Developing Positive Emotional Habits: Improving your Happiness
By Bill Holley MSW, LCSW
Place a pencil in your mouth, with the eraser end lightly between your front teeth, and close your mouth. The muscles used to hold the pencil this way are the same muscles that are used in a frown. Now place the pencil in your mouth sideways, lightly between your teeth. Feel the muscles used to hold the pencil in this manner. These are the ones used to create a smile. Happy people smile.
Smiling benefits not only the person doing it, but also any observer that notices it (Jive Aces, Bring Me Sunshine). Happy people naturally smile more, but they also often make this decision consciously. Obtaining happiness requires active participation. We have more control than we think we do, and often we do not take control. If the only thing we do is wait for happiness to be thrust upon us, then often we are left disappointed.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Weil is an American medical doctor, teacher and writer on holistic health. In his book Spontaneous Happiness, he notes that Swedish people respond to the daily/common question of “How are you today?” by answering “Lagom”. This word has no English equivalent. It means – as I am supposed to feel; what I have expected, and that I am in control and will handle whatever is ahead of me. This is a daily reminder that we are responsible for our own outlook/perspectives. Swedish people usually add a smile of confidence when they say this. It does not matter if they are feeling up, or down, and you may never be able to tell. They are “Lagom”.
Let’s now define happiness better, so we can more clearly understand what we are trying to obtain. It is a feeling, and not a goal. In other words, happiness is a feeling that results from us reaching other attainable and wanted goals in our lives. It is a “by product”, if you will.
Now, let’s take a closer look at happy people and the positive emotional habits that they practice. Here is a short list of some of the behaviors of happy people, along with a short description of each. This may help get us started and guide us in the direction of happiness.
Routines of Happy People
- Happy people affiliate: They cultivate interpersonal connections; meet new people; spend time with current friendships; call and/or write notes to friends and family members routinely – as they recognize that these connections are great resources for happiness.
- Happy people participate in energizing and relaxing habits: They engage in routine exercise and in challenging physical activities; relax through meditation or mindful-thinking (the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment); they employ breathing exercises and work them in to their busy days.
- Happy people have fun: They seek activities they enjoy, and engage in the wonderment of a child’s mind. In other words, they play, recreate, and routinely build time into their schedules for this. They are able to recognize that taking time for them is not selfish, but can be viewed as a selfless act. If you feel better, you can spread good cheer to others (i.e. be a better parent or friend by having more patience when needed).
- Happy people use humor: A lot! Often they will diffuse tense situations with humor, and not respond seriously. They will self-deprecate and look at life with funny lenses that are turned upside down and backwards. This exemplifies the fact that no one is perfect. Now they can accept themselves and other’s faults and short-comings. This results in mental health (and happiness) and keeps disorders (mental illness) at a distance.
- Happy people face and resolve conflicts: They use social intelligence to understand that emotional issues (even disorders) are temporary states, and resolvable. They also understand that they have control over their situations, and “participate in their own rescue,” meaning that they don’t wait for others to solve issues for them. Further, though they may not enjoy the struggle, they know they will benefit and grow stronger from facing their conflicts. They also know that avoiding, running from, and blaming others for their problems leads to unhappy feelings. Ironically, they often find that facing their problems is not as difficult as they thought it to be.
M. Scott Peck, M.D., author of the best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, wrote about facing life’s difficulties. In fact, he began his book with the three word sentence: “Life is difficult.” If you did not close the book after that opening, you would have missed what came immediately after – that was “as soon as you accept this great truth, you transcend it.” Basically, life becomes no longer difficult; rather it becomes a series of plans/strategies to resolve issues, which result in you becoming stronger. Along Scott Peck’s road, we learn a lot about how to face difficulties. Also, we learn that there are people everywhere wanting to help (i.e. friends, family, even strangers, and of course professional help as well). I add here, that ironically, along this tough path – happiness is found everywhere.
Here are some additional suggestions to help develop positive emotional skills, to make the path easier:
Common Behaviors of Happy People:
- Associate with happy/positive people
- Read literature that is positive
- Re-state what they say into more rational terms
- Take responsibility for their actions
- Volunteer their time – routinely
- Mimic behaviors of other positive people (acquaintances/strangers)
- Seek out mentors and ask them questions; then, listen to what they say
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. They don’t give up! They persevere!
Keep Life SIMPLE
Try not to over-complicate your life. Howard Livingston, a song artist living in the Florida Keys, trusted his instincts about leading a happy life. Originally from Marion, Indiana, Livingston moved to Chicago, Illinois when he was 18 years of age, where he studied engineering and launched himself into the business manufacturing world. Twenty two years passed by before Howard “put the brakes on his life” and slowed things down. He simplified his life, and is happier as a result. He moved to the Florida Keys to live a dream that he had always had for himself: being a singer, songwriter, and guitar player in a band. He began a life of simple pleasures and has not looked back. In his blog “Simple Pleasures” he discusses how to find simple pleasure in projects and be productive even during leisure time.
We can learn from happy people like Howard. Most of us may not be able to move to the Florida Keys, but we can possibly visit them. There we could experience the Magic in Key West that he has written and sings about. Or, we might make a trip to other places that we can enjoy away from the stresses encountered in our daily lives.
When we cannot travel, we can visualize these places during “mindful-thinking.” As stated earlier, healthy and happy people routinely take time to appreciate moments with this form of meditation. In an article on Helpguide.org – mindfulness is now being examined scientifically and has been found to be a key element in happiness. It’s a way of “Living in the Moment” and stretching the positive present state of minds, versus focusing on depressing past events, or worrying about future potentially anxious scenarios. Jason Mraz, a well-known musician, has a song that punctuates this very concept. The title is Living in the Moment, and the lyrics are worth noting (i.e. I’m letting go of the thoughts that do not make me strong; I let my past go past). He sings a very “catchy tune” to this one, and the message is very uplifting.
One of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, put it best when he said, “The Constitution only gives you the right to pursue happiness. It is up to you to catch it”. Once you understand the behaviors and routines of happy people, you are better able to start implementing and practicing them in your own life. The first step? It’s as simple as a smile.