Three things that make you happy

Looking for the good in life has such profound scientifically-proven benefits that one of Team Better’s founders incorporates it into his nighttime routine with his children. Every night before they go to bed, the whole family shares three things that made them happy that day. Seeing friends and playing soccer rank high on the happiness list for the kids, although one of his growing boys just as often names breakfast, lunch and dinner as the three things that made him happiest that day. Looking for things that make us happy results in a bias toward positivity, which pays big dividends in well being.

Chicken v. egg

Which comes first, success or happiness? According to psychologist and best-selling author Shawn Achor, we tend to think of happiness as the prize that comes after success. We’ll be happy once we get recognition at work, giddy when we can afford a bigger house and will float away on a cloud of joy when we lose twenty pounds. Achor says we have it all backwards – if we happen to meet our happiness standard, we tend to raise it to the next level, postponing happiness as each new benchmark is set. (1)

Happiness actually leads to success, rather than the other way around. A review of the literature by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener showed that happy folks are more successful in marriage, friendship, work performance and income, and health. (2) So if happiness comes before success, how do we get happy?

See the good

Achor suggests we “scan for the good” in life and train our brains to be positive. (3) The more positive emotions we feel, the better our brains perform, according to Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research has found that when we experience positive emotions, our attention and thinking broaden, which in turn influences our brains to see more options for action. Those who frequently experience positive emotions may then build on that broad base of attention to develop more problem-solving skills, competence to manage emotions and ability to make more stable relationships. These competencies are causally related to improved well being and happiness. (4)

In other words, when our Team Better founder asks his children to identify things they felt happy about during the day, this does several positive things: 1) it increases the experience of positive emotions (they notice things that make them happy, and revisit them at bedtime), thereby 2) improving performance and broadening their capacity to build competencies in life, and 3) it trains them to look for the good during the day so they have something to report in the evening. The habit of scanning for the good keeps those positive emotions coming.

Build the habit

Seeing the good doesn’t always come easy – we tend to get bogged down in onerous traffic, dreadful politics, shocking natural disasters and the ordinary humdrum of mundane routine. But if we can train the brain to see the good, our happiness (and therefore successes) will increase. Achors suggests finding three things per day for 21 days that make you happy. Be specific (not: “I’m grateful for my family,” but “It makes me happy that my family is so good at laughing together”), and no repeats! Give it a try, and tell us how you did!

More info on seeing the good

Shawn Achor’s popular TED talk
https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en

Barbara Fredrickson on positivity (with video)
http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/are_you_getting_enough_positivity_in_your_diet

Lifehack’s tips to form new habits
http://www.lifehack.org/articles/featured/18-tricks-to-make-new-habits-stick.html

References
Achor S. The Happiness Advantage Action Plan Guide. GoodThink Inc.
Lyubomirsky S, King L, Diener E. The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychol Bull. 2005;131(6):803-55.
Achor S. The happy secret to better work. TED talk filmed May 2011.
Moss S. Broaden and build theory. Sico Tests Website, accessed Oct. 7, 2016.

Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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