Acting to Create Happiness

Happiness seems to be a strange concept to contemplate when thinking about leadership.  But it’s not so strange when you look into its benefits – both from an individual and leadership perspective. Consider this:

The King of Bhutan, the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, has decided that the best way to foster economic development in his country is to shift the focus from GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to GDH: Gross Domestic Happiness.

While most people in this tiny country between India and China are subsistence farmers, they enjoy food, shelter and universal health care. They refuse to make money from commercial ventures that could compromise their nation’s health, environment and egalitarian principles.

So, how does an entire country—or even one individual—raise happiness levels?

Many people find this question baffling. We know we must devote considerable time and effort to master a sport, hone our professional skills or successfully rear a child. But when we try to exert control over our emotional or mental lives, we’re frequently stymied.

Is it possible to take specific action steps to become happier? Do we find ourselves pouring effort into improving our circumstances, only to find that we’re not that much happier after all?

With sports, there’s a correlation between practice and mastery. The same could apply to attaining greater happiness.

To become happier, you must apply effort and commitment every day of your life. It’s hard work, but it’s the most rewarding assignment you’ll ever undertake.

Why Work to Be Happy?

Researchers who study happiness have found compelling reasons to achieve it. Happier people are:

  • More sociable
  • More energetic
  • More charitable and cooperative
  • Better liked by others
  • More flexible and innovative
  • More productive at work
  • Better leaders
  • Better negotiators
  • More resilient when faced with hardships
  • Higher earners
  • Physically healthier (stronger immune systems)
  • Likely to live longer

Happiness bolsters self-confidence and self-esteem. We come to believe in ourselves as worthy human beings, deserving of respect — a mindset that facilitates positive behaviors and outcomes.

As we become happier, we benefit not only ourselves, but also our partners, families, communities and society at large.

If you’re unhappy today, you’ll be unhappy tomorrow — unless you take action. While genetic predispositions dictate some of our happiness quotient, each of us is responsible for 40 percent. You can improve your level through intentional activities. As you begin to appreciate how your behaviours affect your emotional and mental states, happiness can literally become a habit.

Thus, it’s possible to remake yourself into a happier person. Happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind — a way to perceive and approach the world. When you choose activities that boost happiness, you’re effectively managing your emotional well-being.

Two Happiness Activities

Recent findings in happiness research reveal that our grandmothers were right all along. It’s important for us to:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Cultivate optimism

When expressing gratitude, you improve positive feelings and behaviours in almost every situation. Gratitude is the antidote to negative emotions, neutralizing anger, envy, avarice, worry and anxiety. It helps stave off the boredom associated with taking things for granted.

Expressions of gratitude are causally linked to mental and physical health rewards. Your goal is to turn gratitude into a habit. Start by regularly writing down gratitude statements and keeping a gratitude list—two activities that greatly improve your chance of adopting this vital habit.

Exercises to Boost Optimism

Cultivating optimism shares similarities with expressing gratitude. Both exercises require you to  focus on the positive aspects of any given situation. Optimistic people celebrate the past and present, while also anticipating a fulfilling future.

Each of us may define optimism a bit differently. You may be optimistic in one context, yet pessimistic in another. Some researchers define optimism as a global expectation of a positive future.

Other experts describe optimism as the way we explain outcomes. When faced with a negative event, a pessimist will view it as internal, permanent and universal (i.e., “This always happens to me; it’s my fault”). In contrast, an optimist attributes the event to something external, transient and specific (i.e., “This isn’t my fault; it’s a temporary glitch”).

Your Best Possible Selves

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky offers the following exercise, called “Your Best Possible Selves,” in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin Books, 2007): For 20 minutes, write a narrative description of your best possible future selves in multiple life domains.

Channeling your thoughts in this direction will boost your mood and motivation. This exercise prompts you to organize, integrate and analyze your thoughts in ways that fantasizing doesn’t allow. Writing about your dreams provides clarity and a renewed sense of control.

If you regularly engage in this activity, you will be more likely to develop optimistic thinking habits. As with sports and career mastery, optimism requires practice and persistence.

Being optimistic involves a choice about how you see the world. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding unfavourable information. Pragmatic optimists are just as likely to be vigilant about risks and threats.

They’re also keenly aware that positive outcomes depend on the wholeheartedness of their efforts. They don’t wait around for good things to happen.

Content provide by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D