Why is it important to be happy? Well, for one thing, by definition, you’ll feel better. However, there’s 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 and professional life. The University of California set about the mammoth task of reviewing hundreds of studies in which experimenters cheered up selected people and then monitored the effects of their new-found joy. The overall result was clear – happiness doesn’t just flow from success, it actually causes it. Happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, and it strengthens their immune systems. The Cumulative effect means that people have satisfying and successful relationships, find especially fulfilling careers and live longer, healthier, lives.
Ask most people what would make them happy and you are likely to receive a two word answer – more money, the need for a fatter wallet consistently tops the ‘must have’ list for happiness. But is it really possible to buy happiness? The answer comes from a remarkable study conducted in the 1970s by the Northwestern University. The results suggest that while people in very poor nations are not as happy as those in wealthier countries, this relationship vanishes once a country has obtained a relatively modest GNP. Studies examining the possible link between salary and happiness found the same type of pattern. When people can afford the necessities in life, an increase in income does not result in a significantly happier life.
If money cannot 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 per cent of your overall sense of happiness is genetically determined. However, the best news is that the remaining 50 per cent is derived from your day to day behaviour, and the way in which you think about yourself and others.
The problem is that much of the advice offered 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 being able to simply push negative thoughts out of their mind? Actually, research suggests that such thought suppression is far more likely to increase, rather than decrease, misery.
One study, conducted by Hamilton College in New York, provided a dramatic demonstration of how it affects people’s mood and self esteem, they told a group of people to describe their most upsetting thought about themselves, and then had half the group spend the next eleven days trying to push this thought out of their minds. The remaining participants were asked to carry on life as normal. They found the group attempting to actively suppress their negative thoughts were actually thinking about them more. 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. So, if thought suppression is not the answer, what can you do? One possibility is to distract yourself: spend time with your family, go to a party, get more involved in your work, 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.
Handling Negative Stuff
All of us will experience unpleasant and traumatic events during our lives and many types of psychotherapy suggest that the best way forward is to share your pain with others. The belief is that venting your emotions is cathartic and helps you release negative emotions and move forward. Indeed, 90 per cent of the public believe that talking to someone else about a traumatic experience will help ease their pain. But is that really the case? The University of Louvain in Belgium carried out an intriguing, and important, study. A group of participants were asked to select a negative experience from their past and to think about ‘the most negative upsetting emotional event in their life, one they still needed to talk about’. From death to divorce and from illness to abuse, the issues were serious. One group of participants were then asked to have a long chat with a supportive experimenter about the event, while a second group were invited to chat about a far more mundane topic – a typical day. Everyone then completed various questionnaires that measured their emotional well-being.
Participants who had spent time talking about their traumatic event thought that the chat had been helpful. However, the various questionnaires 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 to 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?
One option involves’ expressive writing’ – 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. 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. Why would talking about a traumatic experience have almost no effect, but writing about it yield such significant benefits?
From a psychological perspective, talking and writing are very different. Talking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganised, even chaotic. In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a storyline and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work towards a solution. But can the same type of idea also be used to promote everyday happiness?
The Importance of Gratitude
First, take the research into psychology of gratitude. 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 down five things that annoyed them and the final group jotted down five events that had taken place during the previous week. The ‘gratitude’ group remarked on things from seeing the sunset on a summer’s day to the generosity of their friends; the ‘annoyed’ group listed taxes and their children arguing; the ‘events’ group detailed making breakfast and driving to work. The results were startling. Compared to those in either the ‘annoyed’ or ‘events’ groups, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, physically healthier and even exercised significantly more.
When trying to write your way to a happier life, expressing gratitude is just the tip of the iceberg. In a classic study conducted by the Southern Methodist University, participants were asked to spend a few minutes during four consecutive days describing their ideal future. Another group were asked to imagine a traumatic event that 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. Three months later, assessments revealed that compared to a control group, those reliving an intensely happy moment were significantly happier.
The Impact of Writing
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. The Arizona State University asked some volunteers to think about someone they loved and spend 20 minutes describing why this person meant so much to them. As a control, another group were asked to write about something that had happened to them during the past week. Each group repeated their writing exercise three times over the course of five weeks. Once again, this simple procedure had a dramatic effect, with those spending 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, certain types of writing have a surprisingly quick and significant 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.
Your Happiness Action Plan
To help incorporate effective writing techniques into your life, write about topics that will help you create a happier future. You should complete the diary on five days of the week, with each entry taking just a few minutes. Maintain the diary for one week. Research suggests that you will quickly notice the difference in mood and happiness, and that these changes may persist for months. If you feel the effects wearing off, simply repeat the exercise again.
There are many things in your life for which you can be grateful. These might include having close friends, being in a loving relationship, being part of a supportive family, enjoying good health, having a roof over your head or enough food to eat. Alternatively, you might have a job you love, have happy memories of the past, recently had a nice experience, such as an especially lovely cup of coffee. Think back over the past week and list three of these things below:
Think about one of the most wonderful experiences in your life. Perhaps a moment when you felt suddenly contented, were in love, saw an incredible performance or had a great time with friends. Choose just one experience, close your eyes and imagine yourself back in that moment in time. Now spend a few moments writing down a description of that experience and how you felt. Simply commit your thoughts to paper.
Spend a few moments writing about your life in the future. Make yourself comfortable, close your eyes. Now, imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Imagine you have become the person you really want to be, and your personal and professional life feels like a dream come true, put your thoughts down on paper. This will help you feel good and put a smile on your face.
Think about someone in your life who is very important to you. It might be your partner, a close friend or family member. Imagine you only have one opportunity to tell this person how important they are to you. Now write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and the impact they have had on your life.
Time to review. 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.
Take the first step
I think most of us would really like to seize the opportunity to lead a happier life; but most of us fall at the first fence and fail to take action. Make a commitment to take the first step on your road to happiness. Complete this diary. Believe it or not, it will have a significant impact on your sense of happiness and contentment. I strongly urge you to give it a go and see how you get on. I am convinced you will experience a significant positive shift.