“Trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant.”-Tony Robbins
Given that happiness has many desirable consequences; can we boost it in a long-term way?
A fundamental principle behind much of the Positive Psychology research argues we all have scope and control over increasing our levels of happiness.
In 2005, researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade offered us the ‘Happiness Pie’ to describe what contributes to our well-being and happiness.
They found three primary factors that they believed impacted happiness levels.
Since its release in 2005 there have been a number of critics of the research, however the central message still holds true.
By taking purposeful action you can boost your happiness in life.
What determines happiness?
Advocates of positive psychology strongly believe there is a formula that clearly determines happiness:
Happiness= set point + life circumstances + volitional activity
They suggest 50 % of our happiness is a set-point based on genetics, 10% is based on life circumstances and 40 % is determined by volitional or intentional activities. The ‘set-point’ is defined as a genetic constant for any given individual.
Some components of happiness are more heritable than others; however heritability does not mean the state or condition is not unchangeable.
Similarly, life circumstances have a part to play in determining the happiness outcome.
- Social class
- Marital status
- Fitness and health
However, apart from these 2 defined factors the most intriguing aspect of the happiness formula is ‘volitional or intentional activity’.
This behavioural variable is worth exploring due to its impact on the overall outcome of altering one’s happiness.
Understanding the term ‘volitional activity’
Happiness is not a sole product of just applying ‘will’. Yet, having the ‘will’ allows us to get things done.
Bearing this in mind we can better understand happiness is not solely a matter of applying ‘will’. More importantly, it’s a factor that leads us to do things that will result in greater happiness.
So if we purposely create or choose more of those activities that we know make us happy wouldn’t that equate to a great day?
We just need to know what activities make us feel happy.
Volitional activity is a very broad grouping that includes a wide variety of things that people do and think in their daily lives.
It represents 40% of the solution towards happiness. Importantly, it’s within our power to change.
Intentional engaging in healthy mental and physical habits allows us the opportunity to exert a lot of control over our own happiness.
From a ‘doing’ perspective this could mean we:
- Make more friends
- Spend more time with our friends
- Engage in leisure activities we like
- Spending time in nature
- Find a job that allows us to thrive
- Improve our health and fitness
- Try to be generous and kind to others
- Pursue meaningful goals
- Find a therapist to help us overcome potential mental health issues.
From a ‘thinking’ perspective this could mean we:
- Stop comparing ourselves to others
- Stop worrying about getting old
- Stop mentally beating ourselves up over what is missing in our lives
- Reframing situations in a more positive light
So knowing volitional activities play a big part in guiding us on the path to happiness which proven intervention can we apply it to make a positive difference in our daily lives?
What ‘happiness exercise’ allow us to focus on the positive events in our life?
If we don’t feel happy, it’s tempting to look for things to fix:
- The job that isn’t impressive enough,
- The apartment that’s too small,
- Our partner’s frustrating habit.
However focusing on all the negatives isn’t a path to feeling better. Instead, a simpler way to start cultivating happiness is by identifying what’s going well. What are you grateful for?
Grateful thinking promotes an appreciation of positive life experiences.
As Tony Robbins said:
“Trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant.”
A good way of doing this is by spending some time thinking about events of the day.
What went well?
By taking the time to acknowledge those precious moments in your life you boost your happiness.
The ‘3 Good Things exercise’ is proven as a perfect way to ponder those good things happening in your life.
You keep a journal devoted solely for recording the positive events that happen daily in your life. Each evening, you write down three things, big or small, that went well. You add some context about why they made you feel the way you did.
You might recall a simple encounter with nature, a quiet moment drinking a coffee, or your pet’s unconditional love when you return from a hard day at work.
The key is to make it a regular habit. A time to sit back and appreciate those special positive moments in your day.
What research tells us about ‘3 good things’ Happiness Exercises?
It may be challenging to celebrate those special moments when faced with adversity in your life; however it may be the most important thing you can do.
A 2005 study invited participants to do this practice daily for a week, and afterward they reported feeling happier and less depressed than when they started.
In fact, they maintained their happiness boost six months later, illustrating how impactful it can be to focus on the good things in life.
Other, more recent studies have noted the long term success of using ‘3 good things’ as a positive way to rewire the brain to look backwards for the good in their day.
A study published in 2020 looked at the effects of using ‘3 good things’ as an intervention to help health care workers who struggled with self-care and burnout. They administered the intervention via text message over a 15-day period to 275 intensive care workers. They recorded strong positive results that stretched out over a 1 year period.
Why it works
According to Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, the reason why it works is simple:
“It changes your focus from what goes wrong in your life to what goes well.”
J. Bryan Sexton, a professor of psychology at Duke University, supports Seligman’s claims.
He suggests by noticing the positive things in our life we can short circuit our natural tendency to concentrate on the negative.
He believes we are hard-wired to focus on the negative as a type of fight or flight response. When something bad happens that threatens us, we tend to remember it so it doesn’t happen again. It’s our biological survival safety mode.
The good stuff causes no threat so we let it go.
The Exercise: Here are the 4 steps.
- Every night before you go to sleep, think of three good things that happened that day. Don’t worry about whether they’re big or small, anything positive counts.
- Write these things down. Don’t just think about them: writing is a vital step!
- When you’ve written them down, reflect on what exactly brought about these events and why they happened. Write the “why” down (For example, “My presentation went well because I worked hard and had support from my colleagues.”).
- Do the exercise for one week and notice how you feel.
Testing out the theory and making it a habit
I found this journaling habit problematic at the end of the day. I struggled to remember those 3 small things that made a difference.
I wanted to be able to record things quickly and easily as they happened. Carrying a journal was not a viable option, however a mobile phone was.
It allowed me the opportunity to quickly jot down things as they happened. By doing this I would not forget when I later sat down with my journal to explore the “why”.
The notes page of my mobile worked well until I found a better solution.
The apple app store has ‘3 good things. Problem 100% solved.
Since writing this I can happily say I have not missed a day for over 3 weeks.
I believe it is helping. I’ve had some challenging days during that period, but I’m glad to say I focus on appreciating the good around me.
It could be as simple as appreciating my fitness allows me to be able to run, or witnessing a rainbow after I’ve just finished a beach run in the rain or the local coffee shop upgrading me to a large for free or the 2 new clients that came my way.
Take away message
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to predict how much happiness you’ll get from any specific change you make in life.
However evidence suggests by writing things down, you actively shift your attention towards the positive! That has to be a good thing.
By choosing a simple happiness habit that takes no longer than brushing your teeth you can boost happiness.
Turns out, boosting happiness doesn’t have to be very hard!
All it takes is about 10 minutes every night. This evening, before you hit the sack, take a moment to list three good things that have happened to you today.
What do you do to boost your happiness?