Living in modern society poses some tough challenges. Putting happiness first helps.
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“Can we please show a little more happiness, people? Where are the smiles? Where’s the energy?”
It was the demand of a frazzled volunteer mom in my junior high school production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” She was struggling to assemble twenty 13-year-olds in a dance number. As you can imagine, those of us in the chorus were more interested in chatting about the upcoming sock hop. (Yes – that was many, many years ago.)
Understandably, it was a desperate plea for our attention. But if you remove the desperation, the question is still valid today.
Can we show a little more happiness?
Consider the following news headlines and statistics:
- 70% of workers report burnout at work. That includes high stress, extreme fatigue, and a lack of control.
- 50% of first time marriages end in divorce. The rates for second and third marriages are even higher.
- Depression levels are 10 times higher today than in the 1960s. The average age of onset has declined from 30 to less than 15.
We live in a world that provides more than we need to live our best lives – opportunity, technology, education, medical advancements – and yet we’re struggling more than ever at work and home. I include myself when I say “we.”
How can we struggle less, become happier, and flourish?
Unfortunately, our brains don’t make it easy. Biologically speaking, the brain is wired for negativity. It processes negative events more thoroughly. Negative events and people have greater impact. In other words, bad is stronger than good.
We develop skills and strategies for managing negativity, conflict, and adversity. We gain proficiency in conflict management, difficult conversations, and stress reduction. We need these skills to navigate our daily lives.
But when do we invest in positivity? How many of us intentionally cultivate happiness, which raises outcomes in all important life domains including work, relationships, health, and longevity? We need these skills too. But cultivating genuine happiness isn’t typically taught at school or work or even at home.
Why don’t we cultivate happiness the way we cultivate other important things?
I can think of a few reasons:
- Individual beliefs about happiness. Some of us live under the illusion that reaching a certain destination is the key to our happiness. Others believe that fate, circumstances, or genetics determine happiness. Still others, that volunteer mom perhaps, believe that a forced smile or a temporary burst of energy equals happiness. All of these views are out of synch with the scientific framework for happiness.
- Nature of change. Change is hard. We want things to be distilled into a Top 10 list or a sound byte so we can move on to the next thing on our long “to do” lists. Shifting from negativity to positivity may sound simple, but it’s not always easy.
- Brain science. Most of us don’t study how the brain works, but genuine happiness is all about the brain. The key to becoming happier and flourishing is cultivating positive habits and skills that create new neural pathways and literally re-wire the brain.
- Growing body of knowledge. Positive Psychology is only about a decade old – a “new” field – with a growing body of knowledge and research-based tools. Word hasn’t yet spread to all corners of the earth. That’s where I come in, hopefully with your help.
The plea for happiness is a worthy one. “Showing a little more happiness,” the scientific version, is exactly what’s called for in modern society.
Will you answer the call, and help me spread the word?
With gratitude for putting happiness first,
Baumeister, Roy F., et al (2001). Bad Is Stronger Than Good. Review of General Psychology.
Ben-Shahar, Tal (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, New York: McGraw Hill.
Lyubomirsky, et al (2005). The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead To Success? Psychology Bulletin.