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IMG_5468A small Irish man in tight leather pants with a larger than life persona recently reminded me of the power of “peak experiences.” Those who have had the opportunity to see U2 live would likely agree that Bono has a gift for making performances transcendental. He links songs to current events, humanitarian efforts, and activist causes, literally singing for a mission. This, combined with his outstanding flair for the dramatic, make his concerts emotively powerful, thought-provoking, and truly unique.

Ask anyone what they were doing on September 11th, 2001, and they will describe their experience in vivid detail. While intense unpleasant emotions elicit vivid memories, the same holds true for intense pleasant emotions. Abram Maslow defined “peak experiences” as “moments of highest happiness and fulfillment” where we feel unified with the world around us. Like being in a state of “flow,” we lose track of time and self-consciousness; but peak experiences also include transcendental feelings like awe, amazement, joy, and ebullience.

Peak experiences, like weddings, graduations, and certain concerts, to name a few, provide us with landmarks of positive experiences that we can recall and savor throughout our lives. What defines an event as “peak” is subjective. The importance is not so much what makes an experience a “peak,” rather when and how often we have those experiences.

Some people think it is impossible to pursue or create peak experiences, arguing that they need to happen spontaneously and unexpectedly. I agree to a certain extent. However, many of us know that certain types of experiences will likely bring extreme joy into our lives; therefore, we can prioritize them. I attended the U2 Elevation tour in 2001 and knew, based on my previous experience, that the 2009 concert would be equally amazing. The tight black leather pants did not disappoint!

popup_album“She is totally obsessed with hairballs!” my classmate wrote about me in a middle school graduation yearbook. In reading this, I recalled that I used the term “hairballs” at that time to describe cute boys with long hair. My nicknames included “babbling brook” and “rambler,” despite the fact that I see myself as somewhat reserved as an adult. Perhaps I should call myself a babbler rather than a blogger! I smiled profusely while reading through old journals dating as far back as twenty years ago, recalling the details that bring vivid color to my memories.

While people have kept journals for centuries, science now reveals how and why they benefit humans beyond recording historical facts. Journals provide opportunities to savor past memories. When reading through journals, we reminisce about experiences that brought us joy and even smile sometimes in retrospect about difficult times. Positive Psychologists who study savoring have found that “positive reminiscence,” essentially savoring the past, increases well-being.

In addition to savoring the past, we can also savor the present using mindfulness and gratitude interventions. Being present and grateful in the moment contributes to more positive feelings of enjoyment, contentment, and serenity. Finally, we can even savor future events by daydreaming about them or actively planning for them. Sometimes the anticipation for an upcoming experience is almost just as exciting as the experience itself.

Since savoring the past, present, and future brings bliss into our lives, one way to enhance well-being is by creating a Savor Album. Different than a regular photo album or scrapbook (which generally capture a chronology of events), a Savor Album includes pictures, words, phrases, ticket stubs, or any other items that trigger us to savor past, present, and future experiences. A Savor Album can be created in a traditional hard-copy format or online as a website or blog. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Past: Spend a few hours rummaging through old albums and journals to recall your favorite memories or peak experiences from your past.
  1. Present: Reflect on the types of experiences and things that currently bring you joy, serenity, or contentment. What do you currently feel most grateful for having in your life? When you are feeling stressed, what instantly brings you feelings of peace?
  1. Future: Spend some time writing about your vision for the future. What types of experiences, trips, and people do you envision in your future that excites you?

While reflecting on each of these three savor areas, select an item, picture, word, phrase, et cetera, that reminds you of each experience. Organize your album in the way that makes most sense to you – chronologically, thematically, or otherwise. Then, most importantly, don’t forget to savor your Savor Album regularly!

by Allison Aboud Holzer

LongitudesIn Positive Psychology circles and  discussions about happiness, the topic of gratitude is likely to come up in conversation. While scientists disagree about the ideal dosage and type of gratitude intervention, most agree that some degree of focus on gratitude increases well-being, hope, and positive emotions. Some argue for keeping a gratitude journal, writing 3 things down at the beginning of each day; others believe in writing about grateful things more extensively, but less frequently. Whatever the approach, my Bliss Tip #22 is to Longitude Your Gratitude, and here’s what I mean:

Geographically speaking, longitudes cross all seven continents; and any single longitude spans across hundreds of geographical regions, climates, and countries. Approach gratitude in a similarly global way, considering things you feel grateful for at a micro and macro level. For example, today I feel absolutely grateful for my sweet little Tibbie snoring next to me while I write; I also feel grateful for living in such a warm and inviting local community; and for the many people in our global community dedicated to reducing gas emissions.

Longitudes are spaced at regular intervals; in the same way, express gratitude regularly. Whatever dosage you choose (once a day, once a week, once a month), commit to it by marking in your calendar, Iphone or Facebook events calendar. Tweet your gratitude entries to the world, if that helps you stay committed! According to Harvard Professor  Tal Ben-Shahar (in his book Happier), “they key is, despite the repetition, to keep the emotions fresh; imagine what each item means to you as you write it down, and experience the feelings associated with it.”

Finally, the historical purpose of longitudes (and latitudes, for that matter!) was navigation; they helped lost people find themselves in the world. Whenever you feel lost, turn to gratitude to help you locate yourself and ground yourself within your community, the people you love most, and the things you care about most. Gratitude has the power to help remind us all of where we are and where we belong.

Now, if only I can locate the longitude of that gorgeous Italian Villa in Umbria I’ve been seeing in my dreams… gratitudine del’amore!

by Allison Aboud Holzer

It seems obvious: a Freshman in college is trying to decide between majoring in Econ or Biology and asks current seniors in both majors for their perspectives, right? A couple is cover-mid_tradedeciding between purchasing a home in two different neighborhoods and asks current neighbors in both about how they like the area, right? A career switcher is interested in the biotech and pharma industries and interviews people working in both before deciding which to pursue, right? These are definitely the right ideas, but, unfortunately, few people actually practice them when faced with challenging decisions.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Daniel Gilbert, discusses this dilemma in his book called Stumbling on Happiness, and recently published new research on the topic. Two new studies found that we are much more accurate predicting future happiness about a college major, neighborhood, or job industry, if we simply seek out neighborly advice. Unfortunately, however, few believe this to be true; therefore, few actually do this. Instead, we have a tendency to make decisions based on what we think will make us happy (called “mental simulations” or “forecasting”). The result is frequent inaccuracy about future happiness.

Gilbert’s article quotes the 17th century writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld, who suggested that “Before we set our hearts too much upon anything, let us first examine how happy those are who already possess it.” His research supports this hypothesis, which seems like common sense. So, why don’t we do this?

The simple answer is that we humans like to believe that we are unique. We believe so strongly in individual differences that we discount others’ experiences and expect ours to be different. Gilbert suggests two reasons why others’ experiences are not so different than our own: 1) emotional reactions are instinctual even when specific beliefs and opinions differ (both pro-life and pro-choice people will feel angry when their beliefs are threatened by the passing of a new law), and 2) the people in our social networks tend to share similar values and personality traits. Nevertheless, “when we want to know our emotional futures, it is difficult to believe that a neighbor’s experience can provide greater insight than our own best guess.”

But since seeking neighborly advice is the best way to make a decision, this Bliss Tip asks you to take a leap of faith this year when making big decisions by asking others about their experiences. Not willing to act on faith alone? Try it out with smaller decisions first, like where you’d like to try dinner tonight!

  • Gilbert, D.T., Killingsworth, M.A., Eyre, R.N. & Wilson, T.D. (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science (323), 5921.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

Some people are natural nesters. When we first moved to New Haven, I couldn’t even sleep at night knowing that boxes were left unpacked. My home space is a haven to me and I need to be surrounded by images of people I love and souvenirs from memories I cherish in order to relax. I have a friend from college who, not to make a gender stereotypical comment but, seriously needs a woman’s touch to make his home cozy. Imagine white walls everywhere and just the bare essentials – clean and tidy, but completely impersonal.

A researcher named Barbara Kerr has studied the characteristics of what she defines as “happy homes.” One of her findings is that happy homes have pets, plants, and pictures! Before you jump out of your seat to make a run to your local florist – let me clarify that this finding is a correlation; there is no causal evidence to suggest which comes first, the chicken or the egg. In other words, it’s unclear whether happier people tend to be drawn to pets, plans and pictures; or, whether or not pets, plants, and pictures actually help make people feel happier.

Evidence to the latter is mostly speculative at this point. We know that pets have a positive impact on our moods (see Bliss Tip #1) for multiple reasons. It may be that the act of nurturing and deeply caring for another being, whether a pet or a plant, brings us a sense of fulfillment in our lives.

What about pictures? Well, we can argue that seeing pictures of people we love or other items that spark memories of joyful events encourages us to engage in something called “positive reminiscence.” Simply savoring past positive memories gives us a mood lift.

However, the truth is that pets and plants require a certain level of time commitment and may not be for everyone. So, I will focus on the third point about pictures and personalizing the home. For those of you feeling inspired by this post, here are a few ideas to get you started…

  1. Find and display pictures around of yourself and/or your spouse (or siblings) throughout your childhood, next to one another at around the same age.
  2. Create a Snapfish or Kodak album collage for each year that includes the top 1-3 photos from each major even of the year. Stack them around your house where you (and guests) can easily find them and browse through them.
  3. Collect one item – ticket stub, rock, napkin, be creative! –  from each family vacation that represents the spirit of the trips and display them around the house to savor those memories.
  4. Create and display a family tree! There are many software programs to help do this, or you can make one of your own.
  5. Ask your grandmother or parents for items from their childhood and place them around your home.
  6. Mark your calendar to rotate your pictures at least once a year to keep them fresh.
  7. Place photos of friends and family in unexpected, but visible, places – like inside drawers you open often.

As you get busy personalizing your home, send me your creative new ideas to add to this list!

  • B Kerr and C Chopp – Encyclopedia of Creativity, 1999
  • Robert Biswas-Diener and Ben Dean, Positive Psychology Coaching, 2008

by Allison Aboud Holzer

A recent Op-Ed article in the New York Times argues against the romantic view of creativity as innate and deriving from a “divine spark.” Two recent books, one called The Timagesalent Code by Daniel Coyle and the other called Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin position true creative genius as resulting from hours upon hours of painstaking and focused practice. Approximately 10,000 hours to be exact. That’s about 5 years practicing a full-time 40 hours a week with no vacation. It’s a curious thing to consider.

Part of me wants to believe in that romantic spark of genius that ignited Princeton Professor John Nash’s theory of equilibrium before the age of 25. In a way, it sets these protégées apart as having a unique talent that no plebian could ever aspire to achieve. However, the article argues that what really sets Mozart and Tiger Woods apart is their uncanny ability to focus on their craft for hours upon hours at a time.

There’s a name for this in the social sciences: Flow. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi studies Flow and says that achieving this state of concentration requires an optimal balance of challenge and accomplishment. Mentoring and coaching help achieving a Flow state by providing consistent feedback for development and growth. The ability to get into a state of Flow doing a particular activity really allows a person to gain those 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery.

But, do we need mastery, or even Flow, to feel content? Yes, no, maybe-so, depending on the person. While some people thrive on traditional concepts of achievement and mastery, others seem less concerned, because they don’t see themselves as artistic, scholarly, or athletic.

What if we expand our concept of mastery to include social and relational skills like: providing constructive feedback, expressing gratitude, parenting, managing, loving or jesting? Instead of thinking inside the boundaries of traditional “genius” talents (artistic, intellectual, and athletic), we also include mastery of social, emotional, and relational skills. I think, in this case, we can all develop areas of genius with about 10,000 hours of focused, intentional practice. A minimum of 5 years focused on one particular skill is similar to the process of getting a Ph.D. So, if you could get a Ph.D. in anything – parenting, loving, traveling, cooking… what would it be?

Don’t forget you’ll need to track those 10,000 hours for your dissertation defense.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

I recently dog-sat a puppy Pomeranian named Quincy who illustrated to me what Psychologists call Social Comparison Theory. When Quincy arrived, I immediately gave him a bone to help him feel at ease in my home. My Tibetan spaniel named Stella watched inquisitively and immediately made a move to usurp Quincy’s prized bone. Noticing her jealousy I tried to solve the problem by providing her with another bone of the same kind. I called her over to give her the new bone and she happily began chomping away. Problem solved? Not exactly.

Quincy immediately became obsessed with Stella’s new bone. I tried directing his attention back to the lonely bone he had abandoned. With no success, I finally switched the two bones, giving Quincy the new one and Stella his old one. Problem solved now? Not quite.

At this point, both dogs stared longingly at each other’s bones with perfectly delectable bones sitting right between their paws! A case of “bone envy,” for sure! We humans understand this type of envy all too well.

Psychologists who study Social Comparison Theory look at the adaptive benefits and drawbacks of comparing ourselves to others. Usually, social comparison benefits us, by helping us feel more grateful, hopeful, and optimistic. For example, when we compare ourselves to others we believe to be socially better in some way (called “upward social comparison”), then we affiliate with more intelligent, attractive or successful people. As long as we feel similar enough to them, our association with them makes us more elite, enhancing our self-esteem and well-being. However, when we feel particularly vulnerable or our self-esteem is suffering, upward comparison may actually have a downward spiral effect. Like Quincy and Stella, we look at someone else and feel envy for what they have, while ignoring what is in front of us.

In these instances, a different kind of social comparison might provide just the remedy. By comparing ourselves to those worse off than we are, we enhance our self-esteem and feel more grateful for what we have. A research study on the 1992 summer Olympics looked at the emotional responses of bronze and silver medalists. It found that bronze medalists tended to be happier than silver medalists. The study hypothesized that silver medalists compared themselves upward to the gold medalists in a negative way, focusing on “what might have been”; bronze medalists, on the other hand, focused downward on all the other athletes who would go home that day empty handed, feeling grateful for receiving a medal.

Unlike our furry little friends, we humans can think logically and meta-cognitively. This means we can choose when to bring social comparison to our own awareness for our benefit. Rather than suffering from “bone envy” unnecessarily, we can use our feelings of envy as a clue that we might be comparing ourselves to others in an unproductive way.

When this happens, we can compare downward, recognizing the many ways we are doing okay compared to other less fortunate people in the world. This, in turn, helps us feel more grateful and reflect on what we DO have! While “downward social comparison” and “gratitude” might be tough strategies to sell to Quincy and Stella, we humans don’t have to suffer from “bone envy” every day.

** Medvec, V.H., Madey, S., & Gilovich, T. (1995) When Less is More: Counterfactual Thinking and Satisfaction Among Olympic Medalists. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 603–610.

** Suls, J., Martin, R. & Wheeler, L. (2002). Social Comparison: Why, With Whom, and With What Effect? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11 (5), 159-163.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

I love it when my dog, Stella, ignores me. You see, Stella is a formerly abandoned rescue dog. Her previous owner went to the ER one day and never came home. Stella almost starved to death waiting for her pack leader to return. When we first brought her home, she naturally feared being left behind. Any time we left, we could see the anxiety in her expression. Over the last year, we have worked hard with our Barkbusters trainers on her separation anxiety. And I am proud to say that Stella now ignores us when we come and go – a demonstration of her optimism that we will always return home to her.

Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania first studied optimism by observing the behavior of dogs.[1] His experiments eventually led to the creation of his theory called Learned Optimism.[2] While some people are naturally more optimistic than others, optimism is an attitude that can be learned with practice and dedication.  

According to Seligman, optimists interpret positive events as personal, permanent and pervasive and negative events as impersonal, temporary and specific. An optimist would say:

  • “I got the job because I’m smart and talented (permanent and personal). I will always get the job when I put my mind to it (pervasive)!”
  • OR, “I didn’t get the job because there were many other qualified candidates (impersonal). This wasn’t the right time (temporary) or the right job (specific) for me.”

Contrast that with pessimists who interpret positive and negative events in the opposite way:

  •  “I got lucky this time getting the job (temporary and specific). There must not have been many other candidates applying (impersonal).”
  • OR, “I didn’t get the job. I’m a failure (personal and permanent). I don’t know why anyone would want to hire me (pervasive).”

Try keeping an optimism journal to develop new habits. First, record your thought reactions to positive and negative events in your life for at least two weeks. Second, study your notes and look for areas in your life where you lean more toward pessimism. Finally, challenge yourself to write down optimistic responses to your pessimistic thoughts for two more weeks. Then reflect on what this process was like for you.

It takes a lot of work to develop a new habit of intentional optimism; but new research continues to validate that it’s worth the effort.  A recently published study by University of Pittsburg researcher, Dr. Hilary Tindle, shows that optimistic women not only have fewer incidences of cancer and heart disease, but they are 14% less likely than pessimists to die an early death.[3] Tindle says that optimistic people may be more proactive about their health, have stronger and larger support networks, and/or cope better with stress.

I’m a big believer that old dogs can learn new tricks. If my 5-year-old dog Stella can learn optimism, then we all can!

  1. Seligman, M. (1976). Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105, 3 – 46.
  2. Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books, NY.
  3. Tindle, H.A., Chang, Y., Kuller, L.H. (2008). Optimism, Hostility and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative. American Heart Association, S_1145-S_1146.

 


by Allison Aboud Holzer

I will admit that this next Bliss Tip is not something I have tried myself, but have always wanted to do… take a Volunteercation!

The idea of combining vacation and volunteerism isn’t that new. Aristotle said that being umbria2007-162good or virtuous in a passive way isn’t enough. We must act on or express our virtues in everyday life in order to feel truly happy. While churches and other community organizations have opportunities to volunteer, taking a trip in order to do so offers a unique kind of experience. Traveling provides a chance to bond with family or friends while exploring a new region, culture or language. Volunteering while traveling creates a different kind of intensive experience. Cross Cultural Solutions is one organization that provides week long intensive volunteercations they call Insights. Read the response of one CCS volunteer: “My experience was phenomenal; truly, there are no words that give justice to what I had experienced and how it all changed me! I am sincerely grateful for having had the incredible opportunity to participate in the service projects.”

Research supports volunteering as beneficial to well-being, but only if the intention is genuine. A large-scale study by Hunter showed that elderly volunteers experienced boosts in well-being and decreases in depression symptoms, but not young volunteers. The young people were encouraged to volunteer by parents and teachers as a way to boost their resume while the elderly group volunteered because they genuinely wanted to help others!

If you authentically feel like you want to help others and want to do so as a vacation with family or friends, there are many options to do so. Some organizations like Cross Cultural Solutions and Global Volunteers provide volunteer vacation packages. Or, you can be more creative by setting up your own opportunity. Search volunteer opportunities through Idealist based on location and set up your own experience.

Whatever option you choose, first check your intentions and expectations. If you volunteer for self-serving reasons, your sense of well-being may not gain the same boost as when you volunteer altruistically. In both cases, though, the recipients of your generosity will benefit!

<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>Post, Stephen G. (2005). “Altruism and Happiness: It’s Good to Be Good.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12:2, 66–77.

<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>Hunter, K. I., & Linn, M.W. (1980–1981). International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12, 205–213.

<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J. (2003). “Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups.” Social Science & Medicine, 56, 259–269.

<!–[if !supportLists]–>· <!–[endif]–>Krueger, R. F., Hicks, B. M., & McGue, M. (2001). “Altruism and antisocial behavior: Independent tendencies, unique personality correlates, distinct etiologies.” Psychological Science, 12, 397–402.

by Allison Aboud Holzer

For several years I taught a workshop called “Create Your Own Vision Board” to high school students, advanced adult Fine Art students, and elderly residents at a nursing home.While I approached the workshop from different angles depending on the audience, the overall message was the same: visually representing your goals helps you achieve them.

I’m not talking woo-woo “law of attraction” here. There really is something logical to this. Psychologist Laura King studies the impact of writing about your goals and (what she calls) your “future best self” on well-being. She has found that writing down your goals not only improves the likelihood that you achieve them but also makes you feel happier! To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a study on creating a vision board of your goals using collage, but I suspect that it would benefit you similarly. Why?

<!–[if gte vml 1]> <![endif]–><!–[if !vml]–><!–[endif]–>Whether you are writing about your goals or figuring out the best image to depict them, you untitled-1-copyhave to reflect on them in a detailed and intentional sort of way. This requires you to organize your thoughts about your goals, sparking your sense of commitment to them. A man who attended my workshop at the nursing home loved traveling. While he glued images of old European maps to his vision board, he shared stories with his friends about his travel experiences. Vision boards also give us an opportunity to share with others what we care about most.

Making a vision board does not require any prerequisite artistic skill. Here’s how:

  1. Write down about 1 – 5 goals you will represent on your board.
  2. For two weeks, look for images that inspire you or remind you of these goals. Cut them out of magazines or print from the web. Keep them together in a shoe box.
  3. Materials you need: An ~8”x 10” cardboard piece (cut from a box), glue, your images you collected, and optional colored paper, fabrics or beads.
  4. Create your board on your own or with friends! Spread everything out on a table and create a collage representing your goals with visual images (not words). Have fun!

When you have finished, put your vision board up in your home so you are reminded daily of why these goals are important to you, keeping them close to your mind and heart.

* King, L. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals. Personality and Social Psychology 27, 798 – 807.

Welcome to the Pursuit-of-Happiness.org Bliss Blog!

POH is an organization committed to the pursuit of happiness through education. This blog offers a forum to discuss happiness, positive psychology, fulfillment, and other related topics. While POH has created this forum for community learning and discussion, please note that blog entries reflect the opinions of the individual bloggers and not the POH organization. I invite you to peruse the site and respond with your feedback and insights!

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