Happiness Habits

Meditation & Health No 3 - Table of Contents

Happiness Habits

By Wendy Sterndale

Positive psychology is the scientific study of happiness. Psychologists have generated studies and analyzed the data to learn what people do and think to stay happy, to increase their happiness, and to thrive in spite of negative circumstances. Rigorous academic research gathered over the last half-century has more recently been getting translated for people outside academia. Some habits, when practiced over time, are likely to make you feel happier.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar is an author of internationally best-selling books about happiness and a former Harvard University professor whose classes on the study of positive psychology were among the university’s most popular. Here is Dr. Ben-Shahar’s philosophy in a nutshell: “When you learn how to live for today and for tomorrow at the same time, you learn how to balance your immediate personal needs with long-term goals and enjoy life as you never have before.”

The field of psychology has a long history of studying mental illness with the intention of easing psychological pain. However, researchers were learning all about illness only, and not enough about inner wellness. In the 1940s, psychologists began to study people who thrived in spite of negative circumstances. Those people were observed adapting in positive ways by learning from what doesn’t work, developing their strengths, becoming more involved in their social networks through giving and receiving help, having a role model, and maintaining a bigger life purpose.

Dr. Ben-Shahar described examining the tip of the stem of a growing plant. The part undergoing the most growth is undergoing the most change, biologically and in other ways. He was referring to studying people who thrive and succeed regardless of their circumstances. Sean Achor, who studied with Dr. Ben-Shahar at Harvard, said in a recent TED talk, “If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.”

Martin Seligman, the former head of the American Psychological Association, and Karen Reivich, both researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that smiles are contagious. When you smile, you feel better as certain micro muscles in your face move. When you see someone smile, even if you don’t smile in return, those micro muscles in your face move anyway, and you tend to feel better. If you smile to three people, and each of those three people smile to three other people, and each of those nine people smile to three other people, in twenty cycles, the entire world will be smiling.

Resilience is very important in order for any person to succeed regardless of the circumstances in which they seek that success. Dr. Ben-Shahar describes resilience as consistently having a target within a greater sense of purpose. He noted that people who are the most successful have also failed the most times. Failure can lead to learning and growth when we look back on the failure to learn about what happened, and then make changes based upon what we’ve learned.

Dr. Seligman says, “Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness, therefore, is not about making it to the peak of the mountain, nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain: happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.”

There are financial and professional benefits to increasing happiness as well. People who start out happy, and keep themselves happy, display the following traits according to a study done in 2005 by Sonja Lyubomirsky:

  • Better securing jobs
  • Better keeping jobs
  • Superior productivity
  • More resilient
  • Less burnout
  • Less turnover
  • Greater sales

Taking Action

Dr. Ben-Shahar said, “I don’t believe that things necessarily happen for the best, but I know that some people are able to make the best of things that happen.” He advises making a commitment to do the following things regularly. When you take responsibility in this way, you can rewire your brain to work more optimistically and successfully.

  1. Spend quality time with people you care about and who care about you. This is the number one predictor of happy people. “Time affluence” is time spent sitting down with friends. In this modern world, we often get interrupted by our phones and are accustomed to monitoring electronic devices while socializing. Rather than more, do less. Switch the phone off for three hours when you get home, turn off email for periods of time.
  2. Accept and feel painful emotions. Only psychopaths and the dead do not experience painful emotions. After a tragedy, when we allow ourselves to break down and feel the pain, we are more likely to pull through and begin to experience positive emotions again. Research has shown that the people who do this recover more quickly than people who try to control and suppress difficult feelings.
  3. Regular exercise three times a week, thirty to forty minutes each session. This is equivalent to taking some of the most powerful psychiatric drugs. Researcher Michael Babyak noted, “Exercise teaches the body that it matters.” Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program. And, even though exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression through exercise. Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  4. Express gratitude and appreciation. It is through appreciation that we cultivate resilience. “Appreciate” means to regard highly and to increase in value. People who keep a gratitude journal are happier, physically healthier, and more generous and benevolent.

Try this exercise for two minutes a day, twenty-one days in a row, to create lasting positive change. Keep a journal of three recent things you are grateful for. After twenty-one days, research conducted by Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough in 2003 showed that your brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world for what is positive. Research conducted by Richard B. Slatcher and James W. Pennebaker from the University of Texas showed that the act of journaling allows the brain to relive the positive experience. And research conducted by Sonya Lyubomirsky shows that sending one supportive email each day will send out ripples of happiness through your social group.

  1. Time in quiet reflection. Practice mindfulness meditation. Embrace stillness. An excerpt from a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by David Foster and Matthew Wilson:  Rat brains were scanned while in a maze and after going through the maze. Some rats were sent through a maze repeatedly with no break and compared to rats that were sent through and then given time to reflect before doing it again. The rats that had time to reflect did much better. Actual learning happens afterward, during periods of quiet wakeful reflection.

Quiet reflection is useful from preschool and on into the business world. People need time to think about what they’ve just done, or reflect on a question in their lives. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford University, found that meditation trains the meditator to focus on one thing at a time.

“Doing meditation literally transforms the brain, making us more susceptible to positive emotions and more resilient in the face of painful emotions,” said Dr. Ben-Shahar during a positive psychology class lecture delivered at Harvard in 2006.


If we do not see our strengths and virtues, we are not as likely to experience self-respect, self-confidence and happiness. When we ask ourselves questions about how we can improve, we also need to ask ourselves about what is going well, and about our strengths. We can take responsibility for our happiness by doing things to increase our confidence levels, hope and optimism.


Meditation & Health No 3 - Table of Contents