What Intentional Behaviors Can Influence Happiness?
In examining the research and the general wisdom of philosophers and others, I have categorized the intentional behaviors into seven general types that do have some overlap and may vary in importance for different individuals. The information that comprises the list of intentional behaviors below is from research literature reviews by positive psychology researcher, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005; Lyubomirsky, 2001) and a meta-analysis by DeNeve & Copper (1998).
1) Sense of Purpose
Commonly people believe that a life of leisure provides happiness. They believe that if they had plenty of money, didn't need to work and could play all day, they would be happy. And yet studies of truly happy people show that they often have a high commitment to goals and a sense of purpose driving their lives.
Happy people focus intently upon achieving meaningful goals. This drive and the progress towards these goals often aid in creating more positive daily experiences in life. Thus, it becomes a positive cycle of the pursuit of a sense of purpose creates more positive experiences which provide more reinforcement for pursuing goals.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the U.S., a man who required physical assistance every day of his presidency due to disability from polio and yet lead the U.S. through a very difficult period, stated “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”
2) Affiliation and Service to Others
Our relationships to others is a strong factor in overall level of happiness. As Epicurus stated over 2000 years ago “Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.” However, the way that we affiliate may differ according to personality style. Outgoing individuals may be more interactive with many people, whereas introverted folks may be content with one or two relationships. Some people may find sense of purpose in their service to others whereas others are content with socializing.
However, there are some components of relationships that are more likely to contribute to happiness. One is the feeling of kindness and compassion towards others as well as being genuinely pleased for others' success rather than being competitive or jealous. As the Dalai Lama says “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.”
In addition, the ability to trust, love and see oneself as part of a community is conducive to happiness. The more that we see ourselves as entrusted with the happiness of others, the more we receive in return. “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting some on yourself (Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882).”
3) Philosophical Perspective
How we frame the world and our experiences within it influence our degree of happiness. Those who tend to be more optimistic about creating positive outcomes are more likely to engage in active problem-solving and to be more content. However, this does not mean being unrealistic in assessing outcomes which can be detrimental (as discussed below in the section on emotional tolerance).
Happier people tend to be satisfied with all their options when making a decision. In other words, as discussed at the beginning of the article, they are not attached to any particular outcome. They will strive towards a particular goal but are equally content if they don't achieve it. Remember, as I stated earlier “all it means is that your life will take a different path.”
This philosophical perspective allows the individual to see the value in all experiences without a need to evaluate them negatively. As Euripedes (480-405BC) opined, “The man is happiest who lives from day to day and asks no more, garnering the simple goodness of life.”
Although happiness may not be as simple as developing an "attitude of gratitude," developing a more optimistic perspective and seeing the positive aspect of an event can be helpful.
4) Emotional Tolerance of Suffering
Although emotional tolerance is an area I could write an entire article about (if not a book), I will try to briefly discuss this concept. What I have learned over the course of my career as a clinical psychologist is that most problems are worsened by the inability to tolerate emotions. A couple of areas depict this quite well. The most striking area is grief due to a death or tragedy. I have frequently seen people who contact me in extreme distress due to grief (often the only time they have even seen a therapist) and after I explain to them that their feelings are a normal part of the healing grief process and they should just allow these emotions, they feel much better. So much so that they don't need another appointment. Although they continue to grieve, they are able to tolerate the emotions because they understand them better.
Another example that I have seen frequently since I specialize with anxiety disorders is people who have Panic Disorder. A hallmark of their symptoms is the inability to tolerate the feelings of panic. When they can get to an understanding that the feelings won't hurt them, that it is just a feeling that will go away, their panic usually decreases significantly.
As I wrote about in Sadness is a State of Happiness, it is not the absence of negative emotions, but the full expression of our emotions that contributes to our happiness. Research has found that denying negative emotions or information threatens happiness (DeNeve & Cooper, 1998). How does this fit with research that shows happier people are more optimistic and have more positive emotions? Interesting research by Maya Tamir and Brett Ford (2012) answer this question by examining the concept of the usefulness of emotions. What they found is that happier people want to feel useful emotions that are appropriate to the situation but they don't want to feel negative emotions when they are not useful. In other words, when it is the time to grieve, happy people grieve; when it is the time to be angry, happy people are angry; but most of the time, happy people are content.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885) expressed this idea of tolerating emotions: “Happiness lies for those who cry, those who hurt, those who have searched, and those who have tried for only they can appreciate the importance of people who have touched their lives.”
I believe this research helps to explain other findings that happy people pursue success rather than avoid failure, do not engage in excessive worrying, are less sensitive to social comparison, are able to forgive and are less likely to dwell on moods (Lyubomirsky, 2001). If you think about it—all of these things, failure, worrying, social anxiety, inability to forgive and dwelling on moods are not useful. However, happy people are able to feel anger and sadness and anxiety when the immediate situation calls for it. As William Faulker (1897-1962) stated in Absalom, Absalom! “If happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.”
Research shows that happier people tend to have greater self-confidence and belief in their abilities. They use social comparison in a positive way that tends to be more motivating rather than comparing themselves negatively to others, and so are not threatened by others' success or abilities. In other words, they are comfortable with themselves. This contentment with the self allows them to strive for self-improvement as a means of creating something positive rather than avoiding something negative.
As Aristotle (384-322) said, “Happiness is the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot” and Erasmus (1466-1536) believed “The summit of happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is.” It can't be emphasized enough that the contentment with the self provides the foundation for happiness to emerge.
Happier people believe not only generally in their ability to control their experience in life but also specifically in their ability to choose to be happy. “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times (Aeschylus, 525-456BC).”
This desire for control has beneficial effects in their lives. They tend to be more assertive, decisive, and engage in active problem-solving. Such a direct approach tends to increase positive life experiences which, in turn, influences belief in control and degree of happiness. Conversely, it has been found that an external locus of control, a belief that luck, not effort, is a primary factor in what occurs, has been shown to be detrimental to the achievement of happiness ( Lyubomirsky, 2001).
Helen Keller, who overcame being born deaf and blind in the 1800s to be the first with her disabilities to earn a Bachelor's degree and become a successful writer and speaker, expressed her belief that “Your success and happiness lie in you.” She demonstrated this belief every day of her life.
7) Health Behaviors
Finally, researchers DeNeve and Cooper (1998) in their analysis of 148 studies concluded that as important as personality variables are to happiness, health behaviors are of even greater importance. Happier people take care of their physical and mental health needs. As such, they are more likely to exercise, eat nutritiously, and engage in relaxation of some sort. If they need medical care, they are more likely to follow through and take proper care of themselves.
One other point about health behaviors is that exercise (and other health behaviors) is a good example of how we need to be able to tolerate discomfort for the benefit we derive. People may not always get immediate reward from these behaviors but they persist due to the long-term benefits. This doesn't mean you can't try to find activity you enjoy (or healthy foods you like)—it just means that at times you may not enjoy it, but it is important to take care of your health anyway. READ MORE: page 5
Intro to Secret of Happiness--page 1
What Is Happiness?--page 2
Is Happiness Possible for Everyone?--page 3
What Intentional Behaviors Can Influence Happiness?--page 4
How Do You Choose Which Intentional Behaviors to Pursue?--page 5
A Final Word About How to Know Happiness When it Finds You--page 6
Copyright © 2012
by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.
HOW CAN WE BE HAPPY WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN?
For many years when my husband and I were first together I would ask him "When are things going to get better?"
We were dealing with the usual stressors that couples face: not enough time, not enough money, and the inevitable
random events such as family conflict, deaths of loved ones, illnesses and injuries. In addition, for most of our
early years together I was in school and struggling with the balancing of demands of advanced education, part-time
work, and a family. But I had the belief that we were working towards this perfect life that one day would emerge
shining a rainbow of happiness forever over us. My husband, inclined more toward the practical, just answered my
question of "When are things going to get better?," with "Another six months." That answer typically pacified me
for awhile because I thought I could handle any amount of stress for six months. However, a point would occur when
I once again I asked my husband "When are things going to get better?" Once again, he would answer "Another six
months." This scenario occurred fairly routinely for many years.
However, fortunately during this time I had experiences that began to teach me about my expectations of life.
In particular, when I was completing my internship at the Veterans Administration Medical Center I had the
opportunity to work on the spinal cord injury unit. That experience forever changed my thinking. In particular,
I was struck by the differences in attitude among the patients. My job was to psychologically evaluate each
patient. Some of those I evaluated had a recent spinal cord injury and some were returning for follow-up
visits. Every patient on that unit, however, had a life-changing injury. Never would they walk again and some
couldn't use their hands or even needed assistance with breathing. Every one of them had sustained major
changes and losses in their life. Some of them not only lost the physical use of their body, but they lost
a girlfriend or wife who couldn't handle the situation, or a job that was part of their self-identity. Yet,
what I noticed was that no matter what the losses were or the length of time since the injury, the patients
could be divided into two categories: happy or miserable.
Those who were happy reported thinking such as "Yeah, this sucks, but I still have dreams. There are still
things I can do. And I'm going to focus on those things." Those who were miserable made statements such as
"This is so unfair. My whole life is ruined. I will never be happy." In obtaining the life histories of
the patients, I saw that those who were happy had full and active lives, they had friends and jobs and were
involved in activities. Whereas those who were miserable, often did nothing but stay in bed with little social
contact and had more problems with bed sores and other ailments due to the inactivity. I was informed that
even though spinal cord injury in itself does not reduce life expectancy, those who gave up tended to die at
earlier ages from complications. READ MORE: page 2
How can we be happy when bad things happen?--page 1
How is the attitude of happiness a choice?--page 2
How is the attitude of happiness different from positive thinking?--page 3
Copyright © 2010 by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
and an active link.