Monday, January 23, 2012

On Happiness

     This morning my daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, one ear bud in, eating breakfast as she glanced through the newspaper. She suddenly declared, "I love having all my music on my phone. This makes me irrationally happy." She turns 15 tomorrow, and yesterday we finally upgraded her phone to a new iPhone. It was long due (well, long due in tech terms), and she is a very responsible tech user. I enjoyed her comment, just as I had enjoyed watching her and her brother come up with ridiculous questions for Siri the day before.

     But those words  irrationally happy keep running through my head. Recently I have been working my way through the latest edition of Harvard Business Review, the cover of which proclaims "The Value of Happiness." I found particularly intriguing the piece by Shawn Achor titled "Positive Intelligence." Achor is a Harvard professor who specializes in the study of happiness. In fact, his courses on finding happiness are among the most popular at Harvard. Ironically they are so oversubscribed that many end up sad because they can't get in the class. (This probably deserves an entire post by itself.)

     Here is the article in a nutshell. We believe that hitting a certain mark of success will lead to happiness, when it actually works the other way around. People who have a positive mindset perform better in the face of challenge. The happiness must come from within, not from without. This also belies the common notion that genetics and environment determine happiness. They have an impact, but three other factors matter more. The habits we cultivate, the way we interact with others, and how we think about stress--these seem to have the closest relationship to happiness. We can train ourselves and our brains to increase our happiness. For example, we almost automatically think of stress as a negative. Certainly it can be, particularly if it becomes overwhelming. But stress also is what spurs us to innovate, to create, to problem solve. Stress motivates.

     Achor says small exercises can form a happiness training regimen. Some of the things he recommends doing on a daily basis include jotting down three things for which you are grateful; writing a positive message of support to someone; meditating for two minutes;exercising for ten minutes; journalling about a meaningful experience in the past 24 hours. People who did these things while participating in study moved their life satisfaction scores from an average of 22.96 to 27.23 on a 35-point scale after four months.

     While Achor focused on a work environment, I think the article and entire issue holds a key reminder for parents. Ask parents what they want most for their kids, and the first response is usually to be happy. I say reminder because Achor doesn't say much that most of us don't already know on some level. But in the hustle and bustle of life, blinded by shiny gadgets and our love for our children, we can forget.

     I want to believe that when my daughter used the words "irrationally happy," it was to some degree because she already grasps these truths. If she doesn't now, I hope that someday she will. Then I can know I've done part of my job as parent. In the meantime, I reveled in the moment. It made me truly happy.

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