In those 20 years, I read voraciously and wrote prolifically. I tried hobbies, religions, meditation, and brain-wave entrainment. I eliminated everything from my life that was toxic or broken (including my marriage). I identified my passions and practiced mindfulness. I went back to school and got a Masters in Psychology (at age 48) and wrote a book. Am I happy now? I’m definitely happier – but I know there is more to this happiness thing than I thought there was 20 years ago.
What is happiness really anyway?
If we go way way back, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates loosely defined happiness as being lucky and blessed – things bestowed upon us that we have no control over. In the 13th century, the definition began to change when St. Thomas Aquinas suggested that happiness could be had through the “theological virtues” of charity, hope, and faith. Three centuries later, Martin Luther suggested that happiness was not a sin and that Christians should experience the world “as a pleasure garden for the soul.” But it was Thomas Jefferson’s words declaring it a fundamental right with the “pursuit of happiness” that solidified it as something within our reach and control. So over time, the concept of happiness has changed from something outside of our control to something within our control that apparently we should be pursuing until we have it.
When I try explaining what I mean by happiness, I use the big “H” and the small “h” analogy. Small “h” happiness is about moments: moments of laughter with friends, a funny joke, a good book, or the proverbial warm puppy. Even the most miserable of us have moments of happiness. While small h moments are important and pleasant, they don’t necessarily impact the bigger picture. Big H happiness is about a broader sense of well-being. It’s less about laughter and more about meaningfulness, about being a part of something bigger than yourself, making a difference – and at least for me - about loving and feeling loved.
Happiness is such a loosely defined word that scientists, in order to study it, have given it some different terms. Dr. Ed Diener, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, calls it subjective well-being, which he defines as a combination of life satisfaction and having more positive than negative emotions. Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, says it’s a combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California Riverside, considers happiness to be joy, contentment, positive well-being and a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
Before the Positive Psychology scientists started to define, explore, and study it, happiness was long associated with naïve ignorance. Ignorance is bliss and pleasant Pollyanna is naïve. Ignorant, innocent, and naïve people were considered happy because of what they didn’t know. It’s easy to be happy in the absence of the knowledge that the world is a cruel, harsh place. There are two implications to this belief. The first is that once you’re aware of the cruel world, you can’t un-experience it, and therefore can’t be truly happy. The corollary is that those who are happy must be ignorant of reality. Might there be some truth to this age old adage? It seems there is at least some truth to it. A recent study showed that happier people were less accurate in their assessment of specific situations and circumstances (reality). But research has also shown that people who identify themselves as happier are healthier, live longer, have more friends, make more money, have more fulfilling marriages, are more productive, more creative, more generous, and cope better with stress. That’s a trade-off I’d “happily” take.
Luckily for us the scientists who did all this research on happiness didn’t stop at identifying the benefits, but dug into the differences between happy people and the rest of us. What do they do differently, and more importantly, what can we do to become more like them.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley says that the top six habits of happiness worth cultivating are:
Pay Attention – people who are mindful have healthier immune systems, are less hostile and less anxious. This was the subject of my last book, Mind Zones of Thought Awareness.
Keep Friends Close – quality social connections are key to happiness.
Give Thanks – counting blessings and regular expressions of gratitude promote optimism, better health, and greater satisfaction with life.
Drop Grudges – forgiveness improves self-perception, creates positive emotions, and makes us feel closer to others.
Get Moving – exercise increases self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress.
Practice Kindness – this makes us feel good about ourselves and stimulates the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex.
My work on Mind Zones gave me deep knowledge of mindfulness and it’s practice, but what about the other five recommendations? Do they all have the same impact on happiness? Are some better? Do some contribute to happiness more than others?
Digging deeper into the research, I found that paper after paper identified gratitude as the largest contributor to happiness followed closely by kindness and service to others. The authors of these papers were so impacted by the research that they wrote books on them as well.
Dr. Ed Diener wrote Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.
Dr. Martin Seligman wrote Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
Dr. Robert Emmons wrote Gratitude Works: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.
Clearly there is something to the science behind happiness and especially to the gratitude piece. If I wanted to be happier I needed to find a way to use this research to maximize my gratitude and happiness. This is when I came up with the idea for The Gratitude Project: Pursuing Happiness Through the Science of Appreciation.
The idea of The Gratitude Project is to put the science of appreciation to the test in real-life situations while validating its effectiveness through objective, scientific testing.
I will examine the relationship between appreciative gratitude, service, and the value of life by engaging in four stages of activities designed to create more than an attitude of gratitude, but the embodiment of a grateful life.
The four stages of activities, each building on the one that comes before are:
Stage 1: Gratitude journaling.The most common and popular method for enhancing gratitude is gratitude journaling. I will be following the journaling model presented by Dr. Robert Emmons in his book Gratitude Works: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.
Stage 2: Working with the developmentally disadvantaged.
I will work with the developmentally disadvantaged at an equestrian therapy center, gaining a deep appreciation for the good fortune of physical and mental health.
Stage 3: Working with the homeless.
I will work with the homeless and indigent at a rescue mission, providing desperately needed assistance and gaining profound appreciation for social and financial stability.
Stage 4: Working with the terminally ill.
In the fourth and final stage, I will provide comfort and care to the terminally ill at a Hospice Center. By providing service to those whose lives are nearing their end, I hope to enhance my appreciation for the precious gift of life.
Each of the stages is designed to incrementally enhance gratitude and satisfaction with life, while creating a sense of meaning and providing a valuable service to the community.
To objectively measure my progress, I will take a battery of six tests (as a baseline and after each stage) from Dr. Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website to measure the changes across various dimensions of happiness. The six tests are:
1. Authentic Happiness Inventory – measuring overall happiness
2. Fordyce Emotions – measuring current happiness
3. Subjective Happiness – measuring enduring happiness
4. Gratitude – measuring appreciation about the past
5. Meaning in Life – measuring meaningfulness
6. Satisfaction with Life Scale – measuring life satisfaction
Because it‘s important that the testing and analysis be rigorous, psychologists from the Positive Psychology community will be providing analysis and interpretation of the results.
I will be sharing my personal insights, subjective interpretations, and objective test results from the only project of its kind designed to help others, boost gratitude, and supercharge happiness.
The best part of the project is that you can participate and/or observe as it all unfolds since I will be blogging the entire project online. Visit the Gratitude Project at www.happinessgratitude.com, watch the video message and subscribe to the blog. As an added bonus, everyone who subscribes will receive a special code to download a copy of my last book Mind Zones of Thought Awareness FREE.