The Art of Happiness

Research on how to increase positive moods and capitalize on your strengths has proliferated in recent years, thanks to the positive psychology movement, and has shed light on ongoing insights into personality, mood, and cognition. Not everyone is born with a sunny disposition, but experts agree we can all learn how to bring more meaning and satisfaction into our lives.

Focus on, capture and appreciate small positive moments in your life. Expressing gratitude has been shown to do more than improve your mood. People who write down a few positive things about their day are healthier, more energetic, less stressed and anxious, and get better sleep.

Positive Thinking

There has been real progress in understanding happiness and how to get it. Here are the greatest hits, as it were, that jump out from the research.

Some People Are Born Happy

Some lucky souls really are born with brighter outlooks than others; they simply seebeauty and opportunity where others hone in on flaws and dangers. But those with a more ominous orientation can alter their outlook, at least to a point. They can learn to internally challenge their fearful thoughts and negative assumptions—"she thinks I'm an idiot," "I'm going to get fired," "I'll never be a good mom"—if not eliminate them altogether. Engaging in positive internal dialogue is actually a mark of the mentally healthy.

Getting What You Want Doesn't Bring Lasting Happiness

You think happiness would arrive if you were to win the lottery, or would forever fade away if your home were destroyed in a flood. But human beings are remarkably adaptable. After a variable period of adjustment, we bounce back to our previous level of happiness, no matter what happens to us. (There are some scientifically proven exceptions, notably suffering the unexpected loss of a job or the loss of a spouse. Both events tend to permanently knock people down a notch.)

Our adaptability works in two directions. Because we are so adaptable, points out Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, we quickly get used to many of the accomplishments we strive for in life, such as landing the big job or getting married. Soon after we reach a milestone, we start to feel that something is missing. We begin coveting another worldly possession or eyeing a social advancement. But such an approach keeps us tethered to the "hedonic treadmill," where happiness is always just out of reach, one toy or one notch away. It's possible to get off the treadmill entirely, Lyubomirsky says, by focusing on activities that are dynamic, surprising, and attention-absorbing, and thus less likely to bore us than, say, acquiring shiny stuff.

Pain Is A Part Of Happiness

Happiness is not your reward for escaping pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on, without letting them overwhelm you. Russ Harris, a medical doctor-cum-counselor and author of The Happiness Trap, calls popular conceptions of happiness dangerous because they set people up for a "struggle against reality." They don't acknowledge that real life is full of disappointments, loss, and inconveniences. "If you're going to live a rich and meaningful life," Harris says, "you're going to feel a full range of emotions."

The point isn't to limit that palette of feelings. After all, negative states cue us into what we value and what we need to change: Grief for a loved one proves how much we cherish our relationships. Frustration with several jobs in a row is a sign we're in the wrong career. Happiness would be meaningless if not for sadness: Without the contrast of darkness, there is no light.

Mindfulness Brings Happiness

Mindfulness, a mental state of relaxed awareness of the present moment, marked by openness and curiosity toward your feelings rather than judgments of them, is a powerful tool for experiencing happiness when practiced regularly. "If you bring mindfulness to bear on negative feelings, they lose their impact. Just let them be there without struggling against them, and you'll eventually feel less anxiety and depression," Harris says. Don't banish your negative feelings, but don't let them get in the way of your taking productive actions, either.

Happiness Lies In The Chase

Action toward goals other than happiness makes us happy. Though there is a place for vegging out and reading trashy novels, easy pleasures will never light us up the way mastering a new skill or building something from scratch will.

And it's not crossing the finish line that is most rewarding; it's anticipating achieving your goal. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has found that working hard toward a goal, and making progress to the point of expecting a goal to be realized, doesn't just activate positive feelings—it also suppresses negative emotions such as fear and depression.

4 Steps To Happiness
1

Train Your Attention - waking up with gratitude, being in nature, resisting judgment and expressing kindness.

2

Get Emotionally Tough - when things go wrong, try to focus on what went right within what went wrong.

3

Connect Your Mind And Body - activities to do this could include reading, exercise, music, art, prayer, meditation, yoga and deep breathing.

4

Pick Healthy Habits - simplify your life, exercising, picking your battles and lightening up.