Have you ever wished that, instead of learning about history or the speed of light in school, we were also taught something more practical, like how to be happy? Well, your wish has come true. Recently, a new subject has appeared in education, not in high school but at universities. The course is called Positive Psychology, and its underlying promise is that we can learn to be happier, just as we can learn to ride a bike or to speak a foreign language.
Positive psychology may be the youngest branch in modern psychology, with less than 30 years of history, although its subject is one of the oldest and most fundamental human emotions – happiness. Positive Psychology is the scientific study and exploration of the human strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to develop and thrive. This new discipline of psychology is founded by those who want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives (instead of simply avoiding depression or anxiety), to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, joy, work, and play.
Dr. Maslow once said, “the science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations.” Traditional clinical psychology is based on the disease model, and the best outcome is from disease to neutral state (the zero) or no disease; neither depression nor anxiety. In contrast, positive psychology is based on the health model of human behavior by focusing on building up strengths or virtues, and pursuit of positive emotion, happiness and flourishing. Happiness isn’t the negation of unhappiness. The knowledge of positive psychology can help prevent disease or failure through cultivating positive characteristics and emotions. More importantly,
positive psychology focuses on what works in real life so as to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life.
Two years ago, I had the privilege to take the corresponding course “Foundation of Positive Psychology” through the University of Pennsylvania, taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, whose teaching of Positive Psychology had made it the most popular course in Harvard University at the time (with 800+ students in one semester). You can find out more about Dr. Ben-Shahar from his web site (http://www.talbenshahar.com).
At the end of this inspirational course, Dr. Ben-Shahar summarized the course with his top 10 tips to become happier. I would like to share these tips with some materials I learned from the course so that the readers may get a basic idea of how to apply these tips in their own pursuit of happiness:
1. The questions you ask will define the places to go to, and create your reality.
“What kind of reality do I want to create?” The questions will define or determine how you will think or behave next. If you ask “what’s wrong?” you would automatically look for wrong-doing or mistakes…. Instead, how about asking “What is most meaningful to me?” “What is most pleasant to me?” “What is my strength?” – find any overlap in answers to these queries will lead you to a more positive reality “What works best?” My favorite questions in a difficult or stressful situation: “What is one thing that is good about this?” or “What can I learn from this situation?”
2. Believe in yourself and others (think outside of the box).
Belief is a self-filling prophecy, and attitude is everything. Never underestimate the power of belief. People can go to wars and sacrifice themselves for a simple belief; therefore, starting with a positive belief and constructive attitude could make everything work differently. You cannot achieve or enjoy happiness with a negative attitude. If you want to be happy, choose to be happy, and believe in yourself that you can always be happier…
3. Learn to fail (or fail to learn!)
The foundation of success is failure, no shortcut! Failure is an important part of life or any successful progress, which offers unique and necessary lessons for moving closer to success. Do not be afraid of failure, and do not fail to learn from failures. It is true that failure does not feel as good as success, but we learn precious lessons from it. We may simply label ‘failure” as the successful identification of what does not work.
4. Give yourself permission to be human
It is the foundation of mental health – accept both painful and joyful experiences. Embrace your emotions, not just positive ones like joy or enthusiasm, but also emotions like anger, fear or sadness. Do not try to deny or run away from them. Expecting to be happy all the time is unrealistic and ultimately impossible – doing so will only lead to disappointment and greater unhappiness. Perfectionism does not bring happiness. Every human-being makes mistakes, and has negative motions; therefore, allowing yourself to be human implies living in reality while finding the beautiful self through both pains and joys.
5. Open up (journal and/or in person)
Expressing yourself (writing, talking to friends or therapist) will assist in feeling emotions – live a life with integrity by being real and truthful to your own values and feelings. Talking about traumatic or negative experiences offers an opportunity to heal by allowing the mind to put it in context, reframe and find benefits… Do not suppress or hide your feelings; do not close your mind and emotions. Talking to your friends or therapist if you have problem, or just writing down how you feel will channel out the feeling…
6. Being a benefit finder (express gratitude, and appreciate what we already have)
Find out what works best in all situations, including the worst situation, and actively (purposefully) find the benefits in every situation and event. Create rituals and keep a gratitude journal. Happiness rarely visits those who frequently complain and are too cynical. Yes, nobody is perfect and everything has two sides, by being a benefit finder you would live a much happier and more peaceful life. Remember that there is always someone living a worse life than you… The happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best out of everything.
7. Simplify your life (do less instead of more, time affluence)
Modern society promotes the notion more is better, or faster is better, which does not really bring happiness. Technology brings us more convenience or efficiency, but less time to enjoy life. Next time when you make a choice on anything from purchasing a cell phone to accepting an invitation to an event, simpler is probably better for your well-being and happiness. Do not live with an overwhelming sense that you are running out of time, doing so makes it impossible to enjoy or dedicate yourself fully to any activities that make you happy.
8. Cultivate relationships
A close intimate relationship is the number one predictor of our well-being; therefore, spending quality time with the important person in your life will make a big difference in your general satisfaction in life, and the feeling of happiness. Cultivating relationships also means investing time and energy for closer and positively-oriented relationships, and let go of the relationship that brings nothing but negativity to your life.
9. Remember the mind-body connection
A healthy mind is based on a healthy body, it can be more difficult to feel happy when you are physically sick, or feel sleepy and stressed. So if you want to keep your mind positive and your spirit up, start with getting an adequate amount of sleep, pay attention to your diet and get regular exercises. The common formula for a happy life includes active exercise, breathing & mindfulness practice (e.g. meditation), good sleep, and human touch (for example, hugs) – these are the key to the mind-body connection.
10. Differentiate yourself (be known)
Open up to knowing and being known, being real and truthful— really know who you are and what your life means. Live the life that matches your values. One good exercise is to write down what you like about yourself, what you value most, and what you are good at, so as to build up a positive and realistic self-esteem.
Most importantly (which becomes tip #11), introduce behavioral change NOW (today) to lead yourself for a happier life — to become a practical idealist and make a difference in your own life. “Be the change you want to see.” Happiness is not a goal in life, but a continuous process starting now. We can always expect to be happier… One of the most recommended actions by Dr. Ben-Shahar, as well as by Dr. Andrew Weil (in his new bookSpontaneous Happiness), is to start writing appreciation journal, or recall three things you enjoyed and appreciated every day before going to bed. By simply asking yourself everyday: “What am I grateful for right now?” “What do I appreciate in my life?” and allowing yourself to really feel that gratitude, you will become at least 25% happier.