Monday, August 13, 2007

The How of Happiness

You don't have to change much. Here, surprising ways to feel better every day.

I'm a nonstop happiness seeker. On long drives, I don't ask my husband, "Are we there yet?" I meditate on life and ask myself, "Am I happy yet?"

Here's my happiness inventory: I have a great house, but the toilets gurgle incessantly. My 9-year-old son is adorable, but has nerve-shredding sleep habits. My husband of 21 years is worth at least his weight in Godiva, but I'm pretty sure I see my dry cleaner more often.

My main happiness inhibitor is that if the glass is half full, I often empty it, puncturing good moods by imagining worst-case scenarios. If everything's fine but I have the sniffles, I immediately envision my illness escalating. I picture myself bedridden for days, with my house, son, and husband all hideously neglected.

So do I have a serious shot at becoming happier? Yes, say researchers, who've found new scientific evidence of what really boosts our moods. Here, their best strategies:

Take a Pass on Perfection
When surveyed in the 1970s, most women reported being happier than men. Today, the opposite is true. What gives? One theory is that, over the past few decades, females have gone from holding one job (running the house) to two jobs (working full-time plus handling the housework). And a fast way to trigger unhappiness is bigger to-do lists — not to mention mounting pressure for women who want to do it all.

What's more, striving for an out-of-reach goal (like trying to be a star employee; patient, positive parent; and ever-understanding wife — all at the same time) can backfire if you blame yourself when you fall short, explains Alice Domar, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of the upcoming Be Happy Without Being Perfect.

Striving for constant contentment is equally unrealistic. Domar lays it on the line: "If you think you should feel happy nearly all the time, it's going to make you miserable."

Your strategy: Manage your expectations. A new study led by the University of Virginia looked at how everyday events (both positive and negative) affected people's overall daily satisfaction. Researchers tracked four groups: European Americans, Asian Americans, Japanese, and Koreans. The study showed that European Americans reported feeling happier than the other groups did, but needed double the number of positive events to help them rebound from negative ones. The study authors suspect that a downside of feeling happy most of the time is that you expect to feel that way all the time. So when good things happen, it seems normal, but when bad things happen, it can seem catastrophic.

Find Your Balance
Psychologists generally describe happiness as a sense of well-being or satisfaction with your life. They say there's fun without meaning (think foot massages) and meaning without fun (like 2 a.m. feedings), and happiness comes from some combo of the two. If you consistently choose fun without meaning, you'll likely feel empty inside. But if you too often focus solely on lofty goals, you could wind up depleted and resentful. (Note to self: I will not feel guilty the next time I devote my morning to catching up on episodes of Grey's Anatomy.)

Don't Try to Buy Happiness
Sure, money helps, especially if you start out poor and then do better. But a nationwide study published last year in Social Indicators Research found that those who avidly pursued possessions were less satisfied with their friendships, families, jobs — even their health — than participants who were less materialistic.

Switch Gears
A study at the University of Missouri-Columbia tracked hundreds of subjects who experienced a change in their circumstances (like moving to a nicer place) and in their activities (like pursuing a new hobby). A few months later, those who changed their activities reported more gains in well-being. One possible reason: A shift in circumstances often involves a onetime event, which can fade into the background of our lives, says study author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., who wrote The How of Happiness. Exploring a new interest, on the other hand, is inherently entertaining, and may lead you to discover other activities over time.

Lose Yourself in the Moment
If you're in a bad mood, try to find your "flow." The word describes a "state of effortless concentration and enjoyment," writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., a leading expert in positive psychology, which focuses on increasing one's joys and strengths. For some people, achieving flow means whooshing down a ski slope; for me, it's working my way through a crossword puzzle. What delivers the most happiness: whatever activity energizes you and makes you feel like time is flying by — or even makes you lose track of it.

Source @ MSN

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