://www.google.com.au/search?q=the+story+of+stuff+youtube&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b&gfe_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=oQExWp7jOePDXpuwpJAF

[5] https://oldchookenterprises.com/2017/09/09/wellbeing-an-introduction/

[6] A proper peer reviewed one! Gilovich T, Kumar A and Jampol L Journal of Consumer Psychology 2014) available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/280715372/Gilovich-Kumar-Jampol-in-press-A-Wonderful-Life-JCP