Stanford Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., was the recipient of a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. She and her colleagues have been studying "happiness-sustaining strategies," or, in other words, how to get happy and stay happy.
When asked to summarize her findings thus far, Dr. Lyubomirsky stated, "My students and I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness. In essence, our research shows that happy individuals experience and react to events and circumstances in relatively more positive and adaptive ways."
Researchers find that many people believe, "If ___ would happen, I would be happy." Happiness, in fact, doesn't relate to anything you would insert into that blank. If you want to be happier, it will take an active effort on your part that involves changing what you pay attention to, how you interpret events, and how you spend your time.
Bad things happen to good people. When negative things happen, keep focused on solutions to the problem. Ask others for advice and help; this helps you not feel alone. Remind yourself you are strong and will be stronger after living through the negative situation. Refuse to give up.
Many of us dwell on unhappy or ambiguous events in our life. This behavior, while common, is believed to set off a string of biological and cognitive processes that drain our mental and physical energy, leaving us tired and sad and agitated. You would be much better off if you would instead focus your thoughts by reflecting on happy moments or expressing gratitude for what is good in your life.
Meditating on these ideas, journaling, or writing gratitude letters are effective. One study asked subjects to think about happy life events for eight minutes a day for three days in a row. Even four weeks later, subjects felt increased rates of happiness compared to how they felt prior to the study.
Happy people pay attention to how they think about themselves. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, refocus onto positive statements about your attributes.
The most resounding aspect related to happiness is consistent throughout the research: the importance of relationships. Finding good friends and enjoying family. This means, research shows, spending time with those we love, talking, listening to them, doing enjoyable things together. And, then, of course, later dwelling on these precious moments.
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.