by Gabriella Pinto-Coelho
Historically, the study of the human psyche is plagued with a lot of “don’ts” and “shouldn’ts.” Psychology and Psychiatry are primarily focused on how to treat negative mood states and disorders rather than fostering positive ones. Of course, this is entirely necessary and appropriate. Without treatments for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other potentially debilitating mental illnesses, millions of people would suffer. However, it means that, until recently, science didn’t offer us much information on how to foster genuine happiness and joy.
Luckily, a new wave of research and thinking has begun to change this trend. Positive psychology has helped us understand, from a scientific perspective, what really makes us happy. Here are just a few of the tidbits that positive psychology offers us on how to live an authentically and sustainably happy life:
- Build on your strengths. Happy people don’t spend too much time correcting their weaknesses. Some of the highest successes are derived from developing your own unique strengths.
- Practice optimism. Dispute your own pessimistic thoughts when they arise! When the going gets tough, recognize that this too shall pass. Realize that your setbacks are surmountable. Success is largely the result of your own outlook.
- Build your social resources. Having a support network of friends and family is crucial to your own emotional wellbeing, especially when the going gets tough.
- Volunteer. Not only does your altruism help your community, but it also improves your own emotional reserves and capacity for genuine happiness.
- Don’t focus on the almighty dollar. While a certain amount of income is necessary to live a comfortable life, materialism is proven to be counterproductive to happiness. At all levels of income, people who value money over other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives in general.
- Practice gratitude. Consider keeping a daily “gratitude journal.” Write at least 10 things you are grateful for and see if you can write just one more thing down each passing day.
- Forgive people that have wronged you. Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, forgiveness is not a “free pass” for the offender, but a gift to yourself.
- Start a mindfulness-based practice. Mindfulness is the practice of present-moment awareness with a compassionate and nonjudgmental attitude. Take a few moments each day (consider: during your lunch break, before starting you car to go home) to pause and observe your breathing. Each time your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the breath. You can also consider starting a formal meditation, yoga, or tai chi practice.
- Find a hobby or even a job that allows you to find your “flow.” In positive psychology, “flow” is defined as finding true engagement with something - the task is challenging, you are focused, there are clear goals, you get immediate feedback, you have deep almost effortless involvement, there is a sense of control, your sense of self vanishes, and time stops. Some people find these qualities in painting, others when mowing the lawn, and some people in their jobs. Find what gives you that sense of “flow,” and do it more often!