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Ask 10 people to define happiness and you’re likely to get 10 different answers: money, opportunity, self-confidence, a positive emotion, the list goes on.
Happiness researchers, however, say the answer is pretty simple. Happiness is a state of mind, an ability to focus on the positive, to pay attention to the good things in life.
They’re also pretty sure they know what it’s not: trying to keep up with the Jones’s, always striving for a bigger house, a better job, a more expensive car and never being satisfied with what you’ve got.
The good news is that happiness is attainable with a little work, experts say.
“There are so many strategies that people can use on a daily basis to improve their happiness and positive emotions,” said Sonya Lyubomirsky, a professor in the psychology department of the University of California, Riverside. “I’ve been studying this using randomized controlled experiments.”
What Lyubomirsky has found in her intervention studies is that “with deliberate actions, you choose to become happier.”
Just as you go to the gym to tune up your body, you have to work regularly to keep your brain in a positive mode.
Take one of Lyubomirsky’s recent experiments.
She rounded up 140 people and asked half of them to imagine that they were going to move away in a month. She told them, “live your life like it’s your last month in your current town or city.”
The rest of the study volunteers were told to live their lives as they had been.
All the volunteers were told to write down their daily activities.
You might think that focusing on moving away from home would make people sad. But that’s not how it played out.
“It was amazing,” Lyubomirsky said. “We were testing a counterintuitive idea that focusing on impending losses like leaving your friends and family, leaving your job, might actually make you happier. And that’s exactly what we found.”
In the group that was living as if it was their last month, “they tended to spend time with people or doing activities they thought they would miss and do things they really loved doing,” Lyubomirsky said. “Reading the journals was really fascinating. Some people wrote things like, ‘I went on this hike I love. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it again for a long time, so I did that.’”
Many spent more time with family and friends.
Re-frame your life
What the study showed was that happiness could come from making the time to be with people you care about and doing activities you love.
Most of us are so busy we take those things for granted, Lyubomirsky said. “When you re-frame your life and say ‘this is my last month here,’ it makes you appreciate your surroundings, your family, friends, job, your neighborhood.”
TODAY invited three people — Ally Gray, Grant Silverstein and Liz Lawrence — to try a smaller scale version of Lyubomirsky’s study.
For three days they were asked to chronicle their routines, paying close attention to their perceived levels of happiness. Then on day four, the switch was flipped and they were asked to live the next three days as if it was their last time in their current city.
The exercise got Ally moving. She said “Super excited to challenge myself to enjoy the city and do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but never have.”
For Grant, it meant leaving New York City and visiting family in Arizona. “I’m staying at a beautiful five-star resort, enjoying drinks, time with my family and just enjoying the beautiful state I grew up in,” he said.
And Liz opted to explore Long Island. “I’ve never been clam digging on Long Island before so it should be fun.”
The experiment taught the three something about happiness. “It was more about spending time, quality time, with people who are important to my life than the activities that we did,” Liz said. Grant’s lesson was to “take new experiences as they come. Enjoy life. Live life to the fullest.”
And that means that the three got the right message, Lyubomirsky said, because in the end it’s about savoring the good things in your life.