By: Dr. Cassandra Faraci
Have you ever wondered about the secret to being happy? Have you tried different things to make yourself happy only to find out that the happiness was short lived? I bet all of us hope to wake up hopeful each day, enjoy various moments throughout the day, and go to bed pleased each night. Sounds like a tall order, right? The problem is that most of us are looking for happiness in the wrong places. Maybe we assume that we can’t control our happiness and that our feelings are dependent on others and external situations.
Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist who specializes in living an authentically happy life, summarized research on this exact topic (see his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment). He provides answers to the questions “How can we be more than momentarily happy?” and “Is there anything we can do to change our happiness level?” The good news is that there are specific strategies we can all implement in our daily lives to increase our feelings of happiness and contentment.
We can organize sources of our unhappiness into three broad categories: events from the past, experiences in the present, and concerns about the future. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.
For most of us, past negative events can mentally and emotionally sit with us long beyond the events’ occurrences. We may constantly replay a conversation with a friend or family member that led to arguments and angry feelings. We may frequently think about a loss like the death of a family member, being fired from a job, ending a relationship, or even an opportunity that slipped through our fingers. Even though these situations happened and have ended, they still feel very real in the present. Negative feelings like bitterness and anger ensue; thus, we describe ourselves as unhappy.
Although we can’t change the events of the past, what if we could change our perceptions of the past? Wouldn’t it be fabulous to look back on our life experiences with contentment, pride, and satisfaction? According to Dr. Seligman, although it might be difficult, it is possible to see our history in a different fashion, and this is one component to feeling more inner happiness and peace in the present.
So, what can we do?
- Let it go. Elsa from the movie Frozen says it well. It took awhile, but she finally reached the point where her past was not going to “…hold [her] back anymore.” Let it go. Dwelling on past events does more harm than good. It does not change the present. It does not change the future. It does rob you of your happiness, though. Instead, remind yourself that your past is full of opportunities for learning and growth and does not determine your future (unless you let it!).
- Have more gratitude. Instead of only focusing on the negative events of your past, change your focus to your past blessings. Have more gratitude. What made you the strong person you are today? What events led to you meeting your spouse? When did you feel pride and joy? The movie of your life is made up of more than negative events. Fast forward to the good! Easier said than done. Negative events tend to stick out more in our memories because of our primal need to learn and protect ourselves, but with deliberate practice and intention, you can make gratitude an easier skill for you. Dr. Seligman recommends that, each night before bed, write about 5 things in your life for which you’re grateful and stick to this task for at least two weeks.
- Have more forgiveness. This is an incredibly tough thing to do for most of us. Basically, to prevent the past from affecting us negatively in the present, we should find ways of forgiving those who have wronged us. In other words, Dr. Seligman wants us to “rewrite our past” to have a less negative connotation. The point of this is not to change the details of the past event (that would by lying to yourself!) but to take out the “sting” of the event and its grasp on you. It’s changing the “flavor” of the event so that you can be free. Research shows that, the more forgiveness we have, the more life satisfaction we have. Can you try to understand the other person’s perspective? Can you put yourself in his or her shoes? I find that, sometimes, feeling sorry for someone who has wronged you can be very therapeutic. What need did they fulfill in themselves by wronging you? Try to understand the other person as a human being who had a need and chose a behavior for meeting that need. Is it possible that they feel regret and sorrow on the inside for wronging you but are too ashamed to say, “I’m sorry”? Think of it as less about you and more about them. If you’ve come to the point of “forgiving but not forgetting”, read strategy #1 above again.
In our modern world, how many of us are actually present in the present? Do you actually focus on your five senses in the midst of your current activity? Are you appreciating what you’re seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing? Or, are you like many and are mindlessly completing tasks while thinking about the past or the future? Maybe you’re washing dishes but thinking angrily about a fight with your friend. Maybe you’re sitting in your office unable to focus because you’re worried about catastrophic events that might occur in the future. Maybe you’re trying to relax by the pool but can’t stop your mind from thinking about your to-do list.
Does this sound familiar? Does it hit home for you?
I hate to break it to you, but this is robbing you of that happiness you’re seeking. According to Dr. Seligman, happiness in the present involves heightening two in-the-moment experiences: pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are sensory-focused experiences that involve very little thinking and include, for example, the feelings of ecstasy, calm, joy, delight, and comfort. Gratifications involve activities that we truly enjoy but don’t involve sensory feelings including engaging in wonderful conversations, dancing, and reading a good book. Here, we’re so deeply engaged in the activity that time seems to stop, and we seem to lose consciousness (Dr. Seligman calls this “flow”).
So, what can we do to increase our happiness in the present?
- Take steps to avoid habituation. When we habituate to something, it has less of an effect on us. For example, every day when we get dressed, we feel the clothing on our bodies at first but don’t necessarily feel it moments after that. We’ve habituated to the sensation. You just get used to it. The same can happen for good sensory experiences: If you do it too much, it won’t be as exciting to you anymore. One strategy to fight habituation of your pleasures is to space out the experiences. If you love chocolate cake, take a bite, wait 30 seconds or so, take your next bite, etc. Enjoy each and every bite, but take steps to avoid habituating to the chocolate cake or it won’t bring you as much happiness in the moment. Having surprises also fights habituation. Change up your desserts. Buy a new candle. Keep it fresh. Don’t let yourself habituate to your life’s in-the-moment pleasures.
- Savor the moments. What Dr. Seligman means by “savoring” is to be fully aware of your pleasures in order to make them last as long as possible. Make a conscious effort to focus on what you’re experiencing. This is one of the most difficult skills for many of us because, while we’re in the midst of something we enjoy, our minds are thinking about past wrongs or future woes. We’re totally missing the opportunity to experience pleasure (and happiness). There are a few specific strategies we can use with the goal of savoring pleasures. Share your experience with others. Relive what you once enjoyed so much. While you’re consciously putting effort into enjoying the moment, build the memories of the event. Focus on the details so much that you capture it like a camera. Or, maybe have a souvenir to remind you of the experience. Similarly, make your perceptions of the event strong. Focus on what your five senses are experiencing and avoid distractions. Ignore the ding on your cell phone for the moment (and make sure your mind isn’t wandering away from the moment!). Block out the sounds of the television (or, just turn it off!). Stop typing at the computer and just focus on the deliciousness of your coffee. Really, allow yourself 15 seconds of savoring the moment. Can you imagine how much more happiness you’ll experience over the course of a day if you allow yourself to experience pleasure? Also, allow yourself to feel pride. As a psychologist, I know that this is hard for many. People can often criticize themselves for mistakes but refuse to feel pride in successes. If you’ve thoroughly enjoyed something, be proud of yourself! Remind yourself what you did in that moment that was wonderful, and let the experience linger through your pride. Lastly, don’t think; just feel. Just savor it. Let whatever sensation you’re experiencing be center stage in your present consciousness. For a few seconds, push your thoughts aside and just feel.
- Be mindful. This is very much related to the strategies above but an important one to mention. Set the intention to be mindful of what you’re doing in the moment. Again, let your senses guide you and reign in your thoughts to be focused on this moment, not the past or the future.
- Experience flow. So, this is a little different than strategies 1-3 because it’s not meant to heighten your sensory experiences in the moment. In fact, emotions are not even involved in this. It’s not about emotions. It’s about being fully engaged in an enjoyable task that completely takes over your mind and body. You’re so immersed in an activity that you’re not aware of time, your thoughts, your feelings – anything. You’re just in the moment. This type of in-the-moment happiness is about experiencing your strengths and virtues in action. What activities energize you? When do you experience flow? Flow involves engaging in activities that are challenging and require the use of your skills. If it’s too easy, you will get bored. If it’s too hard, it’ll be too effortful and require a lot of thinking. It’s challenging enough to be interesting yet not so challenging that you can’t master it. Maybe playing a difficult piece on the piano is your flow. Maybe dancing to 80s music while your family is out of the house is your flow. How about reading suspense novels? What makes time stop for you, and when you come out of it, you feel energized? That’s where you can find your flow. Make sure you allow time for yourself every week to engage in flow activities (daily is even better, but I’m a believer in setting realistic goals that can be reached). Why is experiencing flow so important? This type of happiness lasts longer than heightening pleasures and aren’t as vulnerable to habituation. So, if you want to experience happiness in your present life, this is worth the investment of your time and efforts.
Many times in my sessions with patients, the biggest barriers to their happiness is hopelessness and/or fear about the future. Focusing on potential future problems is robbing them of experiencing their lives to the fullest. It keeps them from being present in the moment and enjoying pleasures and flow. To live a truly happy life, we need to be optimistic about our futures and have hope that life is going to be great. In fact, Dr. Seligman reports that having hope about the future leads to resistance of depression, better work performance, and better physical health. We need to remember that no one knows what the future holds and that we have two choices: assume our futures are bright or assume our futures are bleak. Optimism will increase the chances of better mental health, better physical health, and happiness.
What can we do about our thoughts that race into the future and assume the worst?
- Make sure your thoughts are accurate and helpful. Our thoughts are often what drive our feelings and behaviors. For example, if someone bumps into you, you might quickly think, “What a mean person!” Following that, you will likely feel anger and maybe yell at the person, risking an argument. Let’s rewind this and change the thought, not the situation. After someone bumps into you, you think, “Aw, she must be in such a rush. I hope she gets there on time.” How will your feelings and behaviors change? You probably won’t feel anger, am I right? And, sometimes I’m asked, “How do I know my thought will be right?” That’s a great question. Did this woman bump into you on purpose? Was she in a rush? Was there another possible reason she bumped into you? It’s true. In some situations, unless you survey people for their intentions, you might not be 100% sure of the answer. So, accuracy is not always possible. You can consider the following: Which is likely to be most accurate with the information you have? When I work with patients, I add the word “helpful” in there in case accuracy is not possible. Without taking the time to gather data from the woman who bumped into us, which thought is mentally healthier – “She did in on purpose!” or “She was in a rush.”? If we can master our thoughts to see the world in an accurate and/or helpful way, we can feel happiness and contentment in the moment, and most importantly, have hope for the future.
- Try to explain negative events in an external way. To have hope for your future, it would help to believe in yourself. If you frequently blame yourself for disappointments or unexpected, negative events, how can you possibly believe in yourself in the future? Try to challenge yourself to come up with alternative explains that are not related to you but are external to you. For example, if you bombed a presentation at work, instead of assuming, “I’m terrible at my job”, try thinking of other factors that led to your disappointing presentation. Was the audience asking too many questions and throwing you off? Did your boss only give you 24 hours to put it together? Did your team fail to give you the data that you needed on time? I’m not saying always place blame on others, but I am saying that you can reduce your perceived percentage of how much you contributed to the problem. Not only can this contribute to your happiness, it will surely help your self-esteem.
- Similarly, explain negative events in a temporary way. If you believe that negative experiences will always be in your future, how can you possibly feel hope? In order to increase your overall happiness, you must have hope for your future! When stressful situations occur, try and remind yourself that they’re temporary; they will not last forever. Think of how you’ve coped before. Consider your life so far. Have you ever been through a bad experience? Did it ever go away? Did it actually work out for the best? Did your negative feelings eventually subside? People at risk for depression (or who actually develop depression) tend to believe that negative events will persist in the future and that their future is full of negativity. Fight the urge to do that. See the situation for what it is – it’s a current negative experience, and none of us can see the future to know for sure that it will persist in the future.
- Also, explain negative events in a specific way. People who are not hopeful about the future tend to believe that, if one area of life is bad, then all other areas of life will be bad. So, let’s say that a man gets reprimanded at work. He can believe that the criticism is specific to work and that, at home, his family will be kind and loving. On the other hand, he could predict that the criticism will continue once he gets home. If you believe that negativity is going to be everywhere in your life, hope is gone! If you can challenge yourself to contain negative events to their specific areas, you give yourself a chance to have hope for future situations.
The science is there. There is a formula for happiness. It’s not found in money or material things. It comes from within you and how you perceive your world and by allowing yourself to enjoy momentary pleasures and gratifications. As 2019 comes to a close, this is a great New Year’s resolution. Make it part of your lifestyle to reconsider your perceptions of the past, be fully immersed in the present, and master your thoughts to have hope for the future. Life is short. Make it a happy one.
I know that these suggested strategies can be difficult to make part of your daily routine. If you give these a try and struggle, please give us a call. This is what we do day in and day out. We are helping about 150 people each week do exactly these things. You can rest assured that you’re coming to experts who are well-versed in what the research says is effective for developing mentally healthy habits. We specialize in anxiety, depression. OCD, ADHD, behavior issues, self-esteem issues, perfectionism, and more. Call us (908) 914-2624 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.