Synthesizing "Happy" : Simple Tricks of Positive Psychology that Promise to Maximize Potential

Posted by Brittany Dingler

If you have ever taken Psych 101 or read any recent pop psychology blurbs or articles, you've likely heard of effective but gimmicky tricks. For instance holding a pen with your teeth to trick your brain into generating the positive emotions that typically precede a smile which have the capacity to improve mood, decrease stress levels, etc.  Although these findings are significant in our understanding of how behavior affects emotions, these psychological party tricks also tend to be short-lived (maximum of a few hours) and should, therefore, be reconsidered as supplemental tactics to a more long-term strategy. 

As we have all experienced the elation of getting into Skidmore, one of the most highly selective colleges, this does not ameliorate the attendant stress of excelling here.  We often convince ourselves that we'll be happy as soon as we get through that next paper, test, or presentation.  But many of us are also guilty of perpetually pushing that happiness into the future, creating an unnecessary parallel to the cyclic Sisyphus experience - essentially, we make 'happy' unobtainable.   So why do we do this? It appears as though the hallmark of this cortisol-ridden cycle is our tendency to confuse stress with productivity and, because we've always been taught to perceive stress as toxic, we create two worlds in which stress and happiness are isolated such that both cannot be experienced simultaneously.  This is unfortunate because the combination has actually been found to maximize the beneficial effects of both stress and happiness on our minds and bodies.  This tendency to create a stress/happiness dichotomy is also ironic because, though we are inclined to try to defer happiness until our next task has been completed, recent studies have shown that productivity and creativity actually increase when our happiness quota increases.

So how do we increase our happiness quota? Flow and gratitude.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyia dubs the quintessential example of the profit of coupling stress and happiness as "flow," where one loses him or herself through engagement in activities in which we excel that are difficult.  The difficulty is important because Mihaly finds that by allocating a significant portion of primary mental and physical resources to the task at hand, we lose sight of all of the minor and major negative concerns plaguing our everyday lives.  This form of escape is not effortless,but is most definitely obtainable.  

Shawn Achor, one of today's leading positive psychologists and CEO of Good Think Inc, offers some scientific reasoning for why it is so essential to make happiness an accomplice in achieving our goals rather than merely an eventual end product.  Achor discusses how happiness is one of two primary products of the neurotransmitter dopamine that is released when we are positive.  The second product?  The illumination of all of the brain's "learning centers."  Essentially, by finding positivity now we enable ourselves to be both happier and more successful.  

A primary tool Achor offers to achieve this necessary baseline of positivity is gratitude.  Gratitude is not reserved for the last Thursday of November in which the traditional, grossly broad 'thanks' are cashed in for turkey and pie.  Rather, the idea of gratitude is an exercise that teaches us to manipulate our perceptions such that we bias the ratio of 'good' and 'bad' in the world to tip toward the positive.  How? Achor finds that by taking just two minutes each day to think about three things for which we are grateful, we can "retrain" our brains to view the world through a more positive lens, thereby allowing rates of happiness to increase.  The result? Increased success.  In all, it turns out that deferring happiness is not only unnecessary, it is also counterproductive.  Rather, by upping our happiness quotient using techniques such as gratitude and challenging ourselves through moments of 'flow,' we can do better and feel better now.

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