“Happiness” is much deeper than simply having pleasant feelings. Research by positive psychologists has identified exercises that increase positivity / happiness. Increased positivity, measured by subjective well-being, leads to flourishing, and a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Dark Cloud Or Sunshine?
Negative Nellie and Positive Pollie (not their real names) are colleagues at a local business. Both are married. Each is raising a family. But there the similarities end.
Nellie’s daily commute is, as she describes it, “the drive from hell”. She is constantly getting cut off in traffic or stuck behind some moron who refuses to speed through a yellow light. Her horn and one specific finger get a workout every morning. By the time she gets to work, late as usual thanks to all those idiots out there, she is fuming.
At work, she carries a black cloud with her everywhere she goes. Co-workers avoid her; customers complain about her treatment of them. Nellie has been passed over twice for promotions and she is sure it’s because her boss has it out for her and besides, she works with a bunch of suck-ups who the boss is partial to.
At home, Nellis is furious about something a co-worker said. She yells at her kids for leaving a mess in the kitchen after school. Her husband helps with dinner then retreats to the TV. The kids rush up to their rooms to play video games and escape their mother’s wrath.
Nellie stomps around the kitchen, then tries to settle down to read. But the disagreement at work keeps coming back to her mind as she ruminates about the things she “should’ve said”. Nellie waits up to watch the late news and passively takes in all the crime and disasters happening in the world and in her neighborhood. When Nellie finally goes to bed, she tosses and turns. Every time she starts to drift off, she remembers the spat at work and gets angry all over again. Needless to say, she passes a rough night.
Pollie drives the same route as Nellie, but her commute is far different. She leaves a good 15 minutes earlier to give herself extra time. She is a careful and attentive driver who watches out for herself and the drivers around her. As she typically does, she arrives at work on time, calm and collected.
Pollie’s sunny disposition draws her co-workers to her. Her willingness and ability to help others has been noticed by everyone, including her boss. She has recommended Pollie for a promotion, and more responsibility, as well as the commensurate pay, are in Pollie’s future. Pollie’s work day has it’s share of difficulties but she faces all of them with a smile and the attitude that she can do what needs to be done.
Back at home, Pollie and her husband prepare dinner while their kids chatter about their day at school. Pollie relishes the warm glow of spending time with those she loves. After dinner, everyone pitches in to clean up, then the family sits down to play a game together.
Later, after the kids go up to bed, Pollie and her husband spend time reconnecting and planning for tomorrow. Then Pollie takes a few minutes to do some quiet deep breathing. Afterwards, she lists three things she is grateful for in her Gratitude Journal. Relaxed and sleepy, Pollie heads off to bed for a restful night’s sleep.
The Important Forty Percent
Now I admit, these two descriptions are exaggerated for effect. Besides, no one is completely all one way or the other. But as you read about Negative Nellie and Positive Pollie, think about this: Which is most like you?
According to positive psychology research, each of us has a happiness “set point” that is based on our genes. This set point can’t be changed. It accounts for about 50% of our positivity or negativity. The happiness set point explains why someone who wins the lottery is elated for a few weeks (or a few days), but eventually settles back down to their normal positive or negative state. [Lyubomirsky] [Seligman, Authentic Happiness]
Another 10% of our positivity is attributed to our circumstances – marriage, wealth, health, and social standing, for example. We do have some control over these. But changing them can be difficult and time consuming, and the effect on our positivity levels is negligible. [Lyubomirsky] [Seligman, Authentic Happiness]
Which brings us to the important forty percent. You have direct control over this part of your positivity. Research shows that there are specific activities you can undertake that have an impact on improving your levels of positivity. You can’t change your set point. Changing your circumstances won’t have much impact. But if you focus on the part that is under your direct control, you can increase your happiness or positivity by as much as 40%. [Lyubomirsky]
The Elements Of Happiness
Let’s take a moment to clarify what we mean when we use the words happiness and positivity. Psychologists generally divide happiness into two parts: hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being. [Grenville-Cleave p. 7]
Hedonic comes from the Greek word for pleasure. You might recognize it as the root of hedonism, the idea that the highest goal in life is the pursuit of pleasure. However, a problem with most things that bring physical pleasure is that they are fleeting. They don’t last and we have to chase after more and more pleasurable experiences. Another concern is that some activities that bring pleasure in the short term bring unhappiness and pain in the long run.
The second form of happiness is eudaimonic well-being. Eudaimon literally means “good soul”. Eudaimonic well-being has its roots in the teaching of Aristotle who advocated that lasting happiness proceeds from a life well-lived, a life pursuing meaning and purpose. [Grenville-Cleave p. 8]
In addition to eudaimonic happiness, positive psychology also uses Subjective Well-Being (SWB) as a measure of happiness and positivity. Subjective well-being can be expressed in the formula: life satisfaction + positive emotion – negative emotion. [Grenville-Cleave p. 9]
The Benefits Of Negative Emotions
Embracing positivity does not require that we rid ourselves of all negative emotions. In fact, negative emotions are necessary, even valuable. In times of danger, fear narrows our focus and through physiological changes, prepares our bodies to escape the danger or to stand and fight it.
Anxiety can lead us to explore new ways of dealing with problems and to try different solutions. Guilt might give us the impetus we need to change a bad habit or behavior. Jealousy can be a motivating factor to make us work harder. [Mead]
We don’t want to remove negative emotions from our lives, even if we could. From her research, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson suggests a 3 to 1 ratio as a prescription for flourishing. [Fredrickson] In this ratio, we seek to have 3 positive experiences for every negative experience.
The Benefits Of Positive Emotions
Positive experiences have definite, specific, provable benefits. From positive psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky: “happier people are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative, and better liked by others. . . happier people are more likely to get married and stay married and to have richer networks of friends and social support. . . . they actually show more flexibility and ingenuity in their thinking and are more productive in their jobs. They are better leaders and negotiators and earn more money. They are more resilient in the face of hardship, have stronger immune systems, and are physically healthier. Happy people even live longer.” [Lyuobomirsky p.25]
When we become happier, our mental and physical health improves. We give our self-confidence and self-esteem a boost. And as we become happier, we benefit our partners, our families, our communities, and society. [Lyuobomirsky p.26]
Are you convinced that improving your positivity and happiness is a worthwhile endeavor? Then try this.
First, take one of these assessments:
Alternately, take Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity Self Test here. https://www.positivityratio.com/single.php
After you take one of the assessments, try 1 or more of the exercises shown below. Then take the assessment again. You’ll see for yourself the effects of practicing positivity.
Here are the exercises, adapted from Martin Seligman’s Fluorish and Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How Of Happiness.
The Gratitude Visit [Seligman, Flourish, p. 30 – 31]
Close your eyes and think of someone (who is still alive) who did something or said something which improved your life and whom you didn’t fully thank at the time. Perhaps you didn’t realize till later the full effect her words or actions had on you. Think of somebody you could meet face-to-face next week.
For the gratitude visit, you are to write a letter expressing gratitude to this individual and then deliver it to her in person. Make it concrete and specific – what she did and how it has changed you for the better. Aim for around 300 words, about 1 type-written, double-spaced page.
Once you have the letter, call up the person and arrange a visit. Be vague about the purpose – it’s more fun if it’s a surprise. When you meet, read your letter. Be aware of her reactions as well as your own. If she tries to interrupt as you read, tell her you really want her to listen until you finish. After you read the letter, discuss it and how you feel about each other.
One month from now, says Dr. Seligman, “you will be happier and less depressed.”
The Three Blessings Exercise [Seligman, Flourish, p. 33 – 34]
We are wired by evolution to see the negative more than the positive in our lives. It’s a matter of survival. Our ancestors who stopped to smell the roses and didn’t watch out for the wild beasts, became some wild beast’s dinner. To overcome this natural inclination – and tap into Barbara Fredrickson’s 3:1 positivity ratio – it helps to practice noticing and thinking about what went well.
For this exercise, every night for the next week, take 10 minutes and write down three things that went well today and why they went well. Write them in your journal or in a document on your computer, but be sure you have a physical record of each day’s “three blessings”.
The blessings don’t have to be life-changing but they could be important. Or not. After each positive event, answer the question: “Why did this happen?” Do the exercise every day for at least one week. Chances are your mood will improve so much you’ll want to continue.
Practice Acts Of Kindness [Lyubomirsky, 126 – 129]
For this exercise, come up with 5 kindnesses you can perform in a day. (Lyubomirsky’s research indicates that spreading the acts over a week is less likely to improve overall happiness.) These can be large or small. Make at least one of your kind deeds anonymous – tell no one and expect nothing in return.
Do this exercise once a week for 1 month. Again, chances are you’ll want to keep doing it.
No one is an entirely Negative Nellie just as no one is a purely Positive Pollie. However, chances are good that, unless you are actively practicing positivity, you could benefit from an increase in your own happiness.
Use the practices described above and take a look at The Happiness Hundred for even more suggestions. Remember the 3:1 happiness ratio and aim to have 3 positive experiences for each negative one. This is the path to flourishing. And that is embracing the Excelerated Life™.
Excelerated Positivity ™ — building the skills in positivity that help you flourish — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
Fredrickson, Ph.D., Barbara, L. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2009
Grenville-Cleave, Bridget. Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide. New York: MJF Books. 2012
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How Of Happiness. New York: Penquin Books, 2007
Mead, Elaine. “What are Negative Emotions and How to Control Them?.” PositivePsychology.com. PositivePsychology.com, April 8, 2019. Web. August 26, 2019.
Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002
Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Flourish. New York: Free Press, 2011