Real Happiness: Proven Paths for Contentment, Peace and Well-Being
Real Happiness: Proven Paths for Contentment, Peace and Well-Being by Jonah Paquette, PsyD, resonates more with Resources for Recovering Resilience than anything I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a gem of a book, engagingly written, delightfully easy to read, superbly well-organized, and wonderfully specific and practical. Please indulge and find many, many practices for your own path to well-being.
REFLECTIONS on Real Happiness
In the first three chapters of Real Happiness, Dr. Paquette explores:
What happiness and psychological well-being are:
From Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, multiple layers of:
* positive emotions – pleasant feelings about our past, present, and future
* engagement – a sense of flow where time seems to stop
* meaning – being involved in or serving something larger than yourself.
From Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness, multiple layers of
* the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being
* a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, worthwhile.
And then Dr. Paquette’s expansion of those multiple layers:
* A strong presence of positive and pleasant emotions, both in the present moment as well as towards the past and the future
* A feeling of connection to those around us, as well as to our activities, pursuits, and vocations
* An underlying feeling of satisfaction with our life
* A deep sense of meaning and purpose that anchors us even when our more fleeting positive emotions are not present.
The benefits of being happy:
* better health and living longer (by at least 9 years)
* stronger, more cooperative relationships, more satisfactory marriages
* better job performance and achieving career goals, higher incomes
* achieving measurably more life satisfaction.
It’s important to realize: we may want to cultivate happiness because we want to be happy, but happiness itself is a direct cause of these positive outcomes. Here’s Dr. Paquette’s eloquent summary of the research of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity:
“Negative emotions prompt narrow, immediate, and survival-oriented behaviors in our lives. As an example, think of the “fight or flight” response we experience when we feel intense anxiety or fear. Our focus narrows, we perceive threats more acutely, and our mind and body go on high alert. We zero in on the threats immediately in front of us, and our attention and efforts serve to aid in our immediate survival.
“Positive and pleasant emotions have their opposite function in our lives. Positive emotions serve to “broaden and build” our personal resources. We seek out novel experiences, think in more creative ways, and demonstrate more interest and curiosity in new activities. When we are happy, we become receptive to a wide range of ideas, experiences, and ways of problem-solving far beyond our baseline. Our social circles broaden, we develop new skills and interests, and we achieve success in both life and love. Studies further show that when we encourage challenges in our lives, we tend to utilize significantly more creative and proactive styles of coping when we are in a positive mood compared to a negative one.
“From a mental health perspective, there is now substantial evidence to suggest that positive emotions and happiness allow us to respond better to stress and adversity, and even help us become more resilient in the face of trauma. Furthermore, positive emotions serve to undo the effects of negative emotions on an emotional and even a physiological level.
“Finally, it should be noted that through cultivating positive emotions and building happiness in our lives, we become buffered against future bouts of depression and low mood. Consider for a moment the way in which painful emotions have a tendency to feed off themselves and create a “downward spiral.” Take the example of depression, in which our low mood leads us to withdraw from our normal activities, pull away from social support, and think negatively about others and ourselves. This in turn deepens our depressed mood even further, thus strengthening the cycle.
“Positive emotions act in the opposite way. We seek out meaningful experiences, strengthen our social bonds while forging new ones, and engage in proactive problem-solving in the face of stress. Moreover, this cycle has a way of feeding on itself as well, creating an “upward spiral” of well-being.
“Happiness doesn’t just feel good to us; it’s good for us, too.”
Some of the barriers to our happiness:
* Getting caught in “if/then” thinking
Especially if we are looking outside of ourselves or to external circumstances – a new job, a new home, a new relationship – to make us happy. An improvement in external circumstances can increase our happiness by about 10%, temporarily, but deep lasting happiness comes more from the inner practices Dr. Paquette suggests in the rest of the book – the choices we make the behaviors we engage in, the mindsets and habits we cultivate – that change our baseline of happiness altogether.
* The biological reality of hedonic adaptation
We become accustomed to a temporary boost in our happiness, then slowly return to the baseline of happiness levels before (See Stories to Learn from Below for the research.)
* The brain’s built-in negativity bias
We remember bad outcomes much more easily than good ones and negative events impact us more and more strongly than positive ones. (As Rick Hanson says, our brains are like Velcro for the bad; Teflon for the good.)
* And our genes.
(Based on studies of identical twins separated at birth; their happiness baseline closely correlate even though raised in very different environments.
Dr. Paquette than offers 7 paths to happiness that will be very familiar to readers of Bouncing Back and these Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness newsletters:
Kindness and altruism
Living in the present moment
Each chapter offers some of the research findings relevant for each path, unpacking what each practice actually means, and very practical techniques based on self-directed neuroplasticity and changing behaviors and mindsets that you can implement in your life immediately, the benefits of doing so, especially in coping with hard times and adversity.
These practices are often treated as afterthoughts in our modern world, and yet they are the very foundation of living lives of true well-being and happiness. The most important thing is to complete the exercises, practice the skills. That wise effort is what leads to well-being.
[direct excerpts from the book are in “quotation marks.”]
Chapter 4: The Path of Gratitude
Pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons defines gratitude as “a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciated for life” and found it to be one of the most effective and reliable ways to boost our happiness, and to change our lives in meaningful and lasting ways.
Gratitude includes both acknowledging the goodness that is present in our lives and a recognition that many other people, even the universe if you’re of a spiritual mindset, give us the many gifts, big and small, that help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
When eating bamboo sprouts, remember the man who planted them. – Chinese proverb
And the benefits are many. From many research studies: gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry, and irritation. Gratitude is actually a causal factor in lower levels of depression and anxiety, improved physical health, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, and more compassion and forgiveness towards others. People who practice gratitude are more hopeful and optimistic about their future, and report feeling more enthusiastic and determined. Gratitude can even help ameliorate the effects of trauma and aid in the healing process.
Gratitude is considered a gateway emotion – it tends to lead directly to other positive feelings – peace, tranquility, calmness, contentedness – and to connectedness to the good aspects of our lives.
Gratitude is good for our physical health, too – a buffer against heart disease, diabetes, and stroke and a precursor to a good night’s sleep. Gratitude is excellent for our relational health; practitioners of gratitude tend to become more outgoing, less lonely, less likely to isolate, more likely to be helpful and altruistic toward others, better able to let go of resentments and be forgiving.
[Please remember the direction of the causality: gratitude is the cause of these good outcomes.]
Besides all of these encouraging discoveries from behavioral science researchers, neuroscientists have discovered that practicing gratitude appears to boost the amount of serotonin in the brain, the neurotransmitter that helps combat depression; it appears to increase levels of dopamine, considered the “feel good’ neurotransmitter that helps us initiate behavior and take action. Practicing gratitude does change the brain!
Researchers have further found that practicing gratitude when going through hard times is not only helpful – it’s crucial. “Gratitude helps people feel hope even when things seem hopeless, inspires us when we feel demoralized, and connects us to others when we feel alone.”
I’ve included here Dr. Paquette’s Tips for Practicing Gratitude: [he offers similar tips for each chapter]
1) focus on the interpersonal – focusing on people has a greater effect on our well-being than focusing on things;
2) notice small things;
3) maintain a regular routine; establish a “rhythm” of gratitude in our life;
4) get some variety – change up your practice from time to time; you and your brain will benefit;
5) get visual – place photos or positive words on encouragement where you can see them regularly;
6) don’t just go through the motions – challenge yourself to look closely and broadly in your life for things/people to be grateful for;
7) be careful not to overdo it – pace yourself so these exercises seem fresh when you do them again;
8) don’t’ worry about mistakes – no self-criticism, no report card, no “not good enough”;
9) link up with a gratitude partner – social support is supportive!
Dr. Paquette then offers Five Gratitude Practices in this chapter:
#1: Three Good Things
#2: The Gratitude Journal
#3: Our Inner George Bailey
#4: Reflecting on Hardship
#5: Gratitude Letter and Visit
I have included Practice #1: Three Good Things in the Exercises to Practice below.
Chapter 5: The Path of Kindness and Altruism
“We all know intuitively that practicing kindness and compassion towards those around us is a good thing. Whether though our families or our faith, many of us are taught from a young age that giving to others is a noble endeavor. The fact that practicing kindness is beneficial for those on the receiving end is self-evident. What may be less obvious, but no less important, are the immense benefits that practicing kindness can yield for the person who’s doing the giving. In short, practicing kindness and compassion toward others – acts in which we do something for the benefit of another, with no direct measurable or material benefit to ourselves – has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of becoming happier and healthier.”
Practicing kindness – acknowledged by experts to be “the most powerful force on the planet” reduces levels of stress, addiction, mental illness, suicidality, while strengthening connection and cooperation with other people, which is one of our greatest emotional protective factors, and generates a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Giving to others gives us a different view of ourselves.
Practicing kindness appears to activate the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, evoking the warm glow known as the “helpers’ high.” A study of 37 cultures around the world that investigated the single most important quality in a potential mate found that kindness was the most important quality and it was the only quality that was considered to be universally desirable.
Kindness improves health and longevity as much as quitting smoking, and brings uniquely beneficial effects to those struggling with chronic or even terminal illnesses. Even small acts of kindness appear to have huge implications in terms of health and emotional adjustment. By giving to others, particularly those who share our own struggles, we can transcend our current plight and transform our lives.
The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. – Viktor Frankl
Dr. Paquette offers his tips for practicing kindness in general and then Five Kindness Practices:
#1: Five Acts of Kindness
#2: Better to Give than to Receive?
#3: Volunteering for a Cause
#4: Recalling Kindness
#5: The Gift of Time
I have included Practice #1: Five Acts of Kindness in the Exercises to Practice Below
Chapter 6: The Path of the Present Moment
The common and constant habits of our minds, anticipating dangers that lie ahead or lamenting losses from the past, increase our levels of stress and derail our experience of happiness and well-being. We are constantly inundated by distractions, and encourage to multitask incessantly. Learning to slow down, or to become immersed in the present moment, isn’t exactly encouraged most of the time.
“The practice of mindfulness, “knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it” can help us live in, and enjoy the ease and contentment of, the present moment.
Dr. Paquette clears away some of the myths about mindfulness, i.e., mindfulness is not just meditation, it is not just wiping your mind clear of thoughts, it is not just relaxation.
Then the good news:
“Although each path to happiness outlined in this book is backed by a great deal of scientific research, the findings related to mindfulness are particularly impressive. There have now been literally hundreds of studies done on the various benefits of practicing mindfulness. The bottom line of these various studies is that mindfulness has the potential to improve our mental and emotional health in ways that are nothing sort of incredible.”
Among the discoveries, mindfulness practices leads to
* Lower rates of stress and anxiety and is an effective treatment for major depression
* Higher rates of contentment and happiness
* More optimism and greater life satisfaction
* Better attention and enhanced memory
* Enhanced problem-solving, more resilience
* Strengthened immune system, better health (fewer doctor’s visits, fewer days in the hospital, less chronic back pain
* Fewer behavioral problems and less aggression among students
* Improved job performance and job retention
* Decreased neural activity in the amygdala (fear and anger center)
* Increased activity in left pre-frontal cortex, strengthening positive emotions and well-being
* Strengthening the brain’s functioning for attention, concentration, memory, empathy and
* Offset of “cortical thinning” of the brain
* Breaking the automaticity of ruminative and negative thoughts
Dr. Paquette offers his helpful tips for practice, and the Five Mindfulness Practices
#1: Mindfulness of the Breath
#2: Raisin (Mindful Eating) Meditation
#3: Everyday Mindfulness
#4: Mindfulness of the Senses
#5: A Mindful Minute
I’ve included Practice #5: A Mindful Minute in the Exercises to Practice below.
Chapter 7: The Path of Forgiveness
“When we are wronged or experience injustice, our impulse is often to respond by fighting fire with fire. We feel pulled to lash back at the person who hurt us, in order to avenge our pain. At other times we may choose instead to avoid the person altogether, yet remain consume by feelings of anger and resentment. These sorts of reactions are common and understandable. Above all, they are human. And yet there is often an immense cost to these sorts of responses. We can become stuck in bitterness, cling to our feelings of anger, and feel unable to move forward in our lives. In the end, we continue to suffer long after the grievance has passed, harming only ourselves in the process. As the Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one getting burned.”
“The past decade has seen an explosion of research on the benefits of forgiveness across a range of domains. As it turns out, forgiveness is not merely an honorable pursuit or selfless act. It has actually been shown to be one of the most powerful paths towards achieving happiness and well-being. By choosing forgiveness, we can transform our mental health, physical health, and our lives in a lasting way.
“Forgiveness is a conscious effort to let go of anger and resentment towards a person or group who has harmed you. It means liberating ourselves form motivations for revenge or avoidance, regardless of whether or not the other person may deserve it.
“When another person hurts us, our initial injury may last seconds or hours. But in our mind, we often continue to replay and rerun the incident for days, months, even years. Like a broken record, our mind remains stuck on the grievance. We want to project our pain back on the person who hurt us, to make them suffer as we have. But no matter how much we fantasize about this, our pain does not lessen. Rather, it become amplified.”
Because forgiveness cam be a truly challenging practice, Dr. Paquette offers some important corrections of what forgiveness is not:
* Forgiveness is not forgetting. True forgiveness does not involve forgetting the pain that we’ve been caused, or the way we’ve been hurt. Indeed, we can and should remember what has happened in order to shape our behavior and choices moving forward.
* Forgiveness is not about the other person. On the contrary, forgiveness is about you, and your personal choice to release feelings of anger and resentment.
* Forgiveness is not condoning or minimizing. When we forgive another person, we are not condoning their actions, nor are we minimizing the paid we’ve experienced.
* Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness may at times be followed by reconciliation, which involves reconnecting with the offender and re-establishing a relationship with them. But at other times, we may appropriately choose to no longer have a relationship with the other person and yet nonetheless forgive them. True forgiveness can and often does occur without the added step of reconciliation.
* Forgiveness is not a quick fix. Forgiveness can take time, and there is no set timeframe on the process. By recognizing that forgiveness is a process, we can fully experience our feelings and in time move forward.”
Hanging onto guilt or resentment increases levels of stress and depression, increases blood pressure and heart rate, weakens the immune system, leaves us more vulnerable to colds, cancer, and heart disease, and lowers levels of overall quality of life and life satisfaction. Forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety and fosters stronger empathy, better perspective, happier relationships, and higher levels of well-being.
Dr. Paquette then provides practical tips for a forgiveness practice and five Forgiveness Practices:
#1: The Forgiveness Letter
#2: Remembering Forgiveness
#3: Forgiveness Meditation
#4: Drawing Strength from Adversity
I’ve included Practice #2: Remembering Forgiveness in the Exercises to Practice below.
Chapter 8: The Path of Self-Compassion
“Think about the last time you suffered a setback, or a time when you felt as if you didn’t “measure up.” Perhaps it was an incident at work, a conflict at home, or not performing well on a test at school. Do you remember how you responded? Can you recall how you spoke to yourself in the aftermath of what happened?
“If you’re like many people, you might have responded with self-criticism or shame, berating yourself for your perceived shortcomings. “What’s the matter with me?” or “Why can’t I handle this?” are common refrains in our internal dialogue. We believe that by responding in this manner, we’ll somehow spur ourselves to action and do better the next time. But this belief turns out to be misguided. Rather than motivate us toward positive change, self-criticism ends up demoralizing us over time. This compounds our misery.
“For many of us, it’s much easier to treat others with kindness and caring in times of need, whereas we often treat ourselves with harshness. We believe that self-criticism will somehow spur us into action, motivate us to do better next time, and help us to overcome our human imperfections. But research indicates that the opposite is in fact true. Rather than motivate us towards improvement, self-criticism demoralizes us and can even prevent us from achieving our goals.”
Many of us try to antidote that self-criticism and self-judgment by cultivating self-esteem – “earning” a better opinion of ourselves.
“But significant problems emerge as a result of our constant emphasis and pursuit of self-esteem, and our incessant quest to boost feelings of self-esteem. In general, because self-esteem is so closely connected to things like accomplishments and the perceptions of those around us, we are left with two general ways we can boost our self-worth at any given time either by elevating and “puffing up” ourselves, or by putting down those around us. Neither road leads to a good place.
“According to many social scientists, one of the problems with our focus on self-esteem is that it leads to a sense of “contingent self-worth.” In other words, when we do well in life, we feel good about ourselves and our self-esteem shoots up. But when we experience setbacks or feel like we aren’t quite measuring up, our self-esteem goes in the tank. For many of us, self-esteem becomes inherently tied up with whether we feel successful or not, beautiful or not, or receive approval or not from those around us. Our quest for self-esteem often leads to a number of unintended negative consequences, such as self-criticism, alienation from others, self-absorption or narcissism, and a fragile sense of self when we experience setbacks. Self-esteem is an inherently unstable concept, a rollercoaster that can lead us to great heights but also tremendous depths.
“On the other hand, a growing body of research now suggests that treating ourselves with kindness and compassion is in fact crucial for achieving lasting happiness and well-being. Ancient wisdom from the East has long espoused this view, and has stressed the importance of self-compassion in our lives. Indeed, Buddhist philosophy has long held that learning to care for oneself is even necessary before one can offer compassion and care to others. In recent years, Western psychology has begun to catchup to these long-held truths. Self-compassion is now considered a key ingredient in helping us achieve a life of happiness and contentment. Most importantly, self-compassion is a skill that any of us can learn to grow and cultivate within us, in order to lastingly change our lives.
“Rather than incessantly labeling ourselves as good or bad, self-compassion enables us to stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. At its core, self-compassion allows us to treat ourselves with the same degree of kindness we might offer a close friend, or even a stranger. For many of us, it’s far easier to offer support to those around us that it is to turn that kindness inwards towards ourselves. But recent findings suggest that learning to do so is imperative when it comes to boosting our happiness and well-being.
“Self-compassion consists of three distinct yet interconnected components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness refers to the importance of being gentle with ourselves and understanding of our own shortcomings. Rather than respond with harshness or criticism in the face of setbacks, self-kindness emphasizes that we treat ourselves with compassion and acceptance. The second component of self-compassion, common humanity, denotes the feeling of being connected with others rather than feeling isolated and alone as a result of our suffering. We become able to recognize that feelings of pain and disappointment are universal, and that we are not solitary in our struggles. It is this aspect of self-compassion that helps distinguish it from self-pity. Finally, mindfulness refers to non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment. Rather than anxiously glancing towards the future, or ruminating about the past with regret, mindfulness allows us to find peace and understanding in the present.
“According to the latest research, it is necessary to incorporate all three of these elements in order to reap the full benefits of self-compassion. By learning to be kinder to ourselves, accepting our limitations, and treating ourselves the way we treat others, we come on step closer to lasting feelings of well-being and happiness.”
Again, dispelling some of the myths about self-compassion; it is not selfish, nor a pity party, not glossing over reality, not positive affirmations or complacency.
And the benefits: self-compassion provides a buffer against falling into episodes of depression or anxiety or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. On the positive side, self-compassion helps us meet our goals around quitting smoking, getting more exercise and eating a healthier diet. Self-compassion leads to closer and more authentic relationships; people are more willing to offer help, encouragement and compassion to others, be more patient and understanding of mistakes, better equipped to cope with setbacks, and achieve greater success in school and in the workplace.
Dr. Paquette offers Five Self-Compassion Practices:
#1: Letter of Self-Compassion
#2: Loving Kindness Meditation
#3: Seeing the Double Standard
#5: Self-Criticism v. Self-Compassion
I’ve included Practice #3: Seeing the Double Standard in Exercises to Practice below.
Chapter 9: The Path of Optimism
Dr. Paquette summarizes some of the beneficial outcomes of practicing optimism this way:
* Optimism helps us cope with challenges. When faced with challenges and stressors, individual with a pessimistic mindset and style will often give up. Optimists, by contrast, are better able to persevere and cope with challenging circumstances.
* Optimism helps us achieve goals. Oriented to a positive future, optimists are more likely to set and reach goals in their lives.
* Optimism breeds positive emotions. Strategies of optimism can often lead to a cascade of other positive emotional states, resulting in an “upward spiral” of well-being.
* Optimism increases social support. Optimists are far more likely than pessimists to both receive and utilize social support.
* Optimism short-circuits rumination. Optimism is a powerful antidote for rumination, as it helps us engage in goal-setting and problem-solving in the face of stress.
* Optimism changes our brain. [More neural activity in the “positive” left hemisphere of the brain.
* Optimism buffers us from mental health problems. Optimism has been found to be a strong protective factor against a host of mental health difficulties, especially depression and suicidality, and stress and anxiety.
Because optimism is such a causative factor for resilience, and because the research from positive psychology that Dr. Paquette presents in this chapter so dovetails with the research I’ve studied from Carol Dweck’s Mindset (see May 2016 e-newsletter) and the field of post-traumatic growth (see May 2015 e-newsletter) I’m including longer excerpts here, because cultivating optimism really is about majorly shifting our mindset from pessimism to optimism; that’s well worth unpacking.
“There have now been countless studies showing both the negative consequences of pessimism, as well as the profound benefits of optimism. Optimists perform better across nearly all areas of life, including mental health, physical health, and relationships. They tend to do better in school, perform better at work, and even live substantially longer lives on average.
“But as with any skill, becoming more optimistic is easier said than done. Thankfully, becoming an optimist doesn’t require good genes or good luck; rather, it is a skill that we can all learn and practice in order to harness its immense benefits. Countless studies and interventions now demonstrate that changing our mindset and increasing our level of optimism is indeed possible.
“Dispositional optimism is the manner in which we look towards the future. Do we look forward with excitement, anticipation, expecting that things will turn out well in our life? Or do we nervously glance ahead with worry, believing that storm clouds are approaching? In general, optimism about the future refers to the belief that the days to come will be mostly positive, that we will accomplish our goals and achieve our hopes, and that the future holds promise. This aspect of optimism is most closely connected to the ideas of seeing the glass as half full, looking on the bright side, or finding the silver lining in a cloud.
“Attributional optimism is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. From this standpoint, when we experience a setback in our life, we have a choice in how we interpret what happened. We can choose to look at things in a charitable, optimistic manner. Or we can interpret what just occurred in a more negative light.”
Dr. Paquette cites Martin Seligman’s explanation of three dimensions of attributional optimism: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalizing. Optimists and pessimist display opposite patterns in terms of these dimensions when explaining things that happen in their lives. When faced with a setback, optimists tend to think of the situation as being, temporary, specific, and external. Conversely, pessimists consider setbacks to be permanent, universal, and internal. By comparison, when things go well, optimists tend to think it’s due to permanent, universal and internal factors, while pessimists believe that their success is due to temporary, specific and external factors.
“What does that look like in real life? Let’s say you perform well on your chemistry midterm exam. An optimist would attribute this to factors that are more internal, long lasting, and stable. If you’re an optimist, you”ll likely say things to yourself like “I’m good at chemistry,” or “I’m a good test taker.” If you’re a pessimist, by contrast, you’ll tend to look at this success as being merely temporary, fleeting, and external Beliefs like, “I got lucky,” or “the teacher gave an easy exam,” might be running through your mind.
“Conversely, let’s say you bombed that midterm exam. Well, if you’re an optimist you’ll probably take it in stride and attribute your performance to external, temporary, and specific factors. You might say, “I didn’t study enough for the test,” and “I got a bit unlucky, but I’ll do better the next time.” If you’re a pessimist though, you’ll make judgements about yourself that are much harsher. “I’m such a failure” or “I’ll never pass this class.
“Taken together, we can see that the path of optimism entails both looking at our future in positive terms, and learning to interpret both the good and the bad in our life in a more adaptive manner. Our aim is to gain a more positive view of our future, while learning to view our setbacks or troubles in a realistic but positive manner.
“In order to survive, our brains developed to anticipate threats, attend to danger, and live to see another day. Viewed in this light, pessimism is a natural byproduct of a brain finely tuned to focus on the negative at the expense of the positive. Although pessimism makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, it comes at a great cost when it comes to personal happiness and well-being. Pessimists exhibit worse outcomes in terms of mental health and relationship satisfaction. Their health suffers, with rates of many illnesses higher among pessimists, and they may even have shorter lifespans. When faced with challenges, pessimists tend to give up rather than persevere, compared to optimists who are more likely to push through obstacles.
“For many of us, a pessimistic disposition may feel deeply engrained and intractable. And to be sure, there is certainly evidence that factors such as genes and inborn temperament play a role in whether we are more of a “glass half full” versus “glass half empty” kind of person. But even if you consider yourself to be on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, there’s good news. Findings suggest that in many cases, optimism can be learned and is a skill no different from any other. Our mindset holds great power when it comes to our emotional experience.
“Cognitive therapy demonstrates the immense power of one’s thoughts and beliefs on his or her emotional experience. In other words, when we harshly judge ourselves, ruminate on past failures, or anticipate that negatives things will happen to us, we’ll feel lousy. If, on the other hand, we learn to think in a more realistic positive, and adaptive manner, we’ll feel much better. Either way, our mindset determines much of our emotional experiences.”
Shifting from a pessimistic mindset to a more optimistic mindset is crucial for happiness and well-being.
“At its core, pessimism is closely connected with a host of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. Individuals with depression, almost by definition, experience negative expectations about their future and feel helpless to change them. Conversely, anxiety has been described as a future-oriented mood state, in which we attempt to cope with negative events that have not yet occurred. The link between optimism, pessimism, and mental health has now been supported in numerous studies. Optimists perform better than pessimists on a range of mental health measures, most notable a significantly low rate of depression. Optimism has also been shown to be a strong protective factor against suicide, whereas pessimism and hopelessness are considered strong risk factors. Furthermore, optimists tend to suffer from lower rates of anxiety and stress compared to pessimists and report higher levels of overall life satisfaction and happiness.
“Optimists appear to have better overall physical health, too, and even tend to catch few colds than pessimists. Their immune systems tend to function better, enabling them to bounce back from illness more quickly and efficiently. And regardless of other influences such as socioeconomic status, age, or body weight, optimism has been found to drastically reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Among the most optimistic participants in research studies, their risk of a major cardiovascular event was reduced by as much as 50 percent!
“Optimists are less likely to die form a host of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. People need to feel that they still have something to strive for and look forward to live significantly longer lives. Much like stopping smoking or improving our diet, cultivate an optimistic attitude has been shown to have a powerful effect on our bodies and our physical health.
“On a brain-based level, further differences emerge between optimists and pessimists. Optimists tend to display greater activation on the left side of their brain, whereas pessimists show increased activation on their right side. Left-sided brain activity is more connected to positive emotions, whereas right-sided activation tends to be associated with negative emotional states. Fortunately, the principle of neuroplasticity supports the notion that through practice and intentional activity, these brain patterns can be changed over time. So even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, your brain can in fact be “rewired” for optimism.”
Dr. Paquette then gives his excellent as usual tips for boosting optimism and offers Five Optimism Practices:
#1: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
#2: Overcoming Pessimism
#3: A Positive Future
#4: Explain Setbacks Like an Optimist
#5: Reflecting on Success
I’ve included Practice #2: Overcoming Pessimism, in the Exercises to Practice below.
Chapter 10: The Path of Connection
“One of the most consistent and robust findings in the field of mental health is that happier people tend to have stronger connections with friends, family, spouses, and co-workers. There is clearly a bi-directional relationship between social connection and happiness, whereby increased social support leads to increased happiness, which in turn makes us more able to seek out further social support around us.
“Matthew Lieberman, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has persuasively argued that our brains have developed over the millennia to seek out and value social connections and interpersonal bonds. In his recent book entitled Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (see April 2016 e-newsletter] Dr. Lieberman outlines how our brains contain a series of neural networks designed to foster social connection with those around us. Summing up his years of research on cognitive neuroscience, Dr. Lieberman states that,
“This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”
“As our species developed and evolved, social grouping became imperative for survival. Indeed, the ability to create and maintain social bonds was important to early man as the ability to throw a stone or build a fire. Social groups enable early humans to stave off starvation, to hunt together, and to fight off enemies together. Social bonds empowered humans to reproduce, protect their children, and raise them in safety and security. And the more social interaction an animal must navigate, the larger its brain mush be. Human beings, with the most complex and layered social networks of any species on earth, had to develop significantly larger brains in order to survive and thrive.
“Strong social support has now been connected to improvements in immune system functioning, along with a lower risk of getting sick. Close social connection is associated with a 50% decrease in mortality compared to individuals with weaker social bonds. One study of heart attack victims recovering in the hospital found that longevity increased with each visitor they received. Conversely, those who did not receive visitors were far more like to die prematurely.
“And…socially connected individuals are better able to cope with stressful events and bounce back from setbacks more effectively.”
Dr. Paquette then offers Five Connection Practices:
#1: Gratitude Letter and Visit
#2: Unplug and Connect
#3: Gratitude Report Card
#4: Active Constructive Responding
#5: Loving Kindness
I have included Practice #1: Gratitude Letter and Visit in the Exercises to Practice below.
Dr. Paquette closes his exploration of these 7 paths toward happiness and well-being with tips for sustaining short-term gains over the long haul to make the increased happiness you generate from these exercises enduring.
“Happiness Tip #1: Consider What’s Been Helpful
“Reflect for a moment on what has been most helpful during this initial effort towards becoming a happier person. Consider which paths to happiness seemed to resonate most for you, and which particular exercises seemed to give you the greatest boost. Take a moment and reflect on which specific principles and skills were most helpful for you thus far. Make note of them, and commit to maintaining those practices in the days to come.
“Happiness Tip #2: Pursue What Feels Good
“Findings show that positive emotions help to “broaden and build” our minds, opening us up to possibilities and creating a cascade of positive outcomes in our lives and our relationships. Consider which practices give you sense of joy, pleasure, and gratification. These will serve you moving forward, as they will be practices you can turn to for your necessary dose of positivity.
“Happiness Tip #3: Turn Happiness into Habit
“Building happiness and well-being largely comes down to habit. It takes time and effort to create habits, and happiness is no different in that respect. Through conscious and deliberate effort we can turn happiness into a lasting habit.
“Happiness Tip #4: Fix What’s Wrong
“Take a moment to reflect on any particular problems, or areas of concern, that you would like to rectify. Consider which happiness practices and skills can help address these areas, and begin incorporating these more in your life for an added boost.
“Happiness Tip #5: Build What’s Strong
“Rather than focusing just on problems and deficits, you harness the strengths and abilities that you already possess. For each of us, certain paths to happiness may come more naturally, whereas others will be more of a challenge. It’s important to incorporate both of these ends of the spectrum, including tapping into the areas of strength already within you.
“Happiness Tip #6: Change Your Brain
“A recurring theme throughout this book has been the notion that our brains are dynamic, rather than static. For many years, it was presumed that our brains stopped changing and developing by early adulthood and would remain in a somewhat fixed state thereafter before succumbing to a gradual decline later in life. However, recent research has discredited this notion, and shed light on the powerful changes that our brains continue to experience over the course of our lives.
“Neurons are constantly firing, creating new connections and pathways in our brain. The notion of “self-directed neuroplasticity” reminds us that our brain is shaped over time by our behaviors, and even by our thoughts. The simple reality is that what we do, and how we think, changes our brain over time.
“We hold the power to slowly “rewire” our brain for happiness and positivity over time. Focusing on stress, pain, and anger leads to increased stimulation of the rain regions associated with these states. Conversely, experience happiness, joy and tranquility activates the brain areas connected to these emotions. Overtime, as we continue to foster these habits of well-being, our brain changes accordingly.
“Happiness Tip #7: Be A Scientist
“Think critically; carefully consider what works best for you as an individual. Keep an open mind, but by all means give yourself permission to disagree with anything I’ve written the book and to individualize your happiness plan accordingly.”
May these reflections and the exercises below be useful to you and yours.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.
– HH the Dalai Lama
* * * * *
Happiness depends on ourselves.
* * * * *
Happiness occurs when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
– Mahatma Gandhi
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He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.
* * * * *
Men are disturbed not by things but by what we make of them.
* * * * *
The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.
– Martha Washington
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People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.
– Abraham Lincoln
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What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.
– HH the Dalai Lama
* * * * *
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues; it is the parent of all the others.
* * * * *
The little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love are the best portion of a good man’s life.
– William Wordsworth
* * * * *
There is no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.
– Scott Adams
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We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.
– Bill Watterson
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Love yourself first, and everything else falls in line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.
– Lucille Ball
* * * * *
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
– William Shakespeare
* * * * *
The only things that really matter in life are your relationships to other people. The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expending on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love. Full stop.
-George Vaillant, director of the Harvard University Grant Study of Human Development
* * * * *
When I reflect on building a life of happiness and fulfillment, I’m reminded of an ancient Cherokee legend that tells the tale of a grandfather walking with his grandson. The two walk in silence alongside a stream. Water flows gently nearby, and birds chirp from the trees overhead. A gentle breeze passes through, rustling the tall grass and foliage that surrounds them. The grandfather holds his grandson’s hand in his ow, as they slowly walk side by side.
After some time, the grandson looked up and asked his grandfather how he had become so wise, so respected, and so happy. Pausing to reflect on the question, the old man looked down at his grandson with kindness. After some thought, he responded. “Grandson,” he said, “I have two wolves that are fighting in my heart. One wolf is loving, peaceful, kind and joyful. The other wolf is angry, hateful, and hurtful. They are constantly fighting each other, trying to win the battle of my heart. It is the same battle every person faces in the heart.”
Hearing these words, the grandson became filled with fear. He looked up sheepishly asked, “Grandpa which wolf will win the battle?” the wise man smiled knowingly. He answered back, “The one that I feed.”
STORIES TO INSPIRE
[from the introduction of Real Happiness:]
On a warm spring day in 1958, the graduating class at Mills College stood before a photographer to pose for their annual yearbook photo. The women who constituted the senior class at this private women’s college in California were in most ways no different from any other graduating class across the country. Some of them would perhaps go on to become schoolteachers, others would pursue careers in nursing, and still others would start their own business. Many would go on to get married, while others would not. And some would achieve their hopes and dreams, whereas others would go on to struggle with pain and heartbreak.
But while this graduating class shared many similarities with others across the country, there was one key difference: The women at Mills College were in fact enrolled in a long-term study of major life events, such as marriage, motherhood, and life satisfaction. And it was this small difference that enabled this particular graduating class to provide exciting and crucial clues about the nature of happiness, and its importance in our lives.
Think about the last time you’ve posed for a picture. Perhaps it was during a night out with friends, at a recent family gathering, or with a loved one. Do you remember how you smiled? As we all know, there are many was to smile for the camera when the person taking our picture says, “cheese.” There’s that big, genuine and robust smile we flash when we feel joyful and happy. And then there’s the strained, somewhat forced smile we might give when our mind is elsewhere, or if we are compelled to take a picture next to someone we don’t particularly like.
As it turns out, scientists have distinguished between these types of smiles, and refer to them as “Duchenne” and “non-Duchenne” smiles respectively. These terms refer to the French physician Guillaume Duchenne, who was the first to identify the difference between these two ways of smiling. A Duchenne smile involves both the muscle groups surrounding our mouths as well as those around your eyes, resulting in a full-faced and genuine expression of happiness (often complete with “crow’s feet”). A non-Duchenne smile, on the other hand, involves only the muscles around our mouth and is not considered to reflect positive emotions to the same degree.
How we smile might not seem like such a big deal, but it turns out to have some pretty fascinating and crucial implications. Returning to our subjects at Mills College, we might imagine that some of them gave broad, full smiles for their yearbook photos while others did not. But does that really matter? And more importantly, would it actually tell us something about these women on a broader level, and provide clues about how they might fare in the years ahead?
It so happens that two researchers at UC Berkeley, Dacher Keltner and Lee Anne Harker, were interested in these very questions. I mentioned earlier that members of the graduating class at Mills College were already enrolled in a long-term study examining major events in their lives, from marital status to their employment. This meant that the researchers already possessed data regarding how these women had fared in the years that followed their graduation, in some cases decades later. Keltner and Harker were interested in whether or not the nature of a person’s yearbook smile was in fact connected to her future success in areas such as marriage, relationship satisfaction, career achievement, and life satisfaction.
The team of researchers began their quest for answers by examining the yearbook photos of 114 members of the graduating class. They then rated those photos according to the level of “Duchenne-ness” evident in the women’s smiles, on a 1-10 scale. After doing so, Harker and Keltner aimed to determine how, if at all, a person’s level of happiness as evidenced by a yearbook photo, was in fact connected to the sorts of major life events outlined above. Their results were nothing short of remarkable.
The women whose smiles were rated highest in terms of their “Duchenne-ness” were more likely to be married, and their marriages were more likely to be described as satisfying. Furthermore, they scored high in terms of their overall life satisfaction and ability to handle stress. Moreover, the researchers were able to control for physical attractiveness, meaning we know that this wasn’t the factor underlying these positive life developments. As if these findings weren’t impressive enough, it turns out that these differences remain true even after decades had passed. In short, young woman expressing happiness in her early twenties, even for just that brief moment in time, would be far more likely to success in life and love decades later. And all of this from a yearbook photo!
You may be wondering whether there’s something unique about college-aged individuals, or whether this finding would hold true if the subjects were male. As it happens, another team of researchers were interested in whether the results of the “yearbook study” outlined above could in fact be generalized to other walks of life. To do so, professors Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger of Wayne State University chose, of all things, baseball cards to examine the level of “Duchenne-ness” of ballplayers’ smiles. This particular study caught my interest no only as a psychologist but also as a lifelong baseball fan, as it may be for many of you out there who collected baseball cards when you were growing up.
Abel and Kruger examined photographs of major league baseball players from the 1952 season and similarly to the study above, they sorted these players according to their smiles. However, rather than looking at variables like marital outcome and life satisfaction, they instead chose to see whether there might be a connection between the types of smiles exhibited by players in their photos and their longevity.
Remarkably, the researchers discovered a huge connection between a player’s smile and his lifespan. Specifically, players who displayed no smile in their photo lived an average of 72 years, while players who showed a slight smile lived until the age of 75 on average. Most strikingly, those players who were deemed to be displaying Duchenne smiles lived on average until 80 years of age. When I was a child collecting baseball cards of my favorite players, I would study them intently looking for evidence and data about who the best players were. Little did I know at the time, I was also looking at clues about who might live the longest.
[Dr. Paquette reports on the results of numerous research studies throughout his book, conveying their applicability to choices we make in our daily lives. Many interesting stories contained therein.]
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
[all excerpted from Real Happiness]
Dr. Paquette suggests, and I find it true in my experience, too, that these exercises can be so self-reinforcing and rewarding that they don’t feel like “work.” Do modify them based on your personality, schedule, strengths and preferences. Remember to incorporate them into your life on a daily basis. Investing the effort and energy can be immensely fruitful, even truly life changing. They will change your happiness set point.
Gratitude Practice #1: Three Good Things
This exercise is adapted from one created by Martin Seligman, considered the father of the positive psychology movement. The most important things is that you write down your “good things” and that you commit to this practice for at least two weeks, preferably longer.
Instructions: Each night for the next two weeks before you go to bed, write down three things that went well for you that day. These good things can be relatively small or minor occurrences, or they can be larger and of greater significance to you. Below each positive event that you list, write down an answer to the questions “Why did this good thing happen?” or “What was my contribution to this good thing?” After two weeks, write a brief reflection on how this practice impacted your mood.
Good thing #1: I had a fulfilling day and work and my sessions with patients went well.
Why this happened/my contribution: I made sure I got plenty of sleep last night and tried to be very present and attuned in my sessions today.
Good thing #2: My partner cooked my favorite dinner, spaghetti and meatballs.
Why this happened/my contribution: I expressed gratitude and thanked her the last time she cooked, and told her how much I appreciated it.
Good thing #3: It was a beautiful and sunny day outside when I was driving to work.
Why this happened/my contribution: I took the time to notice and appreciate the weather, instead of being on “autopilot” on my way to work.
As you can see, the “good things” you come up with don’t have to be earth shattering or groundbreaking. They can even be the small things that we often overlook, or are too busy to notice.
Good thing #1:___________________________________________________________
Why this happened/my contribution:________________________________________
Good thing #2: ___________________________________________________________
Why this happened/my contribution: ________________________________________
Good thing #3: ___________________________________________________________
A key point I want to emphasize is that it’s important to focus on things that go well from that day, rather than things you feel generally grateful for in your life. I also strongly encourage you to try making a rule for yourself that you never repeat an item over the exercise. If you do this for two weeks, you’ll end up coming up with forty-two distinct “good things” to put in your journal!
As you continue to practice this technique, you’ll notice a shift in your outlook and the way you view the world. Over time, you’ll even find that you are seeking out things to be grateful for in anticipation of writing in your journal. This exercise also helps us to end our days on a positive note, which can help promote better sleep. So you’ll not only feel happier and more grateful, you’ll feel better rested, too.
Kindness Practice #1: Five Acts of Kindness
This exercise is adapted from one created by happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and has been strongly connected with increases in happiness. It’s important to remember that there’s nothing too big or too small, and there are no right or wrong answers.
Instructions: In our everyday lives, we all perform acts of kindness towards others, and receive similar kindness as well. Some of these act may be small, while others may seem much larger in scope. Sometimes the person for whom the kind act if being performed may not even be aware of the act. Examples of kind acts include donating blood, volunteering at a community agency, helping paint a friend’s house, feeding a stranger’s expired parking meter, or bringing coffer to work for a colleague.
Over the next week, choose a single day of the week to serve as your “kindness day,” and perform five acts of kindness towards others on that day. Repeat this practice for at least four weeks. Over the month, use a small journal to keep track of the kind acts your perform, as well at the emotional impact they have on you. This serves two purposed: first, it maintains personal accountability to help you keep track of your kind acts; second, you’ll learn about how engaging in these acts affects you on a personal level, providing you with a sense of which ones you’d like to keep building on in the future.
Kindness Day/Date: Tuesday, November 11
Kind Act #1: This morning, I brought coffer for the support staff at work.
Kind Act #2: Today, I sent a small donation for disaster relief efforts in the Philippines following a recent storm.
Kind Act #3: This afternoon, I smiled and asked the grocery store checkout clerk how her day was going.
Kind Act #4: This evening I sent a message checking in on a friend I haven’t seen in a few years.
Kind Act #5: Today, I tracked down and personally thanked a co-worker for their excellent and hard work with a mutual patient.
Impressions: Performing a few of these small acts of kindness not only felt good, it turned out to be fun, too I especially enjoyed doing things that brought me face to face with other people, so that I could directly see the impact of m kindness on them. For example when I brought coffee in for our support staff I could really see how touched and appreciate they were. I think in the future I’d like to keep coming up with ways to directly interact with others during my kind acts, because that seems to feel especially meaningful to me.
When you practice this in the coming weeks, feel free to use the following template to keep track of your progress:
Kind Act #1: _____________________________________________________________
Kind Act #2: _____________________________________________________________
Kind Act #3:______________________________________________________________
Kind Act #4 ______________________________________________________________
Kind Act #5: _____________________________________________________________
How this exercise works: Practicing kindness can he a profound impact on our happiness as well as our health. When we perform even small acts of kindness, we feel more connected to those around us, experience a greater sense of purpose and meaning, and often feel a boost in self-esteem. Moreover, we are able to gain a new perspective on our own lives, and feel a measure of gratitude for the good things we experience.
Troubleshooting Tips: While some people have proposed doing one small act of kindness each day, research has shown that it may be better to “bunch up” our kinds acts rather than space them out. I would recommend trying to perform all five acts of kindness on a single day per week and adjusting from there accordingly based on your own fit. I also encourage you to be creative in the kind acts you do, as variety can help prevent this activity from becoming stale.
Mindfulness Practice #5: A Mindful Minute
There are some days when even finding ten minutes to set aside for mindfulness is difficult, let alone a half hour. For those occasions, it’s useful to take just a few moments to cultivate mindfulness and become fully present in the moment. This exercise invites you to do just that.
Instructions: In our busy world, it’s important to take the time to slow down and become on with the present moment. When you’re feeling stressed, try taking a minute to slow down and cultivate mindful awareness. Whether you’re at the office or in your car, and whether you’re standing up or sitting down, this exercise can be done virtually anywhere. All you need is a minute of silence. You can close your eyes if you’d like, though you don’t’ have to. For the next minute put aside whatever you are doing, and focus on the following:
* Feel your breath coming in and out of your noise. Feel your breath as it fills up your chest and lungs, and notice it as it releases on your exhale.
* Use your senses to notice what’s happening around you. Hear the sounds around you, and feel the temperature of the air against your skin.
* Observe whatever emotions and thoughts are within you right now. Just notice them, without judgment, and without any desire to change them
* Notice when your mind drifts, but bring it back each time to your breath.
* When you are ready, open your eyes and come back to the room.
Forgiveness Practice #2: Remembering Forgiveness
Choosing to forgive is one of the most challenging of all the paths described in this book. There are many barriers to forgiveness, ranging from misconceptions about what it means to forgive, to not having properly grieved before preparing to forgive. If you find yourself feeling stuck and struggling to move towards a place of forgiveness, it can often be helpful to reflect on instances in which we have been on the receiving end of forgiveness. By doing so, we can begin breaking our own barriers to forgiveness and also gain greater appreciation from the benefits of forgiveness.
Instructions: Take a moment and reflect on a time in which you hurt someone close to you, whether intentionally or not. Perhaps it was by saying something harsh to your family or your significant other, or maybe it was a time when you were insensitive towards a friend. Now choose one of those instances in which the other person chose to forgive you. Consider what it was like for you to experience their forgiveness, and how it impacted you moving forward. Close your eyes if it helps, and take a brief moment to fully explore the experience of being forgiven. When you’re ready, write your reflections on the following questions about the experience.
Person who forgave you: __________________________________________________
How did they convey their forgiveness to you? ________________________________
How did their forgiveness affect you? ________________________________________
How do you think their choice to forgive might have affected them? _____________
Did your relationship change with the person thereafter? _______________________
What can you learn from their decision to forgive? ____________________________
Self-Compassion Practice #3: Seeing the Double Standard
For many of us, it’s far easier to treat others with kindness than it is to treat ourselves in the same way. But it’s absolutely crucial to our well-being to learn how to do so. Indeed, the latest findings in the area of self-compassion suggest that true happiness lies in being able to treat ourselves with the same degree of kindness and compassion that we offer so freely to those around us. In the next exercise, you’ll be exploring the differences between how you treat yourself versus the way you treat those closest to you.
Instructions: Take a moment and think about a close friend or family member who means a great deal to you. Reflect on who this person is to you, and how much you care for them. Allow yourself to fully feel the sense of closeness and connection that you have with this person, and get in touch with the warm, positive feelings you hold for them. Once you have done so, briefly respond to the following questions:
1. Imagine that this friend is struggling with a particular issue, and is suffering in a significant way. How might you come to their aid? How would you respond to this person in their time of need?? Briefly write down what you might say or do, and the manner in which you would do so.
2. Now reflect on times in your life when you have struggled and found yourself suffering in a significant way. How did you respond? How do you tend to treat towards yourself in these sorts of situations? Briefly write down what you tend to say to yourself in these instances, and how you tend to respond to your own times of need.
3. What differences did you notice when comparing the way your treat yourself with the way you treat others? Do you tend to be kinder towards those around you than you are to yourself? How do you think your life might be different if you learned to treat yourself with the same degree of compassion?
Optimism Practice #2: Overcoming Pessimism
We all engage in negative thinking from time to time. But negative, pessimistic self-talk can carry a great cost. It can demoralize us, lower our mood, and make us less likely to achieve our goals. Worse yet, pessimistic thinking can create a downward spiral, whereby negative thoughts create negative moods, which in turn spawns further pessimism. Oftentimes these sorts of thoughts fly under the radar, barely perceptible in our conscious awareness. But through mindfulness and greater self-awareness, we can learn about these patterns and stop them in their tracks.
In this optimism-building exercise, you’ll first be learning to identify the negative or pessimistic thoughts that get in your way, and then learning to replace them with a more realistic way of thinking. By slowly learning to shift our thinking away from negativity and pessimism, we can change the way we feel by changing the way we think.
Instructions: For the next week, notice and wrote down negative or pessimistic thoughts that get in the way of your happiness. Monitor your inner self-talk for clues about the sorts of thoughts that seem to be most problematic for you. For example, when you feel frustrated or discouraged, you might notice thoughts such as “I’ll never be able to finish this project,” or “I’m such a failure, I’ll never get that promotion at work.” Whenever you feel bad in a given moment, bring your awareness to the way in which you are internally “talking” to yourself. Once you’ve noticed a few of these negative thoughts or beliefs that you struggle with, write them down:
Negative Thought #1: ______________________________________________________
Negative Thought #2: ______________________________________________________
Negative Thought #3: ______________________________________________________
Next, begin the process of challenging these thoughts. See if you can reinterpret the situation in a more realistic manner, and over time begin to replace your negative, pessimistic thoughts with a more balanced perspective. Depending on the nature of your negative thoughts, some questions to consider when challenging them might include:
Is this thought a fact, or is it merely a thought?
What would I say to a close friend or loved one in this situation?
What might a close friend or loved one say to me?
Is there another way to look at this situation?
Are there any factors I might be missing here?
Is this situation truly as important in the grand scheme of things as it feels?
Am I overgeneralizing at all, or missing the bigger picture?
What would a more balanced way of looking at this be?
As a reminder, the goal is not merely to “think positive.” The path to overcoming negativity lies in learning to see things in a realistic and balanced manner.
Connection Practice #1: Gratitude Letter and Visit
This exercise is adapted from Martin Seligman. As the name suggests, you’ll be writing a letter expressing thanks to someone important in your life, and delivering the letter to that person. That delivery has great power to transform our connection with that person.
Instructions: We all have people in our lives – friends, parents, teachers, mentors, colleagues, coaches, bosses, and so forth – who have helped u throughout the years. Think about someone in your life who has helped you along the way, but whom you have never properly thanked. For the purpose of this exercise, think about an individual who lives near enough to you such that you can visit them in the next few weeks. Write a detailed and thorough letter of gratitude towards this person, expressing your feelings towards them. Thank them for ll that they have done for you, and how their kindness impacted your life. Revise the letter as needed, and when you feel satisfied with it, set up a meeting with that individual but don’t yet tell them the true purpose of your visit. When you meet this person, please either read them the letter aloud or have them read it in your presence. Talk to them about what it was like for them, and share your feelings to them as well. After doing this exercise, write a brief reflection about what the experience has been like for you, and how it felt.
As you read the instructions, you may notice yourself feeling excited, or you may notice some nervousness or anxiety creeping up. And that’s OK. Most people initially feel some nervousness about completing it, but actually completing it can have the most profound effect on your life. You may also be wondering about the effects of writing a gratitude letter but not sending it, or not delivering it in person. Yes, the mere act of writing a letter like this can boost happiness and well-being, but delivering the letter in person makes it that much more powerful, open the gateway for increased closeness and connection with that individual.
Getting started: Start formulating your letter by reflecting:
Whom do I feel gratitude towards?
What does this person mean to me?
What would I like to say to this person?
What emotions come up as I reflect on this person?
How is my life different because of this person?
Dr Paquette notes that in 2015, a Google search for “how to be happier” resulted in over 90 million hits. An Amazon.com search for books on happiness generated thousands of results.
Honestly, this one book, Real Happiness: Proven Paths to Contentment, Peace and Well-Being is enough. It’s an excellent synthesis of research and tools you might find in a dozen or two different books. If you are diligent in practicing the exercises and cultivating the new mindsets and habits, it is enough.
If you wish to research further into some of the source material for Real Happiness, consider these resources below:
Christakis, Nicolas and Fowler, James. (2011) Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives.
Emmons, Robert. (2007) Thanks! How practicing gratitude can make you happier.
Fredrickson, Barbara. (2009) Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the upward spiral that will change your life.
Gilbert, Daniel. (2006) Stumbling on happiness.
Lieberman, Matthew (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2007) The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life you want.
Post, Stephen. (2008) Why good things happen to good people: How to live a longer, healthier, happier life by the simple act of giving.
Seligman, Martin. (2002) Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment.
Seligman, Martin. (2006) Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and live.