Winter can be a time of feeling down for a lot of people. Some of it may have to do with the holidays not having gone the way you expected, and some of it may be the lack of natural light that helps to define winter. Whatever the cause, it doesn’t feel so good. But what can we do to enhance our well-being?
Over the past few decades, psychologists have begun to look more at what makes people happy rather than just the things that make them unhappy and sick. In the old days, psychologists primarily focused on “fixing” broken minds, but now there is new evidence that shows that happiness and well-being are more than just the absence of misery – this new way of looking at things is referred to as “Positive Psychology” (I hope I didn’t just lose you).
Several psychologists have developed a new way of talking about mental health. Instead of trying to change our failings, why don’t we concentrate more on enhancing our strengths? As noted by Martin Seligman, the psychologist regarded as the “father of positive psychology,” treating or even curing mental illness only results in bringing us back to a starting point – zero. But most of us don’t want to be at zero, I would venture to say. Most of us would like to feel greater well-being than just being alive.
Positive Psychology encourages people to not just fix their weaknesses but, rather, to discover what their strengths are and learn to work with them. Relieving misery is not the same as being happy. And life is not all about happiness – it’s more about well-being and flourishing, rather than just plodding along. Well-being, according to Dr. Seligman, is composed of positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Once you have a good idea what your strengths are, you can begin to tweak them to move beyond zero and into the positive numbers.
In several studies by Seligman and others, one of the main factors found to contribute to happiness and well-being is gratitude. Participants in these studies were asked to write about gratitude, either by taking a few moments before going to sleep every night and writing down three good things they felt grateful for, or by writing a testimonial about something someone had done for them for which they were grateful and then reading it to the person. In both of those cases, participants who engaged in the gratefulness writing exercises experienced greater well-being and happiness which lasted for days to a month. They were even found to do more exercise and spend less time visiting their health care providers afterward.
Several studies have also shown that having tons of money doesn’t make one any happier – having enough does, but more than enough can actually make people feel unhappy. Participants in one study were assigned to keep $5 they were given by the researchers to spend on themselves; another group was assigned to spend the money on someone else. When they spent the money on someone else, it brought greater joy to the participants in the sharing group. Another study showed that the participants felt happier when using their time to be more engaged with loved ones and friends than spending extra time at work. Working longer hours may have made them more money, but it didn’t make them any happier in the long run.
People tend to report a greater well-being when they have meaning in their lives – when they use their talents and highest strengths for the greater good. If you can, look at your job as more than a job, for example. Truckers are the people who move goods around from place to place so that we can have what we need. Where would we be if all of the truckers suddenly stopped driving their rigs? You make sure that we are fed, have gas for our cars and clothing to wear. You are a gift to the nation and, indeed, to the world!
So, am I saying that we all need to stop what we are doing and become Mother Theresa? Not at all. But there does seem to be enough scientific information for us to begin to think about making little changes on a regular basis that can make us feel a greater well-being. Why not try some of the things done in the experiments, like writing down what has gone well during the day or things you are grateful for? Try doing something kind for someone else, like leaving a bigger tip for the person who waits on you or stopping to help someone stuck on the road, and see how it makes you feel.
What if you’re not sure what your strengths are? There are actually free questionnaires available online to help you figure that out (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx). It may be worth your while to answer some of these questionnaires, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this. It has long been established that negative emotions harm our health, leading to immune system dysfunction, heart attacks, even cancer. There is quite a bit of science that supports the idea that positive emotion can help us be healthier. What have you got to lose? No one even has to know you’re filling in a questionnaire. And how nice will it be when your family and friends notice that you smile more now and do little kindnesses for them? The world will surely be a better place, especially inside your own heart and mind!