The study of psychology needs to be about more than mental illness. For years, the focus of psychology and therapy has been on helping people suffering with mental illness, with the goal of bringing those who are below average in happiness and well-being up to the average.
Mind Springs Health
Mind Springs Health columns publish in the Steamboat Today's Yampa Valley Health section. Read more columns here.
This is a great and noble task, but it always seemed to me that there should be more.
It seems that the goal should be to bring everybody up to a new higher average of happiness and well-being. Recently, scientists have pursued this goal. For about 15 years, a group of university scientists have focused on what is being called positive psychology. They are finding great evidence for simple things that people can do to make themselves happier and more productive.
What is the difference between positive psychology and pop psychology, you might ask?
The one major difference is scientific rigor. Researchers such as Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Chris Peterson have led the way in measuring how simple changes in behavior and thinking can change the way we view the world and feel about our place in it.
Certain behaviors when adopted can increase how happy you feel or your overall sense of well-being for extended periods of time. The important point here is that this is not pie-in-the-sky self-help hopefulness. These behaviors have been tested and re-tested and proven to work. They may seem simple and actually are quite simple to do, but that does not mean they do not work.
Here are three you might want to try:
• The first is gratitude. Replicated research has shown that reviewing what you have to be grateful for can increase your feelings of overall satisfaction with life and how happy you feel.
Even prison inmates can improve how positively they see the world or how happy they are by practicing gratitude.
What did these inmates do that you can try? They simply reviewed three things they were grateful for each day. Even more importantly, these changes in attitude still were present six months later.
Practicing gratitude is as simple as writing down three things that you are grateful for each day. The recommendation is that you do this for 21 straight days. The research shows that you will start feeling better about the world and increase the amount of time you focus on positive things.
If you do not want to write them down, just make sure you say three gratitudes to yourself each day. It really is an amazing shift once you have trained your brain to look for the positives in the world.
My wife and I tried a version of this (there is no research behind this technique) to see how it worked for us. We already have a good marriage and get along well, but we decided that each evening, we would tell each other three things that we were grateful for about each other.
So each night, we did three very specific gratitudes. We did not do a well-being test before and after our 21-day experience, but here is what I do know happened to me. I would find myself thinking about my wife during the day and thinking about the real qualities that she gives to our relationship. This sure beats thinking about how stressful my job was or some little thing that I was overreacting to.
Some days, this task was easier than others. But we never failed to give each other the gift of three gratitudes. On the first day, one of my lovely bride‘s gratitudes about me was, “Some days, I don’t feel like pushing you down the stairs." Luckily for her, one of mine was that she makes me laugh.
Each day, we got a little better at giving each other real gifts. The positive effects have continued even though we have stopped actively practicing praise for each other. I do know that we are more complimentary and grateful for the little things we do for each other.
• Giving to others is the second technique. The phrase “it is better to give than to receive” has been around for centuries, but now there is proof that it actually does make the givers feel better about themselves. In fact, the research shows that the happiness of giving is longer lasting and more fulfilling than the happiness of receiving. I know many of you are thinking, "Let me be the test subject for the receiving end," but as for long-lasting feelings of worth and happiness, that would be the wrong choice.
Interestingly, the size or value of the gift makes little or no difference. One of the studies showed that college students that were given $5 and told to give a gift to a complete stranger reported a greater feeling of overall well-being than students who were given $5 and told to spend it on themselves.
Also, these positive feelings had greater staying power than the positive feelings generated by being able to spend $5 on themselves. Interestingly, the most common purchase, whether for themselves or for others, was a cup of coffee. But that is for someone else to study.
Other studies showed that work teams that were given individual bonuses for success in sales or productivity showed little or no change in sales or productivity. But when a few members of the team were given funds and instructed to spend this money on the team, improved sales and productivity showed for all team members.
These results held true across many types of work. One researcher even showed that this same principle worked for, of all things, dodgeball teams. Teams on which players were given money to spend on themselves showed no improvement. Teams that were given money and instructed to spend it on their teammates showed vast improvement and won each of the tournaments studied. There also is research that shows this giving does not have to be tangible giving.
• That brings to the third technique: acts of kindness. Again, researchers have shown that those who volunteer to help others also report greater life satisfaction and overall sense of well-being.
If you are feeling down or blue or are suffering from low self-image, you might want to volunteer your time for someone else or some cause.
It actually has been shown that people who invest part of their time in the voluntary care of others, a family member, friend, organization or perfect strangers live longer and have a lower risk of heart disease.
So next time you have a second, send an email that praises one of your co-workers or give someone a complement or care for a friend or family member. It actually may be you who gets the greatest benefit.
Take a few minutes and practice one or all of these techniques and see how they affect your feelings of happiness or improve your productivity. I know that they have helped mine.
Tom Gangel is the regional director of the rural resort region for Mind Springs Health.