Happiness is a topic we have touched on before in this series and will continue to do as we proceed.
There is one simple reason to explain why we have and will focus so much on happiness – we are all interested in it. More specifically, I’m willing to assume that everyone reading these words would quite like the idea of becoming happier.
In an earlier post, we distinguished between what psychologist Martin Seligman has referred to as the three happy lives – pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Also, we stressed the importance of not limiting your efforts to working on the pleasure end of the spectrum, as that neglects more substantial possibilities, with that in turn pointing to the distinction between happiness as an emotion-based feeling (and therefore fleeting) and a state of well-being, with the latter implying something more substantial.
However, there is no reason why we can’t look for short-term happiness ‘boosters’, while also trying to attend to engagement- and meaning-based activities.
A great deal of research has been conducted into happiness and well-being in recent decades, with this work highlighting a range of different approaches which can yield positive results to both emotion-based happiness and our broader sense of well-being.
Earlier in this series, we focused on gratitude, which is one such approach. Rather than revisit the specifics of that post again, we will merely remind you of the ‘counting blessings’ approach pioneered by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough around the turn of the Millennium. At the core of this approach was the idea that consciously focusing on positive life events can produce measurable increases in levels of self-reported happiness over time.
This idea was the basis for a successful book – Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity – written by Emmons and published in 2013. In it, he offers a range of gratitude strategies, while also pointing out how difficult it can be to commit to such approaches and the discipline that is required to see them through. If that notion seems odd to you, consider it this way – some days we will just not be in the mood to be thankful, and at such moments it might require a massive effort to look for what is going right in life. Currently, this writer is struggling with a foot ailment that is refusing to heal, and that injury looks likely to derail a plan to go long distance hiking in Spain. For some reason, I’m feeling particularly annoyed about that today (to put it mildly), and so would find it especially challenging to summon up the will to perform a gratitude exercise. I’ll probably feel more upbeat about it tomorrow, but today, for some reason, the combination of the injury and the possibility of missing a trip I have been looking forward to is dragging my mood down. But if you are engaged in a gratitude exercise, you really aren’t supposed to take days off or allow yourself a ‘blue’ day. Part of the purpose is to make it a daily practice, whether you’re at your most positive or not.
For me, it’s the foot injury, for you it will be something else. No doubt each of us would have a particular ‘something’ at any given time that might make us want to crunch up a sheet of paper listing things to be grateful for and toss it into a corner, allowing us to get on with the important business of worrying about X, feeling angry about Y, or succumbing to a delightful, low level rage about Z (Z in this case referring to the foot rage I’m experiencing today).
The point is, cultivating gratitude may not be as easy you imagine it to be, but the work of Emmons and others highlights the long-term benefits that can accrue from putting in the work.
Emmons refers to 21 days in his book title for a specific reason. He posits that one of the key take-home messages from his research and that undertaken by others in recent years is that three weeks is the length of time it takes to effectively retrain your brain to seek out the positives, to be sensitive to what is going right in life, and for the practice of gratitude to become a habit, as opposed to a task that we have either assigned to ourselves or has been assigned to us by someone else. Without this kind of conscious training, many of us can default to a view of the world in which we take for granted those parts of life that are going well and the people around us who contribute to it, and instead devote much of our attention to what is not going well or things we wish were going better, e.g., obsessing over a foot injury and neglecting to notice what has gone well today!
Some of you may know people who snigger or roll their eyes at the idea of actively cultivating gratitude and trying to focus on the positive in life. These individuals tend to regard such efforts as tantamount to denial or self-delusion. The best response to these naysayers is to pose the question of what is likely to be a more beneficial way to live – heeding the positive more than the negative, or the negative more than the positive? And why should it be somehow more authentic or ‘real’ to focus on the negative as opposed to the positive?
In the coming weeks, we will look at a range of happiness/well-being interventions that have been supported by formal research efforts, and from there, we will expand the conversation by highlighting positive outcomes associated with increased happiness, i.e., benefits above and beyond the mere fact of becoming happier.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.