In case you need a reason (or two) to learn how to get happier, let me just ask…
Do you do your best work when you are miserable?
I sure don’t.
Do you nurture your important relationships, when you are miserable?
I confess there have been times when I’ve been really bad at this, too.
Speaking of reasons to get happier, I’m preparing for a couple of big corporate presentations this week. As I study how we can build our work engagement, increase our productivity, and improve our relationships, one idea keeps coming up again and again:
So I decided to really dig into this topic, by re-reading two great books. The Achor book is my favorite, because it’s written in a humorous, breezy way. Lyubomirsky tends more toward a dry, scholarly tone. Though her book has more great research-based happiness activities to try than his does. Pick your penchant.)
So how do you get happier? The two authors have dozens of suggestions, but here’s my biggest takeaway from all that reading. From the perspective of preventing burnout, as I read both books, I was struck by two essential ideas:
Lasting happiness does not just happen. Happiness is built, one experience at a time.
First, to be happy, one must take action. Their research-based emphasis that happiness is built of experiences that we – and our community — consciously create. In other words, instructions for how to get happier require a lot of verbs. Some examples of great happiness-creating verbs:
What have I left out? I’m sure you can think of even more happiness verbs – please share your list!
Second, I was reminded by both authors that flow – the sensation of being completely entranced by working or creating – is a fantastic happiness experience. I truly love that feeling of flow. Since my readers tend to be dedicated, even driven, professionals, I bet you do, too!
In the past, because I worked sooooo much (you could say I was a workaholic!), flow was one of the most reliable sensations of happiness in my life. So when flow dried up for me – in other words, when I burned out – the shock of losing this source of happiness was indescribably deep and painful.
My buddy and book co-author, Dr. Marnie Loomis, has this to say on being a workaholic: “It’s okay to love your work! But like any other love relationship, when it becomes obsessive and all-consuming, it’s no longer healthy. In fact, obsessive, all-consuming love tends to destroy the relationship over time. Just like any other relationship, it’s healthier and stronger when you also pursue other interests.”
In that spirit: learning to pursue other interests, in part to keep the flow sensation alive and well, but also because setting a goal to get happier is a pretty great idea anyway:
5 “Get Happier” Ideas I Love
Here’s five happiness actions I love, pulled from the two happiness books I mentioned in the intro. They are arranged in order from lowest energy to more demanding. I think all five will give back to you more than they take. Depending on your current energy level, pick one to try this week.
For a very simple example, always available to you, let’s try movement. Right this moment, as you’re reading this essay on your phone or at your desk, try this:
Dance, right where you sit, for 3-5 seconds.
Waggle your shoulders, wriggle your hips, and wave your hands, all to an inner rhythm only you can hear. Maybe get a little sassy with it.
Great! Now, notice: What just happened to your mood?
What would happen to your mood today if you set a timer, to remind you once an hour to do just that? Try it and see.
(Hey, dancing! There’s a verb that needs to go on our list!)
2. Pay Attention
The next time you spend a moment with someone you like, intentionally, consciously decide to give that person your entire, affectionate (non-creepy!) attention. Drop all multitasking, all other concerns, even the concern about what you will say next. During that moment with them, be entirely present. Look, listen, appreciate, be curious. Notice. Pay attention.
How did that feel? How did your interaction shift? How did you feel after the interaction is over.
3. Be Kind X 5
Here’s a slightly more ambitious happiness experience you can create. Don’t worry — the studies show you only need to do it once a week to give you days of happiness. Try this:
Pick a day this week to commit 5 small, intentional, conscious acts of kindness.
Small is fine – holding a door for a stranger definitely counts. But it counts when it is conscious and intentional. If you think, at the end of the day, “oh yeah, I held a door for that guy with the packages, that was kind,” well, it was kind. I’m glad you did it!
But for the purposes of this happiness exercise, it only “counts” when you think, at the time, “oh, here’s an opportunity to be kind. “ Intentional, conscious acts of kindness.
You might want to keep 5 tokens (marbles, or pennies, whatever you like) in your pocket or on your desk. When you do something kind, move a token to your other pocket, or drop it into a special little bowl on your desk. Make it your goal to move all 5 tokens by the end of the day. Then, try this again one day next week. Notice what shifts for you. You might just decide the change in your happiness is worth making this a weekly habit.
Also, I would just love to get your report on your day of five acts of kindness. Your list could help all of us have better days.
4. Remain Positive During Disagreements
I don’t know about you. But for me, staying happy when faced with someone with whom I strongly disagree is a particular challenge. Of course, staying realistic and focused on the facts is required for good decisions and correct actions. But staying realistic does not rule out staying on the positive side.
I feel giving constructive feedback is, in my opinion, an art form. It is an art that can shift your own energy to happy. It may even, over time, improve the culture at home or at work.
Learn to disagree without being disagreeable.
I used to think I was pretty good at this. But then I joined Toastmasters, where they take the art of evaluation – providing a speaker specific feedback on how they can improve for next time – very seriously indeed. I was, indeed, good at this when I felt the speaker gave a good speech. But I have felt really challenged when I did not enjoy either the speaker’s content or their speech style. How could I give constructive feedback to someone who I felt did a really bad job?
The Toastmasters answer to this dilemma is the “sandwich method.” Sandwich your specific criticism between two specific things you genuinely liked about their speech. That challenge, coming up with two things I genuinely liked about a speech which I thought was completely terrible, turns out to be a wonderful character-building exercise – for me. And it also changes my mood for the better. It builds my happiness.
I’ve also been enlightened by my own reaction to specific constructive feedback to my speeches. I love it! It’s so exciting to be challenged to stretch and grow by people who have my best interests at heart. Even when I feel they didn’t get my point at all, I am fascinated by the varied reactions and understandings my speeches convey. When I know what my audience is actually hearing, I can fine-tune my speech to communicate what I actually want to say.
The reason I’m telling you this is because this pleasure in specific criticism is a frequent reaction to caring, specific, timely feedback. When you learn to do it well, with the best interest of the other at heart, your constructive feedback may be contributing to their happiness as well. For advanced skills in this area, I recommend the book Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott.
And we’d all love to learn from you. In what ways have you learned to disagree without being disagreeable?
Life is not always a bowl of cherries. (Although, indeed, as Mary Engelbreit has memorably illustrated, it may sometimes be a “chair of bowlies.”)
In this Scientifc American article on the benefits of allowing our negative emotions to be fully felt, the authors also point out, “feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time—for example, “I feel sad at times because of everything I've been through, but I'm also happy and hopeful because I'm working through my issues”—preceded improvements in well-being over the next week or two for subjects, even if the mixed feelings were unpleasant at the time.” This kind of emotional flexibility, an advanced happiness skill, may be critical to develop if burnout has lately been your constant companion, because emotional flexibility is an important key to rebuilding resilience.
This is why the skill of mindfulness is also a valuable happiness skill. At its simplest level, mindfulness is practicing being aware and non-judgmentally accepting of what is, including the emotional charges on the present moment. Mindfulness in turn allows us to become more emotionally flexible and resilient. The Headspace app is one way to learn and practice this skill, usually in 10-minutes per day. Its first 10 days are free.
What Are Your “Get Happier” Favorites?
I’ve mentioned that learning to get happier promotes the sensation of flow, increases creativity and productivity, and improves our relationships. I’ve leaned in on the idea that happiness is largely something we create through our own actions. I love these 5 simple practices to get happier. Let us know how they work for you.
There are, of course, a million and one ways to get happier. What are your personal favorites? Please share. We'll all be happier for knowing them.