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Come On, Get Happy!

Let Go of Negativity and Increase Your Happiness Set Point
  -- By Ellen G. Goldman, Health and Wellness Coach
This morning I looked out my kitchen window at the pouring rain, and thought, "Oh good, this rain will really help the grass grow." 
 
My husband entered the room, and with disgust lamented, "What a miserable day!"
 
Later today, while coaching a client, she complained, "I can't ever get anything done.  My daughter calls me three or four times a day to tell me such unimportant things." 
 
"Wow," I replied, "How nice that you and your daughter are so close."
 
How do you approach your world?  Most of the time, I look for and see the positive side of things.  I'm always searching for the silver lining in life's challenging events.
 
Many of my friends feel that I am an optimistic and happy person by nature. While I am sure that both nature and nurture have something to do with my disposition, the more I learn about the science of happiness, the more I realize that I have intentionally fostered these feelings in many of my actions.
 
All of us want to be happy, but few realize how much that feeling is within our control.  We think our circumstances dictate our personal level of happiness.  This often sets us up for a frustrating approach to life.  We are constantly striving for the things that we believe will make us happy: a new job, a bigger home, a better body, or a different mate.  If we achieve those things we believe will make us happy, often the feeling is not sustained.  All the positive emotions that come along with accomplishing such goals tend to fade quickly as life returns to routine, or new objects soon become old.
 
Historically, most psychologists were pessimistic about the notion of permanently increasing happiness.  It was believed to be inherited and extremely stable over the course of people's lives, and that circumstances had the ability to shift happiness in one direction or another, but only temporarily.
 
So for the individual who considers himself or herself a very happy person, personal tragedy will temporarily cause unhappiness.  But with time, that person learns to adjust to the new reality, and eventually will call themselves very happy again.
 
We all know someone who seems melancholic all the time, blaming their outlook on a lack of a spouse, or lousy job, for example.  Then they find their dream mate and marry, or land the fantastic new job.  Rather than living happily ever after, within a small time frame, they are melancholic once again.  The reason has changed, but the temperament hasn't.
 
It appears that such shifts in emotions don't last, and most people return to their personal baseline or "happiness set point" for the long term.
 
Until recently, believing this set point could not be changed, researchers primarily studied people with disease, disordered behavior, or clinical depression.  Medication and/or talk therapy to "fix" the problem were the available options for them, but little was known about how to help ordinary individuals go from feeling OK to feeling great.
 
Enter the field of positive psychology.  In the last 10 years, scientists in the field of social psychology have conducted research revealing how individuals can obtain a greater sense of happiness in their lives despite the circumstances surrounding them, or their genetic disposition. 
 
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the leading researchers in the field, although 50% of our disposition is indeed a result of genes, only 10% is due to circumstances.  What that means is that despite our inherited level of happiness, and despite the complexities of our lives, a whopping 40% is due to our behavior, over which we do have control.
 
Based on the increasing research emerging in the field, we can learn to be happier no matter what life hands us or to whom we were born.  More and more scientists are setting out to not only prove this is true, but to learn which behaviors and activities we should embrace if we want to shift our happiness set point.
 
Just as it requires behavioral changes to alter your body weight set point, so is the case for varying your happiness set point.  It takes focus and energy on your daily habits to achieve sustained weight loss, and it will take focus and energy to your daily habits and mindset to achieve increased happiness.  You will have to work at it!
 
Now you might ask, "Is it worth it?"  Particularly if you are feeling life is OK.  You might not be thriving, but you certainly aren't miserable.  With everything else you constantly need to turn your attention to, is the pursuit of greater happiness necessary?
 
According to Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of Positivity, and a leader in the field of positive psychology, the answer is a resounding yes!  Unchecked negativity leads to a host of emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression.  Those feelings can lead to stomach disorders, increased blood pressure, tight muscles, tension headaches, and a multitude of physical sensations most would prefer to avoid.  Chronic negativity can make us sick!
 
Happiness increases when we experience more positive emotions throughout the day.  Fredrickson identifies 10 positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.  How often we experience these positive emotions compared to negative in any given day not only affect our mood, but our physical health.  She has discovered that those who have a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions on a daily basis flourish rather than languish. 
 
Sadly, most are way below that ratio—even those who consider themselves positive people.  The good news is you can learn to increase your positivity ratio, which leads to greater happiness, health and success.  Isn't that what we all want?
 
In research that has tested this hypothesis, we've learned that by increasing positive emotions, we become more open-minded, creative and resilient, perform better on tasks, and improve relationships.  To me, the most exciting finding is that we now have proof that self-generated positive emotions can improve our physical health profile. 
 
That being said, we don't want to eliminate all negative feelings. Negative emotions are proper and helpful at times.  It's appropriate to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Anger often propels us into action to improve a situation or right a wrong.  And fear is a warning to avoid what could be a dangerous and damaging situation.
 
However, if you find yourself honking wildly at the car in front of you whose driver didn't instantly notice the light turned green, berating yourself for eating a cookie when you swore off sugar, or snapping at your kids for laughing too loud while you are on the phone, then unwarranted negativity creeps into your daily life too often. And that's the kind you want to reduce.
 
By making a conscientious attempt to notice, step back and analyze those feelings, you can begin to turn them around.  Here's how.
 
  1. Dispute negative thinking.  Notice when you overreact, blow things out of proportion, or talk to yourself in a way you never would a friend.  Stop, be mindful, analyze the facts, and reverse your limiting beliefs and negative thoughts. 
     
  2. Stop ruminating.  Constantly going over and over negative situations and thoughts perpetuates bad feelings and doesn't accomplish anything.  Look for healthy distractions that focus your attention on something else.  It's particularly helpful if it's an activity that brings you joy.
     
  3. Try meditation.  Meditation helps you to attend to your thoughts with awareness and without judgment. We all have negative thoughts, but we can accept that it's just that: a thought.  We don't need to react to it emotionally.
     
  4. Diffuse your negativity landmines.  Look for the situations and people in your daily life that bring up negativity.  Minimize or change the environment.  If reading fashion magazines lead to your feeling horrible about your body, switch to a health magazine.  If your daily commute is unbearable, can you move closer to work, or listen to books on tape to pass the time?
     
  5. Assess your media diet.  Watching the news on TV often affects us in ways we are not aware of.  Try staying informed online or with newspapers, so you can pick and choose what to attend to.  You may want to know about the earthquake in Japan, but can skip the fire in the Bronx.
     
  6. Avoid gossip and sarcasm.  By its very nature, gossip is negative, and sarcasm usually hurts.  If you must talk about others, bring up their good qualities.  If jokes hurt others, don't use them—and walk away from others who do.
     
  7. Reframe your relationship with negative people, or reduce your exposure to them if possible.  It's easy to eliminate an acquaintance from your life who always brings up negativity for you, but not so simple if you work or live with the person.  Be honest with yourself and examine your feelings towards this person, asking if there is anything you do that fuels the negativity.  Look for the positive traits (everyone has some); infuse compassion, love and understanding into their situation; and finally, ask yourself, "What can I learn about myself by having this person in my life?"
While working to decrease negativity, you might also like to try increasing positivity with the things positive psychology research has proven will help.
 
 
Looking at the many ways to decrease negativity and increase positivity may feel overwhelming.  Just pick one or two ideas for starters, and try them out.  Soon you'll discover why actively pursuing happiness really pays off!
 
Sources
Ben-Shahar, Tal. 2007. Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGrill Hill.

Fredrickson, Barbara L. 2009. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers, and Dr. Frederickson's website, www.positiveratio.com.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. 2007. The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

Seligman, Martin E.P. 2002. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.

www.authentichappiness.com, Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.