One of the on-line classes I’ve audited during our time of isolation was The Science of Wellbeing, also referred to as the Psychology of Happiness. Much of our wellbeing or happiness can be controlled by our actions, habits, and thinking. However, the mind doesn’t always know the best way to achieve happiness. We can be very sensitive to context, to social comparison, and to perceived expectations and often choose the wrong things/activities thinking they will drive our wellbeing & happiness. This on-line course (Coursera link here) shared strategies for increasing your own happiness. I was pleasantly surprised to note that in my retirement transition, I have implemented a number of the recommended strategies!
[To note, this is a super long blog post. I considered separating it into two or more posts, but decided I liked having the totality in one piece.]
What the geeky-scientist in me enjoyed most in the course were the details on social experiments that showed implementing the aspects for increasing happiness/well-being actually working. No, I am not going to share the proof (statistics /charts) from various experiments. But for every aspect noted, proof was provided.
One thing the course was adamant to acknowledge is something I have often said: The knowing does not make the doing any easier! In addition to the proof behind the each aspect, the course offered tools (strategies) for habit formation, so someone can work towards implementation.
Aspects to Boost Happiness
- Savoring. And even more importantly, how to thwart hedonic adaption. While the second phrase is a psychological term, it is an important aspect of happiness. Basically, we get used to the things that we enjoy, and then enjoy them less! That is hedonic adaptation. We become accustomed to things and no longer appreciate them. Some ways to thwart this hedonic adaptation:
- Share the experience with others.
- Recognize how lucky you are to have what you have – think about life without it. Literally, take time and write down: If I were to lose this tomorrow, how would I feel? If this were never to have come into my life, how would I feel?
- Re-experience it. Think about it with all your senses. Practice mindfulness in the moment (stop and appreciate versus doing it habitually). Interrupt it to re-experience it – split it (half now and half later) or stop it for a while and come back to it.
- Practice gratitude. Write it down! Share your gratitude and appreciation of others with others, versus taking then for granted. Recognize “this is the best-est!”.
- Practice Kindness. Yes, random acts of kindness will make you happier… the experiments proved this over and over again. So what does kindness look like? Help someone with something, say something nice to someone, be kind to a stranger, write a thank you note, or donate to a cause you believe in. Take the opportunity to practice being kind and recognize the kindness of others.
- Time Affluence. We tend to prioritize money over time, but in fact having time affluence (not money affluence) will make us happier. Yes, again, proven with social experimentation. Time affluence is time to do the things that are important in your life – things that fit your life purpose, life vision, or life values. Perhaps this is why retiree’s are happy? Most of us do tend to have time affluence!
- Social Connections. From close ties with family to random connections with strangers, having intentional connections with others increases an individual’s happiness. Even doing an experience with someone else can increase the happiness of that experience. Yes, while you might expect that trying to make a connection with a stranger would be unpleasant (bothersome, annoying), it’s been proven that the experience leaves both people happier. To increase happiness, think about how are you doing with intentional connections – close social ties (your tribe), strong family ties, strong marital connection, and connecting with random people.
- Mindfulness. Mind wandering (often called monkey brain) is actually the human brain’s default system. But it’s also been proven that a wandering mind is not a happy mind. The key way to reduce mind-wandering is regularly practicing meditation. And mediation here is broadly defined: breathe work, a body scan, gratitude writing, yoga, walking, etc.
- Healthy Practices of exercise and sleep. Experimental data was shared showing that getting enough sleep (7 hours/night) and exercise (3x/week for 30 minutes) can significantly improve happiness and wellbeing, as well as cognitive performance. This is often the best case of the knowing not making the doing any easier! Some ideas for creating new habits seems to fit best in this aspect of happiness:
- Create the right environment/situation for creating the habit – making the new habit easy to do with proximity and visibility. Also, how can you reduce “friction” on new behavior so the new behavior is actually easier (has less friction) than old behavior? Examples: What’s visible on the counter to eat (eating more healthy), are my cute workout clothes ready to put on (more exercise), or is the gratitude journal next to my bed (daily gratitude writing).
- Goal setting and barrier busting. AKA, how to stop procrastinating and/or how to establish new habits. 4 key steps: 1) Be specific in what the new habit/activity is, 2) Visualize the positive outcome (your why of doing the habit/activity), 3) Hypothesize your barriers and obstacles to implement the habit/activity, and 4) Plan some if-then strategies to overcome the obstacles. Supposedly, even just doing this mental incubation thinking can help you adopt the new lasting habit or start the activity because it creates a cognitive associative link in your brain to overcome the obstacles.
- Accountability. Social support through others on same journey, accountability dates, or friend check-ins can all boost new habit formation. Personal tracking can be a strong accountability tool, too.
- Invest in Experiences (not stuff). Stuff, no matter how awesome, is completely prone to hedonic adaptation. We get it, we love it (less that we expected – see impact bias below), and then we get used to it. Happiness gone. Experiences, however, tend to have more elements of happiness built in – we anticipate the experience, every experience is slightly different so less likely to have repetitive boredom or social comparison, experiences are often shared with others, and we can recall and share the memory of the experience with others. (Others are interested in hearing about your experience more so than hearing about your new stuff!)
- Activate your Signature Strengths. Our signature strengths are essentially who we are, and utilizing them in the things we do (activities, job) will bring greater happiness. The tool here is to take your top 7-8 strengths (recommended tool: VIA Strength) and identify (brainstorm) what you can do that uses 4 of those strengths. Also explore:
- Activities that require both high skill (using your signature strengths) and high challenge will increase flow, which makes you happier. Low skill and low challenge = apathy. Low skill and high challenge = anxiety. High skill and low challenge = passivity/boredom. How would you define the activities you are involved in?
- Activities with intrinsic motivation (when you enjoy the activity), versus extrinsic motivation of external reward (or punishment prevention). For example, the joy of learning versus achievement of a grade/level.
- Have a growth mindset. Recognizing that new skills can be learned with time and effort.
What makes us un-happy? What are the things we need to stop/avoid?
- Social Comparison. Ah… the Compare & Despair has been proven! Social comparison creates a perception of “I am less than”. Social comparison also creates unreasonable reference points (unrealistic salaries, unrealistic bodies/beauty standards, unrealistic lifestyles), increases personal dissatisfaction, and lowers self-esteem. Some ways to impact social comparison and unrealistic reference points:
- While the recommendation was to avoid social media to reduce social comparison (unrealistic!), you can also recognize that you are only seeing someone’s highlight reel. Catch the comparison and say, “stop!”
- Be aware of the multitude of social comparisons and curate more “real people” in your social media feed.
- Practice gratitude for the things you do have. Recognize your own strengths.
- Expectation Impact Bias. We expect good things will be better than they are, and bad things will be way worse than they are. Yeah, proven again. (Interestingly, when I’ve been disappointed in things, I’ve often been told my expectations are too high!)
- Over-estimation of the good, both intensity and duration, makes us unhappy with the reality. It’s hard to think about lowering positive expectations, but that is something to explore. Allow the positive experience to unfold and live in the moment!
- Expectation of the negative can prevent us from trying something. We don’t realize that we also have a huge psychological immune system that will help allay the negative – our natural resiliency, our ability to rationalize things, our a ability to find meaning if things don’t go as planned. Net, you’ll be fine so try something risky.
ScoreCare of Happiness Boosting for Me
I mentioned earlier that I had implemented many of the recommended aspects/strategies during my retirement transition. Many are habitual already, some are works in progress, and a few need some new thinking.
|My Retirement Transition||Now – new ideas|
|Savoring||Back in 2016 I choose Joy as my WOTY, and learned to look for little moments of joy. I still do!|
|Practice Gratitude||Began a Daily Gratitude listing in late 2019 and it’s a habit now.|
|Practice Kindness||I do acknowledge service people and donate regularly. Is that enough?||Probably an area of improvement.|
|Time Affluence||Retired! Definitely Time Affluent.|
|Social Connections||An area I focused on intentionally during retirement transition, and felt was successful in new connection establishment.||Looking at new ways to stay connected, especially in a world of social distancing/social isolation.|
|Mindfulness/ Meditation||Yoga, Daily Journaling, and (irregular) mindful walks.|
|Exercise||Some weeks are better than others, but have done Zumba, yoga, Orange Theory Fitness, walking and biking.||Need to work on structure again as lost much of my accountability.|
|Sleep||In retirement, am definitely getting my sleep needed.|
|Invest in Experiences (not stuff)||A challenging aspect in our household.||An area that will need exploration, especially in this new Covid-19 world!|
|Activate Signature Strengths||Definitely new area to explore.|
|Reduce Social Comparison||Actively working on reducing Compare & Despair|
|Modify Expectations||Actively working to keep expectations in check (realistic, not socially compelled)||
The knowing does not make the doing any easier! Looking at the areas to continue to improve my wellbeing, I can use the learning from the course: What do I need to change in my environment to re-establish regular exercise? Is there a new accountability that will work? How might I explore utilizing my signature strengths? What is the reward there for me?
As you look at the 12 different aspects to improve happiness and wellbeing, what does your “score card” look like? What is one new aspect you can tackle in the immediate future to increase your feelings of happiness and wellbeing?