We can be more than passengers on the road to happiness

We need to be open to the possibility that we are able to influence some portion of our happiness

Happiness is a widely shared goal that transcends cultural differences. A quick scour of the self-help section at your local or online bookstore demonstrates a ubiquitous desire to be happier and lead more fulfilled lives. But how?

I recently read the article “Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies” by Feguson & Sheldon in a volume of this year’s Journal of Positive Psychology. They stated that current research shows there may be important interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of being happy beyond simply feeling good; including higher relationship satisfaction, a greater tendency to engage in pro-social behaviours , higher income, and better physical health.

But isn’t happiness genetically determined? While there may be multiple factors which determine an individual’s happiness that may be difficult to control, including the genes that influence well-being and life circumstances, the researchers propose that individuals may still be able to alter their happiness through intentional behaviour. So, we may be the products of our past, but we are also the architects of our future. Ferguson & Sheldon surmise that there is a relationship between behavioural intentions and actual behavioural outcomes, with intentions actually predicting later behavior and outcomes. This fits with the social psychology research over the past 30 years that states that the actions we take leave a residue inside us; every time we act, we amplify the underlying idea or tendency behind that action. Most people presume the reverse – that our traits and attitudes affect our behavior, but we are as likely to act ourselves into a new way of thinking as to think ourselves into a new way of acting.

We need to be open to the possibility that we are able to influence some portion of our happiness, despite some facets being predetermined.  Remembering that it’s a process or journey of active and intentional pursuit – not in a ‘Am I there yet?’ kind of way, but in a way that reflects being aware of one’s present state and being receptive to experiencing a greater level of positive mood and enjoyment from such activities.

In the current research, ‘trying to become happier’ was left for participants to interpret themselves, but they found that individuals who listened to happy music reported greater feelings of happiness over a two week period. They concluded that doing something positive may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when combined with the intention to become happier.

What does intentional behaviour or trying to be happier look like for you, me, us? Ideally, families could discuss ideas at the dinner table, teachers could brainstorm with their students, and couples could chat about possibilities during date night. It’s about role modeling not only the intention but the behaviours as well.

• Practice optimistic thinking

• Engage in ‘feel good’ behaviour like volunteering and contributing

• Practice gratitude, giving thanks daily

• Engage in things such as looking though photos, listening to happy music, watching a funny/upbeat show.

• Speak daily affirmations – choose carefully, have them be based in truth, and address a current need.

• Carry a smile – making an emotion filled face carries influence over the feelings processed by the brain so a facial expression can influence our brain. Program yourself to experience happiness by choosing to smile.

• Hold back a complaint.

• Treat others well – kindness and grace benefit both the receiver and giver.

• Create cuddle time.

• Make room for fun.

• Appreciate each other. Find little ways to show how much you value each other.

Eryn Wicker (M.A., RCC ) is a mental health clinician with the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack, BC.

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