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If It Makes You Happy, Do It

If It Makes You Happy, Do It: But Think About it First…

If it makes you happy do it? Is this good advice or a potentially harmful over simplification?

In the second of our articles based on Daniel Nettle’s book – Happiness: the Science Behind Your Smile, we discuss three approaches to improving your happiness:

If it makes you happy, do more of it;
Do less of the things that make you unhappy;
Change your view about happiness.

Rather obvious? Well maybe, but only if you think about it first…

If It Makes You Happy, Do More of It

One of the most obvious ways to happiness is to do more of what makes us happy, to tap into our positive emotions. But how many of us routinely stop and think about what that really means? And how often? Nettle proposes a very simple approach, but one we should all find very satisfying.

Pleasant activities training encourages us to determine what activities are pleasant, and then to do them more often!! This may seem obvious but overwork or excessive stress can quickly lead us into narrow, unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Under such circumstances it’s all too easy to forget why we’re working, what makes us happy, or to give up on making time to enjoy these things. In such cases, if it makes you happy, you should definitely do it! You’ll want to compile your own list but Nettle includes such things as:

  • seeing friends;
  • sports;
  • cultural activities;
  • going out;
  • visiting new places.

The art of happiness is to combine those things that make us happier into the fabric of our lives. Just make sure you take time to stop and think about the things that really make you happy, and how your life supports them. Don’t put them off, start factoring them into your routines now! In this sense, if it makes you happy, you really should be doing it.

Of course we can’t overlook the impact work has on our ability to be happy, so be sure to give some thought to making the most of your work situation. Our article on doing what you love has some useful advice in this respect. If it makes you happy, try doing more of it at work!

If you’re thinking this all sounds very hedonistic, it’s also worth noting that Nettle’s summary of the research points towards something more altruistic. Namely that happy people tend to form rich relationships with others, and engage in activities which contribute to society, rather than purely selfish pursuits. As Nettle asserts, the evidence suggests that “people who belong to community organizations, do voluntary work, and have rich social connections are healthier and happier than those who do not.”

Perhaps Handy captured this dichotomy between selfishness and a life of meaning in his discussion on “proper selfishness”:

“the search for ourselves that, paradoxically, we often pursue best through our involvement with others. To be properly selfish is to accept responsibility for making the most of oneself by, ultimately, finding a purpose beyond and bigger than oneself.”

Dealing With Unhappiness

Most positive psychologists now agree that we are all genetically inclined towards a particular level of happiness. However, Nettle agrees with the evidence, that although our genes contribute to our levels of happiness, there is still much within our own control. Of course, the key to this control is to think about what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. So:

If it makes you unhappy – don’t do it!

The key here is trying to understand and then reduce the impact of negative emotion. An excess of negative emotions – fear, worry, sadness, anger – is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. However positive we tend to be in life, if we’re concerned that something has gone wrong, it’s all too easy to fear the worst. This is because negative emotions aren’t simply the opposite of positive emotions. They function essentially as emergency responses in situations which are bad for us.

Whereas positive emotions tend to tag something that’s good for us and say, “keep doing this for the time being”, negative emotions are far more powerful. They relate to our basic survival instincts, thus impelling us in a much more consuming way. It’s our negative emotions that prey on our minds, send us into bouts of stress, fear, worry and worse. In some cases, even groundless fears can become self-fulfilling prophecies, as our constant anxiety makes us more worried, suspicious, paranoid and even hostile. This is the context in which cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) works to reduce negative thoughts or feelings. Therapist and client work to identify patterns of negative thinking, and expose their irrationality. To varying extents, we all experience automatic negative thoughts – recurrent ideas that pop into our heads but with no evident cause. These thoughts may be triggered by external stimuli but made worse by deep-rooted, internal fears. By identifying these thoughts, and discussing their origins and likely impact, we can counter their impact on moods when they arise.

There is some debate about the effectiveness of CBT, but the weight of opinion is that it’s very useful in the treatment of depression, anxiety and associated problems. The strength of CBT is that it doesn’t require us to change anything about our situations – just the way we think about them. CBT doesn’t stop negative feelings arising but stops them becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. It thus reduces the impact of negative emotion.

How can this be applied to everyday situations? Things that worry us at work are often not based on evidence. A useful first step is to write down the negative thoughts, then to summarise what they’re based on. For example, what evidence is there that a feared outcome is likely to happen, or that a difficult situation will get worse? Then ask yourself what steps can be taken to improve the situation based on the evidence?

Reducing the impact of negative emotions is a first step towards being happier. Identifying and dealing with fears before they become crippling, self-fulling prophecies is part of that step. In some situations you don’t have to put yourself in the position where you are unhappy. You can simply do less of what makes you unhappy.

Change Your View of Happiness

The third approach is to think differently about happiness – to change the subject. This approach says that happiness really is a by-product and pursuing it will not help you find it. This is where the idea of the complex self comes in – being involved in several activities strengthens our resilience to stress and depression, and gives us the strength to be happier people. So to be happier we should not pursue happiness, but rather pursue a meaningful life. Perhaps this is what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

If it makes you happy maybe it’s because you aren’t thinking about happiness!

If It Makes You Happy – or Unhappy… Write it Down!

Another interesting point from Nettle’s book relates to the value of writing about ourselves. Over the last two decades, a large body of research indicates that writing regularly has clear benefits on well-being and health. It even makes a measurable difference to the immune function. Writing seems to have its healing effects, whether the experiences written about are negative or positive ones. Apparently, if it makes you happy, write it down!

The value of writing about our experiences can be cathartic or motivational. Try taking any problems, issues or even blessings off your mind by putting them down on paper. Logs, letters, personal diaries, or even blogs are used for this purpose. Or use the physical activity of writing to help you order your thoughts, ideas or plans, ready for action. Seeing these in a written form is also an ideal way to keep you motivated, especially when the work involved may be difficult or lengthy.

Whichever you do, writing may well help you move from thinking about happiness, to beinghappy. So, if it makes you happy, should you do it? Probably yes but sometimes no. Just so long as you’ve thought about it first.

Where to go from here:

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