The Science of Happiness

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I am currently taking an online course with Dr.Barbara L. Fredrickson, the Director of Social Psychology at UNC Chapel Hill.  The course is about a recent field of study called Positive Psychology and it is fascinating!   Unlike how it may sound, the field of Positive Psychology does not suggest that we only focus on being happy and positive all the time (we all know when someone is faking a chipper disposition and it feels disingenuous). Positive psychology relies on the fact that a healthy psychological makeup includes feeling an array of emotions, and rather than avoiding negative emotions or events, suggests that we focus on increasing the amount of positive feelings we experience throughout our day.   Dr. Fredrickson explains that due to something called the “negativity bias” (perhaps an ancient bio-physical survival tool) that even though more positive things happen to us throughout our lives, our brain is trained to focus more on the negative occurrences.   She teaches us that negative emotions are usually stronger and elicit stronger physical reactions than positive emotions. This means we have to make extra effort to savor the mild positive emotions.

Being able to experience more positive emotions, broadens our thinking and allows us to notice additional resources that might not be in our prevue when we are experiencing negative emotions.  Here we learn that positive emotions increase our overall resiliency.

In simpler terms, “happy” people are people who are able to feel, notice, and savor more instances of positive emotions throughout their day and lifespan.    They are not the people who spend their time delaying gratification for years (or even weeks) in hopes of accomplishing something amazing in the future.  Of course there will always be challenging times in life, but Dr.Fredrickson reminds us that people who are able to experience more positive emotions (even mild ones) more frequently are more resilient and report greater amounts of overall happiness.  She emphasizes the importance of positive emotions to be frequent…not the importance of their intensity.

Rather than constantly focusing on “accomplishing” things that might make us happy in the future (new job, new car, new house, new partner, ect…”) we can be better served by considering how we go about each day.  If we are unable to experience frequent positive emotions while accomplishing our goals, our goals will unlikely bring us much “future” happiness.  For instance, I spent months writing my thesis in grad school.  I would tell myself “I’m miserable now, but as soon as this is written I will be so happy and so proud.”  Well, as soon as I finished, I never wanted to look at it again, I was depleted and was not able to look back on my months of effort with pride or joy, but instead just wanted to forget about them. If we focus on the process rather than the product we realize we often have much more control over the process.  I could have had so much fun during that time in my life instead of just waiting for it to be over.  If we are waiting for a period of our life to “just be over” it’s likely an indicator that we could stand to increase our chances of experiencing positive emotions by increasing events in our life that bring on such emotions.

Question: How can you approach your day in a way that will likely bring you frequent positive emotions?  Just like we try to drink water throughout our day, how can we regularly “drink in” positive experiences?  Build in some time to exercise or a phone call with a good friend? Five minutes of jotting down what’s going well in your life?  Balancing your long work meeting with something fun on your calendar like dinner with a friend?

While this concept may seem simple, it’s often hard to truly take ownership over our emotions.  We all know people in our life who seem “happier” or more content with their life and likely it is not because they have accomplished more, made more money, avoided more heartache than the average person ect… it’s because they are choosing to notice more positive experiences and thus benefiting from experiencing more positive emotions. 

What do you think?

Rachel