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1/11/15blog post

5 keys to happiness

I spend a great deal of my time at work around unhappy kids and parents. These are troubled families, grappling with tough issues of bad behavior and uncontrolled emotions. They aspire for the same thing that you and I want.

They are searching for happiness.

However, their pursuit frequently takes them in the wrong directions. They think that happiness comes from acquiring lots of things and achieving noble goals. Science says they are wrong.

Dr. Martin Seligman is the expert on happiness, and his 25 years of research indicates that happiness comes from five different sources.

  1. Positive emotion. This doesn’t mean putting on a happy face and denying the frustrating events that are intrinsic to our lives. Instead, you should strive to balance any negative emotion with three positive feelings every day. The experts recommend the following technique. At the same time every day, perhaps around the dinner table with your kids, identify three positive events from the day. That three to one ratio is critical. Don’t complain that nothing good happened to you today. The key is focused attention on the many small but positive events that enrich our lives.
  2. Engagement. This is all about involvement in activities that requires your energy, creativity, and commitment. When truly engaged, you are doing something that feels right, others acknowledge, and challenges your abilities.
  3. Relationships. Surround yourself with people you care about, and who love you in return. Accept the reality that disagreements and conflicts are inevitable with all relationships. However, loving people celebrate good times rather than lament bad events. This doesn’t mean going out to eat after a good day at work. What’s more important is that you acknowledge another’s accomplishment and verbally relive the event. If your child comes home with a good grade from school, don’t just say “good job.” Ask about the test, and discuss how your child studied for the exam. What you are doing is reinforcing and rehearsing thought and behavior patterns that resulted in positive emotions.
  4. Meaning. Begin with the end in the mind. Seligman recommends that we think about our own death. What do you want to accomplish before you die? What are you doing today to help achieve your long term goals? This exercise adds focus and a sense of urgency to our very short lives.
  5. Achievement. This is about persistence and resiliency, not simply obtaining some goal. Happy people make lots of mistakes but continue when confronted with failure and frustration.

Want to learn more about the science of happiness? Listen to Dr. Seligman’s speech from December of 2012 on TED.com.