Can You Really Be Happier in 30 Days?
This post is part of The Mighty’s “My Mighty Month” Challenge. You can learn more about February’s happiness challenge here.
How do you describe happiness? Is it being bubbly all the time or having a constant smile on your face? When researchers look at happiness they look at two different things: a person’s emotional state – do they feel like they are experiencing more positive emotions than negative emotions? – and how they look at their life. So, addressing happiness, or coming up with ways to be happier, means addressing and changing your mindset.
Happiness is a lot like weight, according to Acacia Parks, Ph.D., chief scientist at Happify and associate professor of psychology at Hiram College. Just like some people can eat whatever they want without gaining weight, some people are just naturally happy, while others have to work at it. “If a person is naturally overweight and they exercise on a regular basis, and they eat a reasonable diet – they’re going to offset that weight set point and they’re going to weigh less than that as long as they continue those behaviors,” Parks told The Mighty. “It’s the same with happiness… There is always work that can be done to improve where you are in terms of happiness, but like exercise and diet you can’t just do it for a week and be like ‘OK, I’m done with that.’ As soon as you stop, you go back to where you were.”
One way to build happiness, and the key part of February’s My Mighty Month challenge, is to practice gratitude. A simple way to do this is by keeping a happiness jar. Every night, right before bed, look back on your day and think of three good things that happened that day, write them down and put them in your jar. “At first people will find this to be very hard because people, in general, have this bias towards remembering negative things that happen,” Parks said. “But the more they do it, the more they get in the habit of noticing good things that happen to them and the more they are able to start to correct that bias. So at the end of the day your memory isn’t spoiled by one or two bad things that happened.”
Part of feeling happy has to do with memory, Parks said. “If my memory is bias and all I remember are bad things, I’m more likely to say ‘Wow, my life sucks, my life is stressful, my life is terrible.’ But, if I can remember the good things, I don’t even need to create any more good things, I just need to actually give them credit.” You can also turn this into a social exercise by picking a partner and spending time at the end of every day to each share your three good things.
For those prone to negative thinking, H’Sien Hayward, Ph.D., a Harvard-trained social psychologist, recommends being mindful of your thoughts. If you catch yourself thinking negatively, catch that thought and pay attention to it. Do an evidence-gathering exercise and look for all the reasons why your negative thought is true, as well as evidence that it’s false. Then come up with a new statement that is more accurate. “What we find with most negative thoughts is that they aren’t 100 percent true, even though they feel like it,” Hayward said. “So the trick is to take that thought, like ‘I can’t be happy,’ and make it more true… like ‘I can be happy if I do certain things,’ or ‘I can be happy in different ways.’ And what it does is take the punch or the sting out of negative thinking.”
If you live with depression and want to try and cultivate happiness, Parks, who also lives with a mental illness, recommends trying a gratitude visit — a social exercise which includes writing a letter to someone you are grateful for but haven’t expressed that gratitude to. The key to this exercise is writing a one to two page letter expressing your gratitude in detail, outlining specific situations and the effect that person has had on you – really detailing your gratitude to them. Then, after you’ve written the letter, you read it to them and have a conversation about it.
“One of the things we’ve found over the years is that these activities are most potent among people who are very depressed,” Parks said. “People who are less depressed can use them and benefit, but they have to do them for longer and work harder at it. The people who get the largest and quickest benefits from these activities are people with moderate and beyond depressive symptoms.”
While building happiness can help people with depression, challenging yourself to be happy isn’t the same as addressing your depression head-on. “Your depression is almost irrelevant to [the challenge]. You don’t ever need to talk about or think about your depression in order to do these activities, but paradoxically, your depression [may] fade a little bit as you do them,” Parks said. “It’s not like we’re just taking something that’s for shiny, happy people and throwing it at people with depressive symptoms and saying ‘No, it will be fine.’ If anything, it’s been studied most extensively in people with depressive symptoms… and those people benefit the most.”
For those without depression, who perhaps feel like their chronic illness or disability gets in the way of their happiness, cultivating happiness is a worthwhile exercise for you too. “It takes a large degree of openness to new experiences, said Hayward, who uses a wheelchair after a spinal cord injury. “Becoming paralyzed, at first, felt like 1,000 doors shutting – meaning all of the things I had done as leisure and for happiness were no longer attainable. What I came to find however, is in life, there is actually a million doors and just because 1,000 have shut doesn’t mean all of the other ones aren’t worth exploring.”
So can you be happier in just 30 days? Both Parks and Heyward say yes. Parks usually works with people who do similar activities for six to eight weeks but says 30 days is enough time for people to see a difference and make a decision whether or not they want to continue. “What you put in is what you get out,” Hayward explained. “I think that if people apply themselves, and put in the effort that these practices and ways of looking at the world can become habits. And I’ve found, for myself, when I maintain these practices my mood lifts considerably.”
Going back to the weight loss example, Parks added,“If you do a 30-day weight loss challenge, you’re going to lose some weight, but you’re not going to lose all the weight you’re going to lose.” Happiness works a similar way.