Choosing Happiness

Happiness as a choice? Please, some of us might say. First of all, it’s fleeting. And second, who could be happy with all the crazy things happening in the world? Not to mention the genes I got stuck with, my dysfunctional family, and the rotten divorce I just went through…

We’ve all thought and said these types of things, I’m sure. But I recently heard an amazing CBC radio show that turned these arguments on their head with real scientific data. Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher at Harvard, has discovered that by using short daily exercises, we can actually train our brains to be happier.

Achor, who once struggled with depression himself, has researched how people define happiness. “Our research shows that people think happiness will happen to them when certain things occur—when the weather clears, when they get that degree or that promotion, or when they reach a certain salary level.”

Achor instead defines happiness as the ancient Greeks did: “The joy you feel moving toward your potential.” He says that joy is something you can still feel even when life is not pleasurable. “It’s possible to have high levels of joy without high levels of pleasure, such as in the midst of long run, or a huge work project, or even child birth.”

This definition of happiness as separate from external factors has been validated through Achor’s research. His findings indicate that only 10% of long-term happiness is based on externals such as where you live, how much money you make, if you have kids, or if you are married, whereas a full 90% of long-term happiness is predicted by HOW our brains process the world and the things we experience.

That’s why he’s so fired up about the short daily exercises that are proving we can change the way our brains process the world and therefore increase our levels of happiness.

Are you ready? Brace yourself—these are super simple.

  • Appreciate. Write down three things you’re grateful for (need to be new, recent, and specific).
  • Reflect. Journal about a positive past experience for two minutes.
  • Exercise. Fifteen minutes of cardiovascular activity is equivalent to taking an antidepressant.
  • Breathe. Watch your breath go in and out. Two minutes worth.
  • Pay it forward. Start your day with a positive email or text praising or thanking someone you know. Again, only two minutes!

These exercises actually encourage our brains to get better at looking for the positive in situations. In particular, Achor’s research showed that the last activity, which involved reaching out to others, saw happiness significantly improve, stress levels drop, and social support increase.

And according to Achor, social connection is as predictive of how long you will live as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking! (Stay tuned for my next post, which is all about connection.)

“We fight so hard against the negative in this world,” he says. “But we forget to tell people how important a two-minute positive habit can be.”


Here’s Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk, viewed by nearly 11 million people!


Originally published on my blog “This Sweet World”