Training Your Brain to Be (and Stay) Happy

27 May 2013

What do you need to be happy? If you’ve read a few articles about the roots of happiness, you are probably–and correctly–resisting the urge to say “more money.” Despite our intuition that being richer would doubtlessly make us happier, additional wealth actually does not bring much additional happiness. It’s due to acclimation; we simply adjust to a new norm.

In Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds, he examines this fact, and several other mis-held beliefs about the origins of happiness. The book is worth reading for the analysis and summary of scientific findings alone, but Wiseman goes one step further and delivers practical advice on how to leverage the literature in your daily life. True to the title, most of the exercises he proposes take only a minute of your time, and have been proven (in the experimental setting, at least) to markedly increase happiness and satisfaction.

A 5-Day Plan

One such proposal centers around consistent, short, writing exercises. In several psychology studies, weekly writing exercises were shown to increase an individual’s level of happiness. Wiseman broke down five groups of studies into a set of five daily writing tasks you can administer yourself. Each day has its own theme, and a pretty solid reasoning behind the theme. The time investment is minimal, and the overall effect (especially over a time frame of a month or a year) is substantial.

The whole “low time, high benefit” angle immediately sparked my suspicion, but I’m trying to maintain both a healthy optimism and a healthy skepticism towards the whole thing. At the very least, I hope to illustrate and explain Wiseman’s 5-day play, and the reasoning behind it. I’ll even be trying it out myself, perhaps saving the anecdotal results for a future piece.

The overall theme of Wiseman’s plan is fostering a “gratitude attitude”. It rhymes, but it’s nonetheless pretty legit. As always, our “new plan for a new me” begins on the most beginning-est of days–Monday.

Monday: Thanksgiving

Psychologists Emmons and McCullough set out to experimentally determine if we can overcome the acclimation to things that make us happy. One group of probably-white-college-students was instructed to spend one day a week writing about five things for which they felt gratitude. Another group had the unfortunate task of writing down five things that bothered them. The control group had only to detail five things that happened in the past week. Despite feeling more optimistic about the future, the group that had written down things for which they were grateful also were physically healthier after five weeks.

Taking these results, the exercise for Monday is to write down three things that you’re thankful for in your life:

There are many things in your life for which to be grateful. These might include having good friends, being in a wonderful relationship, benefiting from sacrifices that others have made for you, being part of a supportive family, and enjoying good health, a nice home, or enough on the table. Alternatively, you might have a job that you love, have happy memories of the past, or recently have had a nice experience, such as savoring an especially lovely cup of coffee, enjoying the smile of a stranger, having your dog welcome you home, eating a great meal, or stopping to smell the flowers.

I particularly liked Wiseman’s focus on the little things. It is easy to take small comforts for granted, and spending a bit of time reflecting on some of those comforts you enjoy can work to counteract that.

Tuesday: Terrific Times

Have you heard that most people are happier when they spend money on experiences, as opposed to possessions? One of the theories on why this seems to be the case hinges on the plasticity of memory. After a fun vacation, when we reflect back on it, we are far less likely to remember the stuff that wasn’t good–the stress of travel, the getting lost, the errant argument, the sunburn–and instead focus on all the positives from the vacation. Thinking back to relaxing on the beach, reading a good book, visiting the trendy nightclubs, or boozy fornicating at the Four Seasons will give us much more happiness over time than the new TV we have to replace in two years, or the car that keeps needing expensive maintenance.

For Tuesday, take advantage of your rose-tinted glasses and remember an event or experience that was particularly great for you:

Perhaps [there was] a moment when you felt suddenly contented, were in love, listened to an amazing piece of music, saw an incredible performance, or had a great time with friends. Choose just one experience and imagine yourself back in that moment in time. Remember how you felt and what was going on around you. Now spend a few moments writing a description of that experience and how you felt.

Wiseman goes on to state you shouldn’t worry about proper grammar or spelling–something that is true for all of these prompts. I would go as far to say you shouldn’t even spend too much effort congealing your thoughts into something that makes complete sense later. The important part is to spend time focusing on the nice feeling you had, and put pen to paper. Writing utilizes a very specific part of your brain, and for whatever reason, putting your happy thoughts through that neural pathway does more for your happiness than just recollecting freely.

Wednesday: Future Fantastic

This was my favorite alliterative brush stroke in the plan. For the midweek exercise, Wiseman pulls from the tried-and-kind-of-true self-help manifesto of “positive visualization.” Imagine how you want to act and feel, and you can achieve. Though research doesn’t give much support that this kind of visualization is helpful in changing behaviors (and, in fact, in large doses can reduce happiness as the ideal is consistently out of reach), a bit of wishful thinking can actually make you happier.

Quoth Wiseman (emphasis mine):

Spend a few moments writing about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone really well. Be realistic, but imagine that you have worked hard and achieved all of your aims and ambitions. Imagine that you have become the person that you really want to be, and that your personal and professional life feels like a dream come true. All of this may not help you achieve your goals, but it will help you feel good and put a smile on your face.

Laura King conducted studies that proved that both imaging an ideal you and remembering your best moments makes you significantly happier. In her experiment on the former, she broke her volunteers into three groups. The first spent a few minutes in four consecutive days describing what it would be like if they achieved all their wildest dreams and goals. A control group took that time each day and wrote about their plans for the day. And, true to form, there was an unlucky third group that had to spend that team each day reliving a traumatic event that had happened to them. The people in the first group wound up substantially happier than the other two groups, and god knows how those souls in the third group felt.

Thursday: Dear…

To study the causal relationship between loving relationships and physical and psychological health, Kory Floyd from Arizona State University devised an experiment. Two groups of probably-white-college-students were assembled. The first group spent twenty minutes writing about why somebody special in their life was so important to them. The control group spent that time writing about something that happened to them over the past week. Each group repeated the exercise three times over a five-week period. Wiseman states that “once again, this simple procedure had a dramatic effect.” Not only was the experimental group significantly happier than the control–they even saw a significant decrease in cholesterol levels.

While it may not be the best plan for a healthy heart, spending a few minutes on Thursday to ruminate on a lovely presence in your life can’t be a bad thing. Wiseman advises:

Think about someone in your life who is very important to you. It might be your partner, a close friend, or a family member. Imagine that you have only one opportunity to tell this person how important they are to you. Write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and the impact they have had on your life.

If appropriate, it may even be nice to give this person a copy of the letter when you’re done, but I’ll leave that up to you.

Friday: Reviewing the Situation

The last daily assignment reflects more on the immediate past. What was nice about last week? Honestly it kind of felt like this one was just added to round out the set, but it definitely fits in the theme of maintaining a feeling of gratitude. And, it’s nice to remember that even if you felt your week was pretty crappy, there were at least some things that went well!

I do once again like Wiseman’s equal focus on the seemingly nondescript and the obvious pie-in-the-sky moments:

Think back over the past seven days and make a note of three things that went really well for you. The events might be fairly trivial, such as finding a space, or more important, such as being offered a new job or opportunity. Jot down a sentence about why you think each event turned out so well.

Emphasis mine. Though I’m sure it can be overwhelming to look at all of these daily tasks and worry about how you can fit it in to your busy schedule, it’s important to keep small scope in mind. Wiseman isn’t advising paragraphs, or even sentences. Think of this as an extra tweet or two, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Getting Started

I’m going to try this thing out and see how it goes, and then maybe I’ll be able to suggest it a bit more whole-heartedly. If you’re interested in more of this type of approach to evaluating and shifting your lifestyle, I’d recommend reading the entire book, which I’m still getting through.

Finally, I have to give credit to this tweet for starting this whole endeavor:

Atwood is somebody I respect in the tech community. If you agree, maybe you’ll feel more inclined to read Wiseman’s work after reading his testimonial (as I did).

Why does this self-help book work when so many others fail? In a word, science! The author goes out of his way to find actual published scientific research documenting specific ways we can make small changes in our behavior to produce better outcomes for ourselves and those around us. It’s powerful stuff, and the book is full of great, research backed insights. I have changed a few of my own behaviors based on the data and science presented in this book.

‘Nuff said. If you want to read more about the psychology studies that prompted Wiseman’s suggestions, check out these resources: