Rx for Happiness

Rx for Happiness

The path to happiness (and improved mental health) isn’t a secret after all. It just takes creating these “happiness habits.”

By Michele Cohen Marill

Jane Iredale founded a cosmetics company that has grown to 120 employees and sells its products in 45 countries. Yet success has not brought her happiness. She firmly believes it’s the other way around. Being happy has brought her success.

“I don’t think anything outside of yourself can give you more than a fleeting glimpse of happiness – not the sort of happiness that comes from building a satisfaction with yourself,” Iredale says from her office in Great Barrington, Mass., where she gazes at fountains and gardens outside her window.

Iredale works at creating happiness, just as she works to build her business. She imbues her sales meetings with positive messages. She encourages her employees to bring their dogs to work. She expresses gratitude – repeatedly. “You see how people blossom and their whole demeanor changes when they feel appreciated,” she says. “If somebody does a good job for me, I tell them not once but three or four times.”

Those habits put her in sync with new research on what makes us happy. We may be naturally joyful or cynical, we may have gotten a big break or we may have suffered a setback. But ultimately, happiness is like any other aspect of a healthy lifestyle. It’s something we can improve.

Research suggests that people who typically experience more positive emotions have lower rates of chronic illness. The connection to mental health is more certain. It’s what psychologists call a state of “flourishing,” a sense of satisfaction, meaningfulness, optimism and social connectedness. Happiness is the new definition of mental health.

We all start out with a happiness “set point,” much as we have a natural set point for our weight. In studies of identical twins who were reared apart, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that genetics accounts for about half of our level of happiness. Our circumstances – a great relationship, a job loss – might produce a sharp spike or dip in our happiness, but in the long run, they only influence about another 10 percent of our ongoing happiness.

That leaves a lot of wiggle room. Researchers have actually measured the impact of simple steps, such as writing down what you appreciate about your life in a “gratitude journal,” or sending a letter of thanks to someone who had an impact on your life. A study at the University of California at Davis found that those who wrote about things they were thankful for in a weekly report felt more optimistic and positive and had significantly fewer physical complaints than those who wrote about irritating or neutral events.

Gratitude is just one technique. You can alter your happiness by finding meaning in your work or by increasing your positive connections with people you encounter throughout the day. A new field of “positive psychology,” founded by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., focuses on “character strengths” that help people thrive, such as hope, humor and creativity.

“For the first time in history, we’ve cracked the code on happiness. We know what it takes to be happy,” says Marci Shimoff, an author and speaker who enumerates “happiness habits” in her book, Happy for No Reason (Free Press, January 2008). “It doesn’t mean you’re always happy,” she adds. “It doesn’t mean you’re walking around with a silly smile on your face 24/7. It means you have a backdrop of inner peace and well-being, no matter what.”

Play to Your Strengths

For some people, life with a backdrop of inner happiness might sound unattainable, or maybe even contrary to the conflicts and challenges that drive their careers. Lawyers, for example, are notoriously unhappy. By definition, their work is adversarial. They work long hours. In a survey of job satisfaction and general happiness, they rank below other professions despite their higher income and job prestige.

Beth Fenton, 34, of Philadelphia, knew how to be a tough litigator, but she still struggled with an underlying dissatisfaction. “At times I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m not cut out to be a lawyer,'” she says. Working with psychotherapist turned coach Ellen Ostrow, Fenton examined her “core strengths.” Her No. 1 strength is one not often associated with law: The capacity to love and be loved.

She found a law firm that appreciated her softer side, she had a baby – and she made partner while on maternity leave. “I think you do a better job if you’re a satisfied person,” she says.

In fact, researchers have found important connections between work and overall happiness. People can create a “positive spiral” at work – as opposed to those depressing “venting” sessions – by reframing their situations. For example, people who view their work as a “calling,” or something that has deeper meaning than just a job or a career, have a greater sense of optimism and enjoyment, says Jane Dutton, Ph.D., a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan. In her course on managing relationships at work, she asks her MBA students to write a letter to themselves, telling how they’ve made a contribution. “Just that simple form of telling a story about yourself has positive effects on resilience and productivity – seeing how your work is connected or benefits others,” Dutton says.

Even in department meetings, Dutton instills positive emotions. If the energy level in the room wanes and the mood is dull, suddenly she and her colleagues will pause and talk about how someone has made a difference at work. “Don’t settle for the negative,” Dutton advises. “It’s killing you. It’s a slow death, but it’s killing you.”

Happily Ever After?

Can happiness last? Sure, you can look on life as the glass half-full, or spend a few days thinking about all the good things in your life. But how long can you keep that up?

Becoming a happier person is like any lifestyle change – you have to work at it. “I can’t just wake up one day and say, ‘I’m going to be happy’ any more than you’re going to wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be a master piano player.’ It takes practice,” Shimoff says. “The decision you can make is, ‘I’m going to commit to raising my happiness level.'”

In one study that enrolled more than 500 online participants, Seligman and psychologists at the University of Rhode Island, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania tested several interventions. Participants wrote a letter and paid a “gratitude visit” to someone who had been kind to them but had never been properly thanked. Or they wrote daily for a week about three things that went well each day. Or they wrote a story about a time when they displayed their personal strengths and read it back each day. Other participants identified their personal strengths and tried to use them in a different way each day for a week.

Six months later, researchers compared those participants to others who simply wrote about early memories. Those who paid a “gratitude visit” got the biggest spike in happiness, though it didn’t last. Participants in the other happiness groups, however, reported that they had continued the exercises on their own. They maintained their uptick in happiness.

Of course, there’s not a single path to happiness. Your new “happiness habits” have to suit you. “I tried to count my blessings,” confesses Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside and author of The How of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2007). “I bought one of those gratitude journals. It just felt kind of hokey to me. I had a hard time focusing on ‘what am I happy about.'”

One great barrier to happiness, Lyubomirsky says, is that we become accustomed to our lives. If we get a great new job, or have a new relationship, or buy the house of our dreams, our happiness spikes, then returns to normal. We can become happier through purposeful activities – taking a more optimistic approach, making positive connections with other people, becoming more aware of the beauty of the moment.

It turns out that happiness and improved mental health aren’t secrets after all. They’re goals we can all attain – if we’re willing to stick to a more positive path.

This article originally appeared in the July.August 2008 issue of PINK Magazine.

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