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Friday, February 18, 2011

Get Happy

Seek Out Joy in the Small Stuff

The value of taking time to appreciate positive experiences seems obvious—trite, even.

Yet it's a skill that few people have mastered, says Loyola University Chicago social psychologist Fred B. Bryant, PhD. The reason is simple: We're busy, and we have a lot on our minds. There'll always be other sunrises, we say to ourselves, but if we don't hit the shower soon, we'll never beat the traffic to work. Under the weight of our daily responsibilities and worries, we reflexively tune out the fleeting, spontaneous events that could bring us deeper joy and greater health. A substantial body of related research indicates that people with a sunnier outlook about growing older recover more quickly from illness and live longer—7 1/2 years on average, according to a large Yale University study—than people who have bleaker views.

For more than 20 years, Bryant has worked to understand what he terms mindful savoring: the things we think and do to intensify or prolong positive feelings. "We all know people who are like this," Bryant says. "They're the life of the party, and they're the first people you want to turn to when something good happens."

Here’s how to steal their gift: 10 surefire strategies todiscover 

pleasure and satisfaction in everyday moments, even when life is not going your way.

1. Spread your happy thoughts

Let your daughter know how great it feels to spend the day shopping with her. Brag to your spouse about the unexpected compliment your boss paid you.

E-mail your best friend to tell her how fondly you remember the camping trip you took last year, and include a hilarious picture of your attempt to pitch a tent. Sharing happy memories and experiences with others—or even simply anticipating doing so—is one of the most powerful and effective ways to prolong and magnify joy, Bryant's research shows. "It helps sustain emotions that would otherwise fade," he says. Affirming connections with others, he adds, is "the glue that holds people together."

2. Build memories you can savor

Take mental snapshots of memorable moments that you can draw on later.

Recall vivid, specific events, and pinpoint what brought you joy. Do you love your red wool scarf because it's chic and cozy, or because its smell reminds you of your childhood romps in the snow? Interjecting mystery into happy moments—reflecting on what's surprising or hard to understand about them, for example—can strengthen their power. Just be careful not to overanalyze and lose the wonder of the moment. What you want, says University of Virginia social psychologist Timothy D. Wilson, PhD, is to dissect your experiences just enough to appreciate how they've helped form you and then get back to simply living them.

3. Pat yourself on the back

Take pride in a hard-won accomplishment—it’s not something that many people do.

If you spent a year sweating at the gym to reach a fitness goal, bask in your new jeans size—and share your success with others. Self-congratulation doesn't come easily to everyone. "A lot of people have trouble basking in an accomplishment because they feel that they shouldn't toot their own horns or rest on their laurels," Bryant says. It's a fine line between joyous self-congratulation and shameless self-promotion, but don't worry: You'll know if you're crossing it.

4. Fine tune your senses

Here’s an easy trick to hone your tastebuds or follow your nose.

Close your eyes while you roll a square of dark chocolate over your tongue or fill your lungs with salty sea air or eavesdrop on your grandchildren's play and laughter. Shutting out some sensory stimuli while concentrating on others can heighten your enjoyment of positive experiences—particularly those that are short-lived.

5. Compare downward

Comparing upward makes us feel deprived, but comparing downward can heighten enjoyment.

Think about how things could be worse—or how things used to be worse. Keep it light—you don't have to relive a scary health diagnosis or revel in a neighbor's job loss. Simply take note: Is today sunnier than the weather report predicted? Did you finish off that work project more quickly than you 

thought you would?

6. Get absorbed

Some joyful moments seem to call for conscious reflection and dissection.

At other times, we savor best when we simply immerse ourselves in the present moment, without deliberate analysis or judgment. Listen to your favorite music with headphones in a dark room. Lose yourself in a novel you just can’t put down. Set aside enough time on the weekend for your favorite hobby so you can attain a level of absorption known as the "flow" state.

7. Fake it till you make it

Putting on a happy face—even if you don't feel like it—actually induces greater happiness, says Bryant.

So be exuberant. Don't just eat the best peach of the season; luxuriate in every lip-smacking mouthful. Laugh out loud at a funny movie. Smile at yourself when you pass by a mirror. After all, he says, "a surefire way to kill joy is to suppress it."

8. Seize meaningful moments

Some positive events come and go quickly—a surprise toast to your accomplishments at work, your daughter's sweet 16 party.

It seems obvious that the more quickly a positive experience evaporates, the more difficult it is to savor. Yet paradoxically, Bryant has found, reminding ourselves that time is fleeting and joy transitory prompts us to seize positive moments while they last.

9. Avoid glass-half-empty thinking

The world has enough pessimists.

Short circuit negative thoughts that can only dampen enjoyment, such as self recriminations or worries about others' perceptions. When you find yourself awash in happiness, give it space to grow—don't ruminate about why you don't deserve this good thing, what could go wrong, how things could be better. Consciously make the decision to embrace joy.

10. Say thanks more often

Cultivate an "attitude of gratitude," Bryant says.

Pinpoint what you're happy about—a party invitation from a new pal, a seat on a crowded subway—and acknowledge its source. It's not always necessary to outwardly express gratitude, Bryant notes, but saying "thank you" to a friend, a stranger, or the universe deepens our happiness by making us more aware of it. 

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