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For a truly happy New Year, cultivate sustainable happiness

As the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve, revelers around the world said goodbye to 2012 and looked forward to the hope and possibilities of a new year. To gain some insight into how to truly make 2013 happier, I contacted clinical psychologist Laura Delizonna, PhD, about science-based methods to enhance happiness.

Delizonna is currently teaching a four-course series on the topic for the Stanford Continuing Studies program. Her latest class focuses on building the fundamental internal skills for happiness and success. As she explains in the following Q&A, sustainable happiness is a cause, not merely a consequence, of success and it's based on a skill set that can be learned.

What is sustainable happiness?

Sustainable happiness is having a global and profound sense that life is meaningful, joyful, vibrant and satisfying. This type of happiness is more like contentment.

People often confuse sustainable happiness with cheerfulness. While positive emotions are aspects of happiness, true happiness is more authentic and complex than fleeting pleasure. It requires experiencing the full range of emotion in life, which inevitably includes moments of anger, disappointment, sadness and other negative emotions. These are natural and can be useful reactions. Negative emotions alert us to problems or dangers, helping us effectively navigate life circumstances. A major difference between happy people and their less happy counterparts is that happy people use negative emotions to help them find their way back to what's positive and possible.

How have recent discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and psychology changed our understanding of the causes of happiness?

We now know that there is a genetic set point when it comes to happiness. Most agree it accounts for about 50 percent of one’s happiness level. No matter one’s set point; however, happiness can be increased. A major breakthrough in positive psychology is the discovery that our perceptions and interpretations of circumstances influence our happiness more than the circumstances themselves. Therefore, we create our experiences. The seeds of happiness can be cultivated by building our ability to intentionally and skillfully create our experiences. As with any skill set, this ability can be improved through repeated and deliberate practice.

Neuroplasticity studies show us that our brains are much more malleable than previously understood. Donald Hebb famously posited (subscription required)  in 1949, that “neurons that fire together wire together.” We are constantly forming new associations, and we observe this in the brain when neurons form interconnections based on simultaneous firing over a period of time. Over sixty years later, we are only beginning to understand the astounding potential we have to sculpt our neural circuitry by directing attention, and this likely to have great implications for happiness.

What are some examples of science-based methods to increase happiness?

Research shows that the simple process of writing down or discussing the positive events that happen each day can provide a significant happiness boost. In these studies, people who recorded three good things that happened each day for one week had higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression.

It is thought that this technique trains the mind to scan for what is right, not wrong, in life. When clients I work with use this technique, they typically describe several benefits, including getting more out of positive situations, appreciating events, and noticing the good even on difficult days. Try "The Three W's yourself:

Ask yourself, “What Went Well today? And “What was my role in creating it?”

Another key practice is savoring. Savoring is pausing to notice, consider, feel and expand the positive circumstances and experiences that occur. Savor by pausing to relish, to soak in pleasant events as they occur. This “turns up the volume” on fleeting positive events transforming them into more enduring positive experiences.

These are two powerful techniques because they build habits that reliably create positive emotions, are quick and simple and require only a shift in focus - no external change is required.

How do emotional and social intelligence relate to the process of enhancing sustainable happiness?

Emotional and social intelligence are the core competencies underlying happiness. Moment-by-moment we create sustainable happiness with our thoughts, words, actions and deeds. The key to sustainable happiness is being able to choose responses that are conducive to happiness. This ability emerges from a larger skill set of emotional and social intelligence, which is the ability to monitor and manage our own and others’ emotional states and actions. High levels of emotional and social intelligence equip and empower us to create possibility and positivity.

The last course in the series looks at applying positive psychology research findings in the workplace. How do the tools used to build sustainable happiness in our personal lives differ from the techniques used in the workplace?

The general skill sets are the same across contexts, whether it be work, family or intimate relationships. The techniques and applications are modified, however, to target the challenges and objectives of the workplace. In my programs, techniques are developed to create upward spirals of positivity. In the workplace, this often requires tools that build optimism and resiliency, collaboration and team work, energy management and leveraging individual and team core strengths.

Previously: Study suggests specific gene may influence happiness among women, TED Talk with Laura Carstensen shows older adults have an edge on happiness, Study suggests social systems and environment are more important than money in determining happiness, Study advises prioritizing personal relationships over work success to boost happiness and How social ties can influence our health, happiness
Photo by Cliff Muller

From Dec. 24 to Jan. 7, Scope will be on a limited holiday publishing schedule. During that time, it may also take longer than usual for comments to be approved.

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