What’s It Take to Be Happy? Not Much

Tiny feel-good moments add up to overall happiness, research shows.

July 16, 2009

Forget about winning the lottery. It's the little sweet spots in an ordinary day that add up to true happiness.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—If you think your satisfaction with life boosts your positivity, you’ve got it backwards. A 2009 study published in the journal Emotion implies that life satisfaction trickles up from tiny, positive events that occur every day—not down from what you have or what you think you need.


THE DETAILS: Researchers wanted to test a few theories on why people with more positive emotions consider themselves more content with life, and whether their levels of negative emotion had any impact on that. They surveyed 86 college students, who filled out online emotion diaries at the end of every day. At the beginning and end of the study, the students also filled out questionnaires based on life satisfaction and “ego resilience,” a measure of how easily people bounce back from life’s challenges and curveballs.

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The researchers found that experiencing a greater number of positive emotions was a much better predictor of life satisfaction and resilience than having fewer negative emotions. People who were more content weren’t content just because they had fewer bad days. Their satisfaction with life came from being better able to deal with challenges, which itself was influenced by experiencing more positive emotion.

WHAT IT MEANS: Ultimately, the researchers found, positive emotions predict your satisfaction with life, not the other way around. “People have assumed in the past that your feelings of one day are just a reflection of your overall satisfaction with life,” says Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and lead author of the study. “But positive emotions actually build resources that account for life satisfaction,” she says.

Unlike negative emotions, which narrow your thinking and cause you to focus on the immediate problems you’re facing, positive emotions, Fredrickson says, allow you to broaden your horizons, which in turn allows you to discover new resources and connections with people. And the benefit shows up in the long term, as positive moments build on resilience and end up helping people deal with life challenges. All that, she adds, makes for a better life.

So rather than focus on the things you think should improve your quality of life, cultivate the tiniest of moments that make you feel good, says Fredrickson, who is also author of the book Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (Crown, 2009). “Think of it like eating nutrients. One carrot won’t make you healthy,” she says. “It’s eating five to eight servings a day for a long time that does the trick.”

Below are a few ways to start on a more positive path. And tomorrow, check out Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen for some examples of happy “micro-moments,” and to add your own positives to the list.

• Be gracious. “The easiest positive emotion to generate is gratitude,” says Fredrickson. Take a look at your surroundings and try to find one thing in your life that’s a gift, she suggests.

• Be open to the present. “People tend to get preoccupied with how things should be, their expectations of what the future should be, and ruminating about the past,” Fredrickson notes. But being open to what’s going on in the here and now allows you to appreciate the small things, such as enjoying natural beauty, or those random acts of kindness that bumper stickers always advertise. We’re often blinded to those because we’re so focused on why life isn’t going the way we think it should, she adds.

• Don’t force it. “Thinking that ‘I need to be positive’ creates a toxic insincerity,” she advises. You can’t force positive emotions, she says, because it goes against how the brain interprets feelings. “People feel certain things because they interpret their current circumstances in a certain way,” adds Fredrickson. It’s easier to change your circumstances so they’ll lead to positive emotions, rather than trying to force yourself into being positive with slogans or goofy T-shirts. Besides, she adds, “yellow smiley faces just annoy people.” Instead of forcing fake positivity, think about the small things that make you a little bit happy, and build those into your day.

• Do a gut check. How can you be sure you’re getting those daily bits of positive emotion? You’ll feel them in your body as well as your mind; they’re literally gut feelings. Or maybe chest feelings. As much as greeting cards have appropriated the word, Fredrickson says, “heartfelt” is a good description. “Positive emotions are accompanied by feeling like your heart is opening or swelling or expanding in some way,” she says. That’s the signal—emotions should come with bodily sensations.”

• Test your positivity. Fredrickson has made the test used on the students in her study available online at positivityratio.com. Fill it out and see how positive you are (or could become).

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