Happiness Why positive thinking often fails and how the real route to happiness involves a pencil, keeping the perfect diary, small acts of kindness, and developing the gratitude attitude
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO BE HAPPY? Well, for one thing, by definition, you will feel better. But there is more to it than that. Happiness does not just make you enjoy life more; it actually affects how successful you are in both your personal life and your professional life.
A few years ago Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California and her colleagues set about the mammoth task of reviewing hundreds of studies in which experimenters cheered up selected people and then monitored the effects of their subjects’ newfound joy.1 All sorts of procedures were employed to make participants feel happy, including having them smell fresh-cut flowers, read out positive affirmations (“I really am a good person”), eat chocolate cake, dance, or watch a funny film. Sometimes the experimenters resorted to trickery, telling participants that they had performed especially well on an IQ test or ensuring that they “accidentally” found some money in the street. Regardless of the method used, the overall result was clear—happiness doesn’t just flow from success; it actually causes it.
After trawling the data from hundreds of studies involving more than a quarter of a million participants, Lyubomirsky discovered impressive benefits to being happy. Happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict, and it strengthens their immune systems. The cumulative effect means that people have more satisfying and successful relationships, find more fulfilling careers, and live longer, healthier lives.
Given the emotional and tangible benefits of happiness, it is not surprising that everyone wants a slice of the pie. But what is the most effective way of putting a permanent smile on your face? Ask most people the question, and you are likely to receive a two-word answer: more money. In survey after survey, the need for a fatter wallet consistently tops the “must have” list for happiness.2 But is it really possible to buy happiness, or do financial aspirations set you on the road to despair? Part of the answer comes from a remarkable study conducted in the 1970s by Philip Brickman from Northwestern University and his colleagues.3 Brickman wanted to discover what happens to people’s happiness when their financial dreams come true. Does a huge windfall really create a long-term smile, or does the initial thrill quickly fade away as newfound fortune becomes commonplace? Brickman contacted a group of people who had won a major prize in the Illinois State Lottery, including several who had hit the million-dollar jackpot. For a control group, he randomly selected people from the Illinois telephone directory. Everyone was asked to rate how happy they were at that moment and how happy they expected to be in the future. In addition, they were asked to say how much pleasure they derived from everyday activities in life, such as chatting with friends, hearing a funny joke, or receiving a compliment. The results provide a striking insight into the relationship between happiness and money. Contrary to popular belief, those who had won the lottery were no more or less happy than those in the control group. There was also no significant difference between the groups when it came to how happy they expected to be in the future. In fact, there was only one difference—compared to those who had won the lottery, the people in the control group derived significantly more pleasure from the simple things in life.
Clearly, winning the lottery is a rather unusual way of obtaining financial security, but psychologists have also examined the relationship between income and happiness among those who have worked for their wealth. Some of this work has involved carrying out large-scale international surveys by having people rate how happy they are (usually using standard ten-point scales that run from “very unhappy” to “very happy”) and then plotting countries’ average happiness ratings against their gross national product (GNP).4 The results suggest that although people in very poor nations are not as happy as those in wealthier countries, this disparity vanishes once a country has achieved a relatively modest GNP. Research examining the possible link between salary and happiness found the same type of pattern. One study, conducted by Ed Diener from the University of Illinois and his colleagues, revealed that even those on the Forbes 100 list of the wealthiest people are only slightly happier than the average American.5 All of this adds up to one simple message: when people can afford the necessities in life, an increase in income does not result in a significantly happier life.
So why should this be the case? Part of the reason is that we all get used to what we have very quickly. Buying a new car or a bigger house provides a short-term feel-good boost, but we quickly become accustomed to it and sink back to our prepurchase level of joy. As psychologist David Myers once phrased it, “Thanks to our capacity to adapt to ever greater fame and fortune, yesterday’s luxuries can soon become today’s necessities and tomorrow’s relics.”6 If money can’t buy happiness, what is the best way of putting a long-term smile on your face?
The bad news is that research shows that about 50 percent of your overall sense of happiness is genetically determined, and so cannot be altered.7 The better news is that another 10 percent is attributable to general circumstances (educational level, income, whether you are married or single, etc.) that are difficult to change. However, the best news is that the remaining 40 percent is derived from your day-to-day behavior and the way you think about yourself and others. With a little knowledge, you can become substantially happier in just a few seconds. The problem is that the advice offered in some self-help books and courses is at odds with the results of scientific research. Take, for example, the power of positive thinking. Does the road to happiness really depend on people’s being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression may be far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery. In the mid-1980s Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner chanced upon an obscure but intriguing quote from Dostoyevsky’s Winter Notes on Summe Impressions: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Wegner decided to carry out a simple experiment to discover if this was true. Each person from a group of willing volunteers was made to sit alone in a room and told to think about anything, but NOT to imagine Dostoyevsky’s white bear. Everyone was then asked to ring a bell each time the banned bear sprang to mind. Within moments a cacophony of bells indicated that Dostoyevsky was right—attempting to suppress certain thoughts makes people obsess on the very topic that they are trying to avoid.
Other work has shown how this effect operates in real life, with one study, conducted by Jennifer Borton and Elizabeth Casey at Hamilton College in NewYork State, providing a dramatic demonstration of how it influences people’s moods and self-esteem.8 Borton and Casey asked a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves. The researchers then had half of the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds, while the remaining participants were asked to carry on with life as usual. At the end of each day, everyone indicated the degree to which they had dwelled upon their upsetting thought, and rated their mood, anxiety level, and self-esteem. The results were conceptually similar to those obtained by Wegner’s “white bear” experiment. The group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts actually thought more about them. Compared to those going about their business as usual, the suppression group also rated themselves as more anxious, more depressed, and having lower self-esteem. More than twenty years of research have demonstrated that this paradoxical phenomenon occurs in many different aspects of everyday life, showing, for example, that asking dieters not to think about chocolate causes them to consume more of it and asking the public not to elect fools to positions in government encourages them to vote for George Bush.
So, if thought suppression is not the answer, what can you do? One possibility is to distract yourself. Perhaps spend time with your family, go to a party, get more involved in your work, or take up a new hobby. Although this technique can often provide an effective short-term boost, it will probably not lead to a long-term sense of contentment. For that, research suggests, you need to know how to use a pencil, how to keep the perfect diary, how to carry out small acts of kindness, and how to develop the gratitude attitude.
CREATING THE PERFECT DIARY
All of us will experience unpleasant events during our lives. Perhaps the breakup of a long-term relationship, the death of a loved one, getting laid off, or, on a really bad day, all three. Both common sense and many types of psychotherapy suggest that the best way forward is to share your pain with others. Those adopting this “a problem shared is a problem halved” approach believe that venting your feelings is cathartic and helps you release negative emotions and move forward. It is a nice idea and one that holds tremendous intuitive appeal. Indeed, surveys show that 90 percent of the public believes that talking to someone else about a traumatic experience will help ease their pain. But is that really the case?
To investigate, Emmanuelle Zech and Bernard Rimé at the University of Louvain in Belgium carried out an important study. A group of participants was asked to select a negative experience from their past. To make the study as realistic as possible, they were asked to avoid the trivial stuff, such as missing a train or not being able to find a parking space, and instead think about “the most negative upsetting emotional event in their life, one they still thought about and still needed to talk about.” From death to divorce, and illness to abuse, the issues were serious.
One group of participants was then asked to have a long chat with a supportive experimenter about the event, while a second group was invited to chat about a far more mundane topic—a typical day. After one week, and then again after two months, all the participants went back to the lab and completed various questionnaires that measured their emotional well-being. Those who had spent time talking about their traumatic event thought that the chat had been helpful. However, the questionnaire results told a very different story. In reality, the chat had had no significant impact at all. Participants thought that it was beneficial to share their negative emotional experiences, but in terms of the difference it made in how well they were coping, they might just as well have been chatting about a typical day.
So, if talking about negative experiences to a sympathetic but untrained individual is a waste of time, what can be done to help ease the pain of the past? As we saw at the start of this section, trying to suppress negative thoughts can be just as unhelpful. Instead, one option involves “expressive writing.” In several studies, participants who have experienced a traumatic event have been encouraged to spend just a few minutes each day writing a diary-type account of their deepest thoughts and feelings about it. For example, in one study participants who had just been laid off were asked to reflect on their deepest thoughts and feelings about their job loss, including how it had affected both their personal and their professional lives. Although these types of exercises were both speedy and simple, the results revealed that participants experienced a remarkable boost in their psychological and physical well-being, including a reduction in health problems and an increase in self-esteem and happiness. The results left psychologists with something of a mystery. Why would talking about a traumatic experience have almost no effect but writing about it yield such significant benefits?
From a psychological perspective, thinking and writing are very different. Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic. In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution. In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic, solution-based approach.
This is clearly helpful for those who have been unfortunate enough to experience real trauma in their lives, but can the same idea also be used to promote everyday happiness? Three different, but related, bodies of research suggest that that this is indeed the case.
The Gratitude Attitude
One of the most important writing techniques for boosting happiness revolves around the psychology of gratitude. Present an individual with a constant sound, image, or smell, and something very peculiar happens. The person slowly gets more and more used to it, and eventually it vanishes from their awareness. For example, if you walk into a room that smells of freshly baked bread, you quickly detect the rather pleasant aroma. However, stay in the room for a few minutes, and the smell will seem to disappear. In fact, the only way to reawaken it is to walk out of the room and come back in again. Exactly the same concept applies to many areas of our lives, including happiness. Everyone has something to be happy about. Perhaps they have a loving partner, good health, great kids, a satisfying job, close friends, interesting hobbies, caring parents, a roof over their heads, clean water to drink, a signed Billy Joel album, or enough food to eat. As time passes, however, they get used to what they have and, just like the smell of fresh bread, these wonderful assets vanish from their consciousness. As the old cliché goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough wondered what would happen to people’s happiness levels if they were asked to carry out the conceptual equivalent of leaving the bread-smelling room and coming back in again. The researchers wanted to discover the effect of reminding people of the good things that were constantly present in their lives. Three groups of people were asked to spend a few moments each week writing. The first group listed five things for which they were grateful, the second noted five things that annoyed them, and the third jotted down five events that had taken place during the previous week. Everyone scribbled away, with the “gratitude” group remarking on seeing the sunset on a summer day and the generosity of their friends, the “annoyed” group listing taxes and their children arguing, and the “events” group detailing making breakfast and driving to work. The results were startling. Compared to those in either the “annoyed” or the “events” group, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier—and they even exercised more.
Your Inner Perfect Self
When trying to write your way to a happier life, expressing gratitude is just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the notion of getting in touch with your inner perfect self. In the introduction I noted that a large body of research shows that visualizing a wonderful future is unlikely to increase the chances of achieving your goals. However, other work suggests that when it comes to putting a smile on your face, such exercises are more likely to prove beneficial. In a classic study conducted by Laura King at Southern Methodist University, participants were asked to spend a few minutes during four consecutive days describing their ideal future. They were asked to be realistic but to imagine that all had gone as well as it possibly could and that they had achieved their goals. Another group was asked to imagine a traumatic event that had happened to them, and a third group simply wrote about their plans for the day. The results revealed that those who had described their best possible future ended up significantly happier than those in the other groups. In a follow-up study, King and her colleagues repeated the experiment, this time having people describe on paper the most wonderful experience in their lives. Three months later, assessments revealed that compared to a control group, those reliving an intensely happy moment were significantly happier.
Finally, another body of research has examined the idea of “affectionate writing.” It may come as no great surprise to learn that being in a loving relationship is good for your physical and psychological health. However, are these benefits the result of receiving love, expressing love, or both? To find out, Kory Floyd, from Arizona State University, and his colleagues asked some volunteers to think about someone they loved and spend twenty minutes writing about why this person meant so much to them. As a control, another group was asked to write about something that had happened to them during the past week. Each group repeated the writing exercise three times over the course of five weeks. Once again, this simple procedure had a dramatic effect, with those who spent just a few minutes engaged in affectionate writing showing a marked increase in happiness, a reduction in stress, and even a significant decrease in their cholesterol levels.
In short, when it comes to an instant fix for everyday happiness, certain types of writing have a surprisingly quick and large impact. Expressing gratitude, thinking about a perfect future, and affectionate writing have been scientifically proven to work—and all they require is a pen, a piece of paper, and a few moments of your time.
IN 59 SECONDS
To help you incorporate effective writing techniques into your life, I have put together a rather unusual diary. Instead of keeping a record of the past, this diary encourages you to write about topics that will help create a happier future. The diary should be completed on five days of the week, with each entry taking just a few moments. Maintain the diary for one week. According to scientific studies, you should quickly notice the difference in mood and happiness, changes that may persist for months. If you feel the effects wearing off, simply repeat the exercise.
There are many things in your life for which to be grateful. These might include having close friends, being in a wonderful relationship, benefiting from sacrifices that others have made for you, being part of a supportive family, and enjoying good health, a nice home, or enough food on the table. Alternatively, you might have a job that you love, have happy memories of the past, or recently have had a nice experience, such as savoring an especially lovely cup of coffee, enjoying the smile of a stranger, having your dog welcome you home, eating a great meal, or stopping to smell the flowers. Think back over the past week and list three of these things.
Tuesday: Terrific Times
Think about one of the most wonderful experiences in your life. Perhaps a moment when you felt suddenly contented, were in love, listened to an amazing piece of music, saw an incredible performance, or had a great time with friends. Choose just one experience and imagine yourself back in that moment in time. Remember how you felt and what was going on around you. Now spend a few moments writing a description of that experience and how you felt. Do not worry about your spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Instead, simply commit your thoughts to paper.
Wednesday: Future Fantastic
Spend a few moments writing about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone really well. Be realistic, but imagine that you have worked hard and achieved all of your aims and ambitions. Imagine that you have become the person that you really want to be, and that your personal and professional life feels like a dream come true. All of this may not help you achieve your goals, but it will help you feel good and put a smile on your face.
Thursday: Dear ...
Think about someone in your life who is very important to you. It might be your partner, a close friend, or a family member. Imagine that you have only one opportunity to tell this person how important they are to you. Write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and the impact that they have had on your life.
Friday: Reviewing the Situation
Think back over the past seven days and make a note of three things that went really well for you. The events might be fairly trivial, such as finding a parking space, or more important, such as being offered a new job or opportunity. Jot down a sentence about why you think each event turned out so well.