If we asked you to list five common emotions, which ones would you name? Happiness would certainly be one of them, so we’ll scratch that one right off the list. Now, you have four left. What are they? Would you name love, excitement, confidence and courage? Or would you name anger, depression, loneliness and fear? Perhaps you might name envy, pity, shame or indignation. In all likelihood, most would be able to name more negative emotions than positive ones. Even Pixar’s Inside Out, an adorable children’s movie about our inner psychology, only contains one positive emotion in a cast of five.
This isn’t as surprising as it should be. Psychologist Shawn Achor, in his TED Talk about motivation and success, talks of his experiences as a student counselor at Harvard. He says:
“These students, no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or their physics. Their brain was focused on the competition, the workload, the hassles, the stresses and complaints.”
Achor notes that many of his friends found his work surprising. They wondered why a Harvard student would ever be unhappy. But as Achor notes, we often assume that a person should experience happiness as a result of external factors. In truth, we largely experience happiness as a result of our own thought processes. Some degree of short-term happiness may be derived through extrinsic rewards, but long-term happiness is a matter of perception.
We’ll post Achor’s video here, and we suggest you watch it in full. He’s a wonderfully gifted, intelligent, and hilarious speaker. Below, we’ll outline five daily tips that Achor suggests for developing long-term happiness. He suggests doing each of these things daily for at least 21 days straight, but we recommend doing them every day that you can. If you keep it up, you will likely begin seeing a major change in your way of thinking long before your first three weeks are up. And given the importance of happiness in maintaining sobriety, you’ll be ever grateful that you gave Achor’s speech a chance.
1. Make A Gratitude List
Achor’s first tip for happiness is to make a daily gratitude list. He only recommends writing as few as three things down, with the stipulation that they be three new things each day. This may sound overwhelming, since he suggests doing this for at least 21 days. That means that, in just three weeks, you must be able to think up 63 unique sources of gratitude. Fortunately, that really isn’t as difficult as it seems. Do you have a large family? Perhaps you have a lot of pets. Do you have a good job, and enough money to keep food in the fridge? Even if you’re grateful for seemingly petty luxuries such as Netflix or the fact that your favorite show is on tonight, that’s fine. What matters is that you’re focusing on the positive things in your life rather than the negative.
At no point does Achor dictate a specific time of day at which you should write your list. Our own two cents? Do it at night. Sometimes, a great day can be ruined by ten seconds of annoyance. We get lots of work done, have some great conversations with friends, have a really enjoyable lunch—and then forget all about it because someone cut us off in traffic on the way home. If you end each day by taking down a short inventory of the reasons you have to be grateful, you can set aside these negative memories and remind yourself that the good outweighed the bad. And on the off-chance your day has been particularly difficult, you’ll need that positive focus more than ever.
2. Keep A Journal
The next tip is to journal about one positive experience you’ve had in the past twenty-four hours. It doesn’t need to be an exceptionally long journal entry, but it couldn’t hurt to be as detailed as possible. Try to write in detail about what happened and how it made you feel. And unlike your gratitude list, try not to include basic descriptions of possessions or people in your life. This isn’t about what you have—it’s about your life experiences and the ways in which they affect your thinking.
As far as when to write these journals, we recommend making it the first thing you do upon waking. We recommend this for three reasons. First of all, people say that reading every morning helps your brain get going. We would argue the same for writing. Waking your brain ensures that you aren’t starting the day in a tired slog. Second, it never hurts to remind yourself each morning that the preceding day had its shining moments. And third, we tried this ourselves and discovered something incredible—with each day, our entries got longer. Not just because we had more to say about them, but because we actually remembered more. As we wrote more journal entries, we found it easier to relive our memories from the day beforehand. This, in and of itself, was cause for much happiness.
3. Get Some Exercise
Achor only devotes one sentence of his speech to exercise, but it’s a very important one.
“Exercise teaches your brain [that] your behavior matters.”
Since he doesn’t explain this, we’re left to reach conclusions on our own regarding just what Achor might mean by his statement. We can reach at least two, the first being that exercise generally yields great mental health benefits. We release serotonin, and often leave the gym feeling better about ourselves. Over time, we also begin to see positive changes in our health and appearance. If we were to view all things in this same manner, we might conclude that all thoughts and emotions are affected by associated behaviors. When we do something negative, do we feel good about ourselves afterward? Likely not, if we have a conscience. Exercising is simply one example of how we might benefit our happiness simply by being good to ourselves.
The second conclusion we might reach will make a lot more sense if you’ve watched Achor’s speech in full. He talks about the manner in which we must reverse our current model of success and motivation. More specifically, he talks about keeping happiness on the other side of success and how this can be quite damaging to our worldview. If we exercise to become fit with the hope that becoming fit will make us happy, we might easily trap ourselves in an unending series of increasingly difficult goals. Upon reaching one goal, we decide we must reach another in order to increase our happiness even further. Instead of focusing on the goals, simply focus on the behavior itself. Allow the sheer act of exercising to fuel your happiness, rather than making your happiness dependent on the long-term changes to your appearance.
The above conclusions go hand-in-hand. Embrace both, and you will learn to derive happiness from your actions themselves rather than the rewards you reap from performing them. Whether you prefer to exercise in the morning, at night, or both, including at least thirty to sixty minutes of physical activity in your daily regimen should have great effects on your happiness in the long run.
4. Try Meditating
As far as meditation is concerned, Achor notes that today’s culture is somewhat lacking in focus. He certainly has a point. If we weren’t so distracted, the slang acronym “NSFW” would not exist. Watching videos on YouTube and reading random internet articles should never be considered “safe for work.” In fact, a fair number of employers would simply call it “slacking off.” This may provide some brief amusement, but a lack of purpose and productivity does little to improve our long-term happiness.
In this “TL;DR” society, we need to spend at least a few minutes each day focusing our minds. Meditation will help us do that. In the past, we’ve talked about both sitting and walking meditations. You might also simply lie down and try to clear your mind—without falling asleep, of course. There are tons of books out there that are completely chock-full of daily meditations if you wish to guide your thoughts in a specific direction. But frankly, learning to simply tune out distractions for a few minutes a day will take you pretty far on its own. Even if you forgo meditation in favor of a mindless activity such as coloring books or woodworking, you will go a long way toward improving your focus. Your main goal here is simply to filter out random and distracting thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less.
5. Random Acts of Kindness = Happiness
Achor refers to random acts of kindness as “conscious” acts of kindness in his speech. The implication of “conscious” is that we should be going out of our way to do something nice for somebody else. In other words, picking up something that a stranger dropped may be nice, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill. The implication of “random” is that our act of kindness should be more than our regular service work commitments. It is something that we decide to do either in the moment or on the day. The example that Achor provides is sending an email or Facebook message to someone we know, telling them how much we care about and appreciate them.
This is a nice idea, and definitely the easiest way of performing your random acts of kindness during the first 21 days that Achor suggests. That said, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Take the Secret Society of Serendipitous Service to Hal as an example. This is an anonymous society of people who practice what they call “ego-free compassion.” They do good deeds for friends or even total strangers without expecting recognition. There is an entire page of good deed ideas on the website linked above, so don’t feel afraid to take some of their suggestions.
When we give to others, we give to ourselves. Each of the other four suggestions provided by Achor involve ways of increasing our happiness by focusing on ourselves. By following this last suggestion, we may increase our happiness by focusing on others. A little bit of compassion never hurt anyone. Find yours, and you can experience true, long-term happiness without having to fake it through the use of drugs and alcohol.