October 8th, 2013

Escape, Exercise, or Appreciate? A Few Shortcuts to Happiness

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One Habit That Will Change Your Life, which I posted during Thanksgiving in 2012, has been shared more times than anything else I have ever written. In that post I described one habit I’ve cultivated, What Went Wells (or WWWs) as described by Martin Seligman in Flourish. This is just one of many behavioral patterns I’ve begun to cultivate in the last couple of years – shortcuts and simple tricks for getting myself out of a funk and leading a more fulfilled life. I create these and practice them, so I thought it useful to share them here. If you missed the bandwagon, take a look at this post, read Flourish and skim the “Shortcuts to Happiness” chapter in Happiness Is A Choice.

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Delight (Photo by Photosightfaces)

Leave It Behind, at Least for a Moment

One quick way I have found to shortcut to comfort and  ease is just to leave behind whatever I was doing discomfort about in the first place. (And it sounds so simple!) Often I have found that when I am unhappy I intentionally stay in the environment in which I began my discomfort in an effort to “solve” the situation now. Instead, practice leaving. Growing up I was taught that “running away” was to show weakness. In my family leaving a difficult conversation was considered bad form. Over the years I’ve changed and now see stepping aside to be a useful step towards resolution. Just as we might give a child a time-out if she is tantruming, try taking a time-out from whatever you are struggling with. This isn’t a permanent solution or resolution to the problem. It isn’t meant to be! But when you return to the challenging situation you will find you are often much happier and better equipped to handle the situation.

Physical Exercise, and Not Just for the Endorphins

This was probably the first shortcut I ever used. Growing up in a family of runners it was taken for granted that we would feel better after exercise. I still do and love to train physically but now also see exercise as a very intentional way of taking my mind off of the things I’m focused on and upset by. I inevitably set myself a goal or have some aspect of the physical training that I am attending to. This allows me to not focus on the topic of my unhappiness. And the endorphins don’t hurt, either.

When I am upset I rarely want to try something brand new. That’s why I keep 3 to 5 different physical activities that I can do as a way to quickly get a bit of exercise in. That might be swinging kettle bells, running, handstands, or dancing. Regardless of what, find a couple of physical activities that you can practice when the going gets tough to get you back on track.

Gratitude May Take Practice

Gratitude is antithetical to unhappiness. As far as I can tell it is literally impossible to be simultaneously unhappy and grateful. That said, for the longest time gratitude was one of my most challenging “shortcuts”. Long haul, more like. I do experience quite profound gratitude but though many people (Kaufman and Seligman, to name just two) report that gratitude is an excellent way to overcome discomfort and dissatisfaction, when I tried I immediately started adding judgment: “I ought to be able to be grateful! What kind of useless idiot am I that I’m not grateful for what I do have right now?” Not the most productive line of reasoning.

What I’ve found to be more successful is patterning my day to remind me of things that I am grateful for. Currently, the first thing I do in the morning is listen to a song which puts me in mind of some of the many amazing things I have in my life. Similarly, before bed I sit and reflect on things about my day that have gone swimmingly. The changes happen subtly but I find that practicing small bits of gratitude regularly make a profound difference.

As an aside: the thing that works best to use gratitude to get out of a single sticky situation is focusing on specifics. When I am upset about something I find it helps me to write down specific things about that upsetting situation that I am grateful for.

Losing a great flatmate? I’m glad I live in San Francisco where there are an abundance of great people looking for a place to live. Challenged by a child with autism? I’m really glad he is here in my office and not running around in the street!

In these situations I think about a single, specific person or instance that I am grateful for. The more specific I get the more effective. I write a paragraph on why I am appreciate of this person or write a list to how many different reasons I have to feel grateful for this person. When I focus on gratitude the unhappiness dissolves. I fundamentally cannot focus on things that I am grateful for and my unhappiness at the same time.

Resources & Recommended Reading

Happiness Is A Choice
Written by Barry Neal Kaufman, co-founder of the Option Institute and the Autism Treatment Center of America, this little book first turned me on to the idea of “shortcuts.” Some of the language is outdated, but the principles and ideology of personal choice and ownership are as relevant as ever. This book is well worth reading even if only for the “Shortcuts to Happiness” chapter.

Flourish
One of the grandfathers of  rats-pressing-levers Behavioral Psychology and former president of the American Psychology Association, Martin Seligman has since turned his attention to what makes healthy people even better. His latest book Flourish depicts in digestible chunks studies that he and his cohorts of students-cum-professors have conducted on personal fulfillment – in schools, business, the military and on what simple tools can be applied to better the lives of regular people. His term “flourish” most accurately describes what I think most people want more of: that illusive combination of happiness, interest in life, satisfaction and excitement. Martin is also an accomplished bridge player and will respond to short emails in between bridge hands!

Stumbling On Happiness
Danny Gilbert is the most entertaining writer whose research I have had the pleasure to read. When it comes to scientistic who manage to communicate complex concepts through humorous analogy, none is better. If only for this reason, Stumbling is worth the read. But Dan provides even more value through sharing his decades-long study into the psychology of cognition, discussing our (lack of) capacity for predicting what we will want in the future, and examining what actually does result in life satisfaction.


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