In my last post, I shared insights from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research-based book “The How of Happiness” (links below). If you missed my post, click here and learn what you can and can’t change about your happiness and how to do it.
Part One of Sonja’s book delves into the whys of happiness. It refers to studies and the state of current happiness research.
Part Two focuses on the hows of becoming happier. Sonja offers 12 happiness activities that have been scientifically proven to increase happiness levels. Here’s a list of all twelve activities (see her book to read more about them):
1. Expressing Gratitude
2. Cultivating Optimism
3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
5. Nurturing Social Relationships
6. Developing Strategies for Coping
7. Learning to Forgive
8. Increasing Flow Experiences
9. Savoring Life’s Joys
10. Committing to Your Goals
11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
12. Taking Care of Your Body (Meditation, Physical Activity, Acting Like a Happy Person)
Now, trying to do all of these activities at once would be overwhelming. I’ve been working with three. (sidenote: a surprised group member asked whether I have to work to be happy. Yes, I do. We’re all in this together.)
The three happiness activities I’m focusing on are:
–Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
–Increasing Flow Experiences
To do justice to each activity, we’ll explore one each post.
Why I chose Cultivating Optimism
I’ve been through a whole lot and more than once I’ve courted pessimism. I know it’s exactly what I don’t want. I fundamentally believe in the order and perfection of life, and I want to live from this expansive and possibility filled perspective.
We are never powerless in our experience of life. We might be unaware of what we’re doing, but our power to influence our inner world and thus our lives is always available.
What is Optimism?
Sonja’s book and others reference several impressions of optimism. They include:
–Optimism is an expectation of positive outcomes (i.e., feeling good about the future).
–Optimism is coping with challenges in a positive way (i.e., looking on the bright side, finding the silver lining in a cloud, finding the opportunity in challenges).
–Optimism is a positive and external explanation for why a negative event happened. Sonja gives an example of attributing a failed sale to market conditions rather than one’s poor sales ability.
–Optimism is a positive determination to go after a goal, the belief that you can, and knowing how you will achieve it (i.e., trusting that you can get there).
It bears mentioning that optimism is not disconnection from reality, denial of what is, or irrational exuberance. Optimists grasp the magnitude of what’s before them and choose to interpret, manage, or act upon it positively. Life happens to all of us, optimists and pessimists alike, but optimists are better able to meet the challenges and triumph over them.
The benefits of optimism
The payoffs of optimism are proven and worth the efforts to cultivate it.
Optimism offers the following scientifically proven benefits:
–Optimists strive to achieve their goals
–Optimists persevere when facing challenges
–Optimists are more successful in nearly all fields of work
–Optimists are physically healthier
–Optimists cope with adversity better
–Optimists have a higher morale (they feel better)
How to cultivate optimism
Sonja offers several methods for cultivating optimism. By far, my favorite is the Best Possible Selves Diary exercise.
Laura King, a professor at the University of Missouri– Columbia, pioneered a study that proves the ability to cultivate optimism. Laura asked participants to spend twenty minutes a day writing a narrative description of their “best possible future selves” for four consecutive days. She found that participants had increases in positive moods, were happier several weeks later, and had fewer physical ailments, than those who hadn’t participated in the exercise.
Sonja and another researcher tested the Best Selves Diary exercise in their study and confirmed that the exercise when repeatedly done boosts mood and well-being. Here’s how to do it:
“To try it out, sit in a quiet place, and take twenty to thirty minutes to think about what you expect your life to be one, five, or ten years from now. Visualize a future for yourself in which everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. You have tried your best, worked hard, and achieved all your goals. Now write down what you imagine.” Lyubomirsky, Sonja The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want
Without an understanding of the power behind this exercise, I’ve been doing it since I was a teenager. I have dozens of journals that describe an ideal me and my desired life.
When I wrote my teenage visions, I was living in a garage, on welfare, with a baby, and no education. I wrote out my dreams because it provided me an escape from my dismal reality. For a time, the heaviness and fear of my world would be lifted, and I’d feel the positive feelings of safety, success, and well-being.
Astoundingly, I can look back and see that those writings, those trips of fantasy, paved the path for the sort of attitude and beliefs that enabled me to realize the visions I wrote. I went on to become the me I’d written about and I’ve achieved everything (yes, everything!) I set out to create.
Today, I’m emerging from the loss of my beautiful mother and learning to live without the one person who’d loved me forever. There’s a risk and a choice in front of me. The risk of caving to sadness and pessimism looms, and the choice to take affirmative steps to avert this risk sits squarely in front of me.
I choose optimism and a brighter future.
Try it. Comment and let me know if you’re willing to do this exercise with me.