By: Tom Valeo
Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
source WebMD www.webmd.com Better Health and Information
BA popular greeting card attributes this quote to Henry David Thoreau:
"Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will
elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come
and sit softly on your shoulder."
With all due respect to the author of Walden, that just isn't so,
according to a growing number of psychologists. You can choose to be
happy, they say. You can chase down that elusive butterfly and get it to
sit on your shoulder. How? In part, by simply making the effort to
monitor the workings of your mind.
Research has shown that your talent for happiness is, to a large degree,
determined by your genes. Psychology professor David T. Lykken, author
of Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says that "trying to be happier is
like trying to be taller." We each have a "happiness set point," he
argues, and move away from it only slightly.
And yet, psychologists who study happiness -- including Lykken --
believe we can pursue happiness. We can do this by thwarting negative
emotions such as pessimism, resentment, and anger. And we can foster
positive emotions, such as empathy, serenity, and especially gratitude.
Happiness Strategy # 1: Don't Worry, Choose
The first step, however, is to make a conscious choice to boost your
happiness. In his book, The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930,
the philosopher Bertrand Russell had this to say: "Happiness is not,
except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a
ripe fruit. "Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement
rather than a gift of the gods, and in this achievement, effort, both
inward and outward, must play a great part."
Today, psychologists who study happiness heartily agree. The intention
to be happy is the first of The 9 Choices of Happy People listed by
authors Rick Foster and Greg Hicks in their book of the same name.
"Intention is the active desire and commitment to be happy," they write.
"It's the decision to consciously choose attitudes and behaviors that
lead to happiness over unhappiness."
Tom G. Stevens, PhD, titled his book with the bold assertion, You Can
Choose to Be Happy. "Choose to make happiness a top goal," Stevens tells
WebMD. "Choose to take advantage of opportunities to learn how to be
happy. For example, reprogram your beliefs and values. Learn good
self-management skills, good interpersonal skills, and good
career-related skills. Choose to be in environments and around people
that increase your probability of happiness. The persons who become the
happiest and grow
the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth
In short, we may be born with a happiness "set point," as Lykken calls
it, but we are not stuck there. Happiness also depends on how we manage
our emotions and our relationships with others.
Jon Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, teaches positive
psychology. He actually assigns his students to make themselves happier
during the semester.
"They have to say exactly what technique they will use," says Haidt, a
professor at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. "They may
choose to be more forgiving or more grateful. They may learn to
identify negative thoughts so they can challenge them. For example, when
someone crosses you, in your mind you build a case against that person,
but that's very damaging to relationships. So they may learn to shut up
their inner lawyer and stop building these cases against people."
Once you've decided to be happier, you can choose strategies for
achieving happiness. Psychologists who study happiness tend to agree on
ones like these.
Happiness Strategy #2: Cultivate Gratitude
In his book, Authentic Happiness, University of Pennsylvania
psychologist Martin Seligman encourages readers to perform a daily
"gratitude exercise." It involves listing a few things that make them
grateful. This shifts people away from bitterness and despair, he says,
and promotes happiness.
Happiness Strategy #3: Foster Forgiveness
Holding a grudge and nursing grievances can affect physical as well as
mental health, according to a rapidly growing body of research. One way
to curtail these kinds of feelings is to foster forgiveness. This
reduces the power of bad events to create bitterness and resentment, say
Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, happiness researchers who edited
The Psychology of Happiness.
In his book, Five Steps to Forgiveness, clinical psychologist Everett
Worthington Jr. offers a 5-step process he calls REACH. First, recall
the hurt. Then empathize and try to understand the act from the
perpetrator�s point of view. Be altruistic by recalling a time in your
life when you were forgiven. Commit to putting your forgiveness into
words. You can do this either in a letter to the person you�re forgiving
or in your journal. Finally, try to hold on to the forgiveness. Don�t
dwell on your anger, hurt, and desire for vengeance.
The alternative to forgiveness is mulling over a transgression. This is
a form of chronic stress, says Worthington.
�Rumination is the mental health bad boy,� Worthington tells WebMD.
�It�s associated with almost everything bad in the mental health field
-- obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety -- probably hives,
Happiness Strategy #4: Counteract Negative
Thoughts and Feelings
As Jon Haidt puts it, improve your mental hygiene. In The Happiness
Hypothesis, Haidt compares the mind to a man riding an elephant. The
elephant represents the powerful thoughts and feelings -- mostly
unconscious -- that drive your behavior. The man, although much weaker,
can exert control over the elephant, just as you can exert control over
negative thoughts and feelings.
�The key is a commitment to doing the things necessary to retrain the
elephant,� Haidt says. �And the evidence suggests there�s a lot you can
do. It just takes work.�
For example, you can practice meditation, rhythmic breathing, yoga, or
relaxation techniques to quell anxiety and promote serenity. You can
learn to recognize and challenge thoughts you have about being
inadequate and helpless.
�If you learn techniques for identifying negative thoughts, then it�s
easier to challenge them,� Haidt said. �Sometimes just reading David
Burns� book, Feeling Good, can have a positive effect.�
Happiness Strategy #5: Remember, Money Can�t
Research shows that once income climbs above the poverty level, more
money brings very little extra happiness. Yet, �we keep assuming that
because things aren�t bringing us happiness, they�re the wrong things,
rather than recognizing that the pursuit itself is futile,� writes
Daniel Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness. �Regardless of what
we achieve in the pursuit of stuff, it�s never going to bring about an
enduring state of happiness.�
Happiness Strategy #6: Foster Friendship
There are few better antidotes to unhappiness than close friendships
with people who care about you, says David G. Myers, author of The
Pursuit of Happiness. One Australian study found that people over 70 who
had the strongest network of friends lived much longer.
�Sadly, our increasingly individualistic society suffers from
impoverished social connections, which some psychologists believe is a
cause of today�s epidemic levels of depression,� Myers writes. �The
social ties that bind also provide support in difficult times.�
Happiness Strategy #7: Engage in Meaningful
People are seldom happier, says psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
than when they�re in the �flow.� This is a state in which your mind
becomes thoroughly absorbed in a meaningful task that challenges your
abilities. Yet, he has found that the most common leisure time activity
-- watching TV -- produces some of the lowest levels of happiness.
To get more out of life, we need to put more into it, says
Csikszentmihalyi. �Active leisure that helps a person grow does not come
easily,� he writes in Finding Flow. �Each of the flow-producing
requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be
So it turns out that happiness can be a matter of choice -- not just
luck. Some people are lucky enough to possess genes that foster
happiness. However, certain thought patterns and interpersonal skills
definitely help people become an �epicure of experience,� says David
Lykken, whose name, in Norwegian, means �the happiness.�