Tal Ben-Shahar wrote a book, Happier, and at one time taught the most popular course at Harvard: Positive Psychology. Yes, he teaches students how to be happier. So, is trying to be happier a worthy goal? Turns out that research says it is. For example, one of many, a study of aging nuns found that those with a positive outlook in their 20s lived as much as a decade longer than those with a negative outlook. And the good news is that optimism is a skill that can be taught and learned.
Part of Dr. Ben-Shahar’s message is that happiness is found in the journey, not the destination. But being happier and more optimistic is not a “don’t worry, be happy” approach. It’s about perspective. How you see things can matter more than what actually happens! And you can build optimism by recognizing and disputing pessimistic thoughts. Here’s the basic strategy:
1. Distancing. Become more aware of your conscious thought processes (what you’re telling yourself) and begin to treat them as if they were being uttered by an external person whose goal in life is to make you unhappy.
2. Distraction. Distract yourself from the thoughts by not allowing yourself to think about them, direct your thoughts elsewhere.
3. Disputation. Dispute the beliefs. This is crucial and involves checking out the accuracy of the beliefs about ourselves that are encouraging us to feel pessimistic. When we dispute we use the same techniques which we use to argue logically with other people.
In his class, Dr. Ben-Shahar shares catchy phrases to help people begin to look at what happens to them in a different way, a more positive way. For example, ''Learn to fail or fail to learn," and ''not 'It happened for the best,' but 'How can I make the best of what happened?' " Dr. Ben-Shahar also freely shares some Happiness tips:
--Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions -- such as fear, sadness, or anxiety -- as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.
--Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.
--Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of well being is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?
--Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.
--Remember the mind-body connection. What we do -- or don't do -- with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
--Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.
By using these strategies you can begin to have a more positive perspective, which can lead to increased happiness and well being. You may also be interested in reading Dr. Ben-Sharhar’s book, as well as some by Martin Seligman and Albert Ellis.