Start with Happy

Two weeks ago I wrote about “New Day’s Resolutions,” making a daily commitment to do small things that I know from experience make me less stressed, less tired, and more peaceful. I call them my “Wellness Tasks” and I’ve been pretty consistent with them for over two months. It helps that I set the bar low. As you may remember, there were just seven tasks I hope to build into my daily life:

  • Yoga stretches
  • Meditation
  • Recording in my gratitude journal 5 things from my day for which I’m thankful
  • Exercise
  • Mindful eating

and ONE of the following:

  • Sketching
  • Journaling
  • Making art in my art journal.

These seven tasks, done consistently over time, have helped me feel better about each day and, I think, about my life.

Sometime after I developed my list of Wellness Tasks, I came across an intriguing TED Talk by Shawn Achor called “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” Achor is the winner of over a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University, where he delivered lectures on positive psychology in the most popular class at Harvard. He’s also the CEO of Good Think Inc., a Cambridge-based consulting firm which researches positive outliers—people who are well above average—to understand where human potential, success and happiness intersect.

In short, Achor studies successful people—above the curve in intellectual ability, athletic ability, musical ability, creativity, energy levels, resiliency, humor—to find out what makes these people more successful. What can we learn from these outliers that we could apply to help make everyone else more successful in these areas? How could people be happier?

What he found was fascinating. I recommend that you watch the 12 minute, 21 second TED talk to hear him explain, or check out his book The Happiness Advantage. For now, I’ll summarize. Achor’s research shows that most schools and companies teach that working hard leads to success, which then (and only then) leads to happiness. Get good grades, get into the best school, get a good job, marry the “right” person, etc. Once we get all of these external issues lined up, then we’ll be happy. This model assumes that our happiness is largely dependent upon our circumstances. But research shows that 90% of our happiness levels are not predicted by our circumstances at all, but by the way our brains process those circumstances. 

Achor argues that we’ve got it backwards. Our brains work better in the opposite order, by starting with happiness. His research shows that “if you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is [that] your brain at positive performs significantly better than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed.”

Everything gets better when your brain operates in a positive state. Your intelligence rises. Your creativity rises, and your energy levels rise.

What’s even better is that we can train our brains to become more positive. Which is a great thing. I’d love to figure out how to develop a more positive outlook on my life regardless of my external circumstances. But how?

Achor found that having subjects take on a few simple tasks each day for 21 days can significantly rewire the brain to work more optimistically and successfully. When I first saw the list, I realized that it looked familiar; many of the items were my wellness tasks I’ve been committed to now for a couple of months.

The first was a gratitude journal, although he suggests that recording even three new things per day for which you are grateful will help the brain start to retrain it’s pattern of scanning the world, looking not just for the negative (which is usually our habit) but for the positive first.

Next was to write in a journalHe suggests a specific journaling technique, which is to write about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours. This gives your brain an opportunity to relive it.

Exercise is good for lots of things, but from a training standpoint, it teaches your brain that your behavior matters.

Meditation allows the brain to step back from all the multi-tasking stress to which we are addicted as a culture and to focus only on the present.

The final item on Achor’s list was a new one to me, but a good one: Commit random acts of kindness. As he says, “random acts of kindness are conscious acts of kindness.” He gives a simple suggestion: each day, when you open your inbox, send someone in your social support network one positive email praising or thanking them.

That’s it. Just five things, done daily. I already knew from my own experience that regular application of my “wellness task” list can reduce stress and clear my head. But has it made me happier?

I think I’ll have to say yes, mostly because my definition of happiness is changing. My happiness is less dependent on how much I accomplish in a week, or how may items I check off my To Do List. It’s less about my bank account and how well I fit into my jeans. And although I still think about the future and where I want to be in five or ten years, I have less of a hankering to be there in the future. I’m realizing that the present is pretty great already.

Just today, I watched a squirrel chase and chatter at a blue jay by the feeder for ten minutes.  I really enjoyed my latte at the coffee shop, and complimented the barista on the beautiful, delicate foam on top. I paid attention at dinner when Sarah told us about her classes and homework and swimming, and appreciated that our busy teenager cared enough to share. I did an upward dog pose in yoga and noticed how good it feels to s-t-r-e-t-c-h a muscle. Granted, I also thought about the future today, and even made a few plans. What was different was that I didn’t let it take me away from how good today feels.

So yes, I’ll call this happy. And maybe, over time, I’ll learn how to start there.