Equipped With Happiness


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Be Happier By Putting Bad Stuff In Its Place

bad mood cartoonIn a certain light, even the smallest objects can cast giant, menacing shadows. The same is true of negative events in our lives. If we view them in the wrong light, they can create a shadow that covers a much larger area than is warranted by their actual magnitude. This dark shadow can block the glow of happiness that shines from other parts of our lives.

Fortunately, by changing the light in which we view these negative events, it is relatively easy to prevent this shadow from forming. We simply need to focus on a few reminders that help keep our problems in perspective.

Reminder #1: Most bad stuff isn’t permanent.

When something goes wrong, or we find ourselves in a less-than-ideal situation, it is easy to get so caught up in the frustration of the moment that we forget our discomfort will not last forever. Often, negative circumstances are only temporary. For instance, we only need to tolerate an unpleasant job until we are able to find a better one (or until we can retire).  But even if the circumstances are permanent, usually our extreme aversion to them is not. As we get some distance from a bad break up, for example, we are able to adjust to the situation and feel less miserable.

It is important to remind ourselves that no matter how bad something seems, it’s only “for now.” It is easier to cope with unhappiness when we remember that eventually we will find some relief. Just think of how much easier the knowledge that Friday exists makes it to survive the workweek!

Reminder #2: Bad stuff has a tendency to create more bad stuff.

If a day starts with an alarm clock that doesn’t go off, followed by a flat tire, it is tempting to label the entire day as a “bad day.” But the second we decide we are having a bad day we severely decrease the chances that things will turn around. Once a day has been identified as “bad,” we’re more likely to interpret everything that happens in that context. A burnt dinner becomes yet another failure, when it could just as easily have been a good excuse to eat out.

Not only that, wallowing in a bad mood makes us unpleasant to be around, and may drive away people who could have made us feel better. When we bump into an attractive stranger, who might have offered us a flirtatious remark if we were smiling, they might respond to our obvious bad mood with a sharp, “Watch where you’re going,” instead. Of course, we will then take their rudeness as further evidence of our bad day. It’s up to us to avoid letting the bad things multiply.

Reminder #3: Taking time to appreciate the good helps keep the bad from taking over.

Knowing that it isn’t productive to let a bad mood influence everything else is one thing, but actually stopping that from happening is a whole different animal. It can be helpful to try to counter bad moods by actively reminding ourselves of the things we have to be happy about. These don’t even need to be big things; simply thinking about the taste of warm apple pie, or the feeling of sliding into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot day, can be enough to brighten our moods. The more time we spend thinking about the good parts of life, the less space there will be in our minds to fixate on bad stuff.

Life may not always be perfect, but, if we commit to reducing the shadow cast by less-than-ideal circumstances, these imperfections do not have to ruin our happiness.

 

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Be Happier By Making Decisions Creatively

creative decisions cartoonSometimes we over-complicate our decisions by keeping them too simple. We view choices in terms of two polarized options, and often find ourselves dissatisfied with both. Then we spend hours, or longer, trying to determine which list of evils we might somehow be able to tolerate.

But decisions don’t necessarily have to be that way. More often than not, we really do have more than two options. If we expand our decisions by adding choices “c” and “d” to our original “a” and “b,” we may find an option that’s far better than tolerable.

The tricky part is identifying those alternate choices. Most of the time, the best options will not be the most obvious. Finding them requires creativity, and an understanding of where to look.

Don’t Look for “c” where you found “a” and “b.”

Usually, when we are faced with a seemingly black-and-white decision, our two choices aren’t options we have invented independently.  We often only see two options because someone else has presented the decision to us in those terms. For instance, if we are discussing budgeting with our partner, they might say, “We can afford either a new dishwasher or a new couch.” If this happens, we are likely to focus entirely on picking between those two options. In the process, we completely miss other ideas, such as cutting down on entertainment costs, getting a loan, or selling our old possessions so we could purchase both items.

The appearance of limited options may not always result from an explicit choice someone presents to us, however. Sometimes we also find ourselves trapped by our assumptions about “normal” or “common” ways to go about life. For example, we may feel we have to pick between starting a family and building a career because we frequently hear stories about people sacrificing one for the other. In reality, the “lonely, career-driven woman,” and the “family man whose kids cost him a job” are just stereotypes. There are many middle grounds between those two extremes.

Finding the route that will make us happiest requires deviating from our preconceived ideas about the options open to us. It also requires facing the challenge of developing new alternatives.

New options can be created from the best elements of our original choices.

Sometimes the simplest way to find an ideal option is to combine the things we like about our other choices. For example, consider the decision of whether to go out for dinner or cook a meal at home. We might want the freedom to stay in our current un-showered, pajama-wearing state (a point in favor of cooking at home), but also want the convenience of not having to prepare our own food. If we combine those options, we might come up with the additional ideas of ordering delivery, begging a friend to bring us food, or scrounging in our freezer for something quick and microwaveable.

New options can also be found by completely abandoning our original ideas.

When we find ourselves stuck with two options that seem to have no redeeming features, sometimes it is best to look for new options in a totally different direction. Take the decision of whether to spend date night at the movies or a sporting event, for example. If none of the movies appeal to us, but we know our significant other gets bored watching sports (and we dragged them to a game last weekend), it may seem like we are destined for an unsatisfying date. But wait, maybe we could change “date night” to “date day” and visit the beach, or Disneyland, or the zoo, or the park.

Once we learn not to limit ourselves to the obvious options sitting right in front of us, we open ourselves up to a whole world of possibilities. And out of all those possibilities, we stand a pretty good chance of finding at least one to get excited about.


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Be Happier By Making The Right Comparisons

comparisoncartoonThe temptation to compare ourselves to others seems to affect pretty much everyone. We might find ourselves wondering if we make as much money as our coworkers. Or we might sneak a quick peek to find out if the person on the treadmill beside us is running faster than we are. Comparisons can be beneficial to us, if we approach them in the right way. But, if we aren’t careful, they can also damage our self-esteem.

Recognizing how self-image is impacted can help us learn to make more productive comparisons.

People often let the way they measure up to others determine how they feel about themselves. If we evaluate our own assets as superior to the assets of the person next to us, our self-esteem goes up. But, if that person is more successful, attractive, or talented than we are, we may start feeling rather discouraged. Neither of these scenarios is ideal.

It is important to remember that when comparisons increase our self-esteem, the effects are only temporary. If our feelings of self-worth are dependent on being better than someone else, we run the risk of our self-esteem being shattered when someone below us eventually surpasses us. Lasting confidence comes from pride in our own strengths, not pride in having more strengths than others.

Not only that, we may damage our self-esteem by cutting ourselves down when we feel inferior to others. This is unproductive, especially because the comparisons we make often aren’t entirely fair. People seem to have a tendency to compare themselves to celebrities, models, billionaires, and other uncommonly successful figures. When we do this, we set ourselves up to feel subpar. Even when we do compare ourselves to people “in our league,” we may not take the full story into account. For instance, the acquaintance whose quick climb up the corporate ladder made us question our own career choices may in fact be the CEO’s nephew (a significant advantage).

Instead of using comparisons to evaluate our worth, we should use them to help us become the people we want to be.

Comparisons can help us see ourselves more accurately: While it is certainly good base our sense of accomplishment on our individual progress, it is also valuable to understand where our abilities fit in the grand scheme of things. For example, if we begin taking piano lessons, we have every right to take pride in mastering “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” But perhaps we would be wise to see how we compare to other pianists before we start calling ourselves Beethoven.

Comparisons can help us identify goals: If we do happen to find ourselves feeling insecure in response to someone else’s accomplishments, we can turn it into an opportunity to improve. Instead of convincing ourselves we are weak because we can’t lift as much weight as our friends, we could focus on creating a new workout plan that allows us to build more muscle. Not only that, if we notice the majority of our self-esteem seems to come from feeling superior to others, it is possible that we have some underlying insecurities. Awareness of our insecurities gives us a chance to examine their cause. This allows us to set, and accomplish, goals that will make us feel more confident.

If we are careful about how we use comparisons, they can help us maximize our happiness. Comparisons made in the spirit of self-improvement give us valuable opportunities to develop ourselves, and our lives, in directions that bring us greater satisfaction. We just have to make sure our self-esteem doesn’t get involved in the process.


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Be Happier By Smiling More

smile cartoonAs a well-known song from Annie reminds us, “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.” Sure, it might be more problematic to go out in public without pants than it would be to go without a smile, but remembering to wear a smile is still beneficial. The simple act of smiling has an amazing ability to inspire happiness.

Studies show that smiling may actually generate positive emotional experiences.

The idea that facial expressions contribute to emotional states, rather than simply reflecting them, can be found as far back as the work of Charles Darwin. For many years, researchers have been performing experiments aimed at studying the effects of smiling on the experience of happiness.

These researchers have used a variety of methods to mimic the physical act of smiling (eliminating happiness as a precursor), which has enabled them to study the expression itself as a cause of emotion. Repeatedly, results have indicated that arranging the facial muscles into a smile can actually produce positive emotions.

A study conducted by Robert Zajonc, Sheila Murphy, and Marita Inglehart even found a possible reason for this phenomenon.  According to their research, the muscular movements associated with smiling cool the blood flowing to the brain through particular veins. This leads to fluctuations in brain temperature, which causes the release/blockage of emotion-related neurotransmitters (the chemicals cells use to communicate).[1]

If these studies are correct, smiling might just be the quickest and easiest way to feel happier.

Smiling also creates a happiness-inducing environment.

People generally respond more favorably to those they perceive as friendly.  When we smile, we become more approachable (and often more attractive) to others. This is likely to improve our existing relationships, as well as increasing the likelihood that we will form rewarding new connections.

A smile can also improve the moods of those around us. Think about the difference between waiting in a line of happy people having animated conversations or waiting in a line of irate customers yelling at the cashier for going too slow. It might take the same amount of time to reach the front of those two lines, but it’s pretty clear which line will leave us feeling better. Smiling helps build a positive atmosphere, which can lead to a happier experience for everyone involved.

Of course, that isn’t to say we should force ourselves to smile all the time. If we are unhappy, it is perfectly okay to feel and process those emotions, rather than hide behind a mask of happiness. But on those occasions where we find ourselves making a “neutral” face, it might be worth showing off those pearly whites (or lack thereof), instead.

 

References

[1] Zajonc, R.B., Murphy, S.T., & Inglehart, M. (1989). Feeling and facial efference: Implications of the vascular theory of emotion. Psychological Review 96(3), 395-416.


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Be Happier By Consulting The Impossible

impossiblecartoonWhen making decisions, people naturally tend to limit themselves to options they deem “possible.” This seems like a logical approach, since focusing on impractical ideas uses up time and energy that could be spent on formulating a feasible plan. But sometimes, considering impossible, best-case-scenarios can lead to decisions that are actually more satisfying.

Occasionally, this satisfaction comes from discovering that the “impossible” is actually doable.

In order to avoid wasting effort, we often limit ourselves to ideas we are certain will work. This means we quickly label riskier options as impossible, never giving them a second thought. But some of these uncertain paths may be more possible than we think, and pursuing them can lead us to happiness.

Identifying those kinds of situations requires changing the way we initially categorize our ideas. Instead of trying to find the most practical options first, we should try to find the most appealing ones. Once we find an idea we like, we can begin to evaluate the steps necessary to make it a reality. Examining these steps in detail, after we are already fond of the idea in question, can make something that seemed impossible into a completely viable option. And that option could be just what we needed.

Even if our favorite idea does turn out to be impractical, contemplating the idea is still beneficial.

Decisions can be a little overwhelming at times. Thinking of a perfect outcome, no matter how impossible it is, can be a good starting point in the decision-making process. A brief fantasy about the best-case-scenario can help end the feeling of mental paralysis that often seems to accompany difficult decisions.

Not only that, sometimes working backwards from an impossible idea leads to an alternative that is still pretty great. It may be that a few simple sacrifices can be made to bring the idea into the realm of possibilities. If not, the original idea can still provide a direction for future ideas. By identifying factors that made the original idea appealing, new options that offer similar benefits can be developed. This process may illuminate opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to us.

Considering impossible ideas also helps us understand ourselves better. When we think in terms of “possible,” we depend on a predetermined evaluation of our capabilities. This leaves little room for growth. But, when we think in terms of “ideal”, we gain insight about what truly makes us happy. This allows us to make efforts to grow in ways that maximize our happiness and to make decisions that bring us greater satisfaction.

It is important to remember that impossible is not the same thing as useless, and uncertain is not the same thing as impossible. If we consider the “impossible” when making decisions, we increase our likelihood of finding opportunities to be happy.

 


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Be Happier By Accepting Sadness

sadness cartoonOne of the biggest mistakes people make in the quest for optimism is confusing actually being happy with refusing to be sad. In reality, there is a huge difference between the two. Real happiness comes from accepting sadness, not pretending it doesn’t exist.

As children learn early on, covering up a mess doesn’t make it go away. You might be able to fool your mom into thinking you cleaned your room by shoving everything under the bed for a while, but when she finally discovers those stale Cheetos and dirty socks hiding down there, it isn’t a pretty sight. The same is true for sadness.

For a while, we are able to ignore sadness. We can put on a brave face and hope that if we manage to convince everyone else we’re fine, we’ll eventually believe it ourselves. But, in the end, the bad feelings always creep out from under the bed. Sometimes, like those forgotten pizza crusts, they even re-emerge uglier than when we first hid them away.

Sadness itself isn’t the enemy. In fact, we wouldn’t feel happiness as strongly without it.

The important thing is learning to handle sadness productively. This involves a few steps:

  1. Feel the sadness. Allowing yourself to be unhappy for a while, and accepting that it’s okay to feel that way, makes it easier to truly let go of the negative feelings later on.
  2. Understand the sadness. Sort out the root causes of your feelings, being as honest with yourself as possible. Figuring out exactly why you’re unhappy will enable you to figure out the most practical approach to feeling better.
  3. Move forward from the sadness. Sometimes this is as simple as eliminating the source of your unhappiness. This might mean abruptly ending something negative, such as a bad relationship or an unpleasant job. It could also mean starting a lengthier process, like a diet. Other times, the source of unhappiness can’t be eliminated. In those cases, moving forward might require finding happiness in other places, and allowing newfound happiness to eventually overpower the sadness.

Difficult as dealing with sadness can be, it’s a mess worth cleaning up properly. After the hard work of accepting and processing sadness is over, we are free to enjoy real happiness that isn’t tainted by the stench of bad feelings lurking just out of sight.