“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” – Benjamin Franklin.
We live in one of the only nations in the world who has a founding document (actually, it was the Declaration of Independence) that includes “the pursuit of happiness” as a stated goal of its people. Perhaps only one country, Bhutan, is ahead of the United States with the commitment to “Gross National Happiness” in their actual constitution. While, in America, there may be lingering sentiment from our Protestant forefathers that pleasure is an evil or sin to be avoided, ultimately all human beings want to be happy. Because of this, I believe that not only is it appropriate and effective to actively seek to increase your own positive emotions, but there are three reasons it should be a number one priority in life: our actions affect others; it leads to success at work; and it helps build our resources for the future.
Are you born with a set point for happiness? Is trying to change it as futile as trying to be taller? According to twin studies, “positive affectivity proves heritable…less so than intelligence but to about the same degree as most personality traits” (Finkel & McGue, 1997; Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann, & Livesley, 1998; Tellegen et al., 1988 as cited in Peterson, 2006). Peterson goes on to tell the reader that although intelligence is heritable it still “increases with good health, good nutrition, and educational opportunities” (2006, p. 65). Since this is the case for intelligence, which many deem appropriate to try to increase, I propose that trying to increase our levels of positive emotion is no different.
There are numerous tested and untested ways to increase your positivity ratio (which despite the controversy still stands as a measure for flourishing individuals). There are five empirically tested interventions that are all successful in the short term although results change if measuring after approximately one month’s time. The two following interventions were successful at increasing happiness longer than one month: using signature strengths in a new way and three good things. The gratitude visit caused positive changes for about a month. Finally, identifying signature strengths and you at your best created positive but transient effects on happiness and depression (Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., Peterson, C., 2005).
There are numerous other ways to increase positivity. In her book, Barbara Fredrickson presents more than twelve ways to raise your positivity ratio. She includes a number of ways to decrease the denominator – negativity: disputing negative thinking; develop distractions; break rumination; and to increase the numerator – positivity: day reconstruction method; loving-kindness meditation; the positive portfolio; and cultivate kindness (2009). Christopher Peterson also gives the reader some positive interventions to try: writing your own legacy, have a good day and savoring are among the many in his book (2006). While Karen Reivich’s work has been tested in the area of disputing negative thinking (2002), the majority of the interventions mentioned above still need empirical testing.
I selected three ways to increase my PANAS score the one point I needed to reach the 3:1 ratio noted in Fredrickson’s book (2009). I chose the positive portfolio, metta meditation, and using signature strengths in a new way. First, I chose a positive portfolio of joy. Joy makes me want to move. So I went back to my 12 year-old-self, put a musical on my IPOD and started dancing around my apartment. I was stunned to realize that I could achieve this level 10 of joy whenever I needed or wanted joy in my life. Second, I discovered metta (loving-kindness) meditation is the most effective way to calm my mind. I saw the effects after just one session, and it stayed with me longer than the other attempts I made at increasing my positivity ratio, facts that are substantiated in Fredrickson’s work (2009, p. 167). Lastly, I used one of my signature strengths – kindness and generosity. I sent my father flowers after a risky back surgery this week. I was especially proud because my mother had tried to dissuade me, saying that the surgery was out of town and they wouldn’t be able to take flowers on the plane. After referring back to Barbara Fredrickson’s book I discovered why I felt good: “Intentionally boosting your kindness can increase your positivity” (Lyubomirsky, et al., 2005 as cited in Fredrickson, 2009).
These exercises so affected me that I think there are three reasons they should be a priority for all people. First, we affect others with our emotions. Social contagion theory tells us that “people unconsciously mimic the emotional gestures and facial expressions of those around them” (Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., and Rapson, R.L., 1994 as cited in Fredrickson, 2009). Second, positivity leads to success in the workplace. Managers with greater positivity were found to be more accurate and careful in making decisions and more effective interpersonally (Staw, B.M., Barsade, S.G., 1993 as cited in Fredrickson 2009). They were also found to infect their groups with more positivity which “produces better coordination among team members and reduces the effort needed to get their work done” (Sy, T., Cote, S., and Saavedra, R., 2005 as cited in Fredrickson, 2009). And lastly, positivity helps us to broaden and build our mental, psychological, social and physical resources for the future (Fredrickson, 2009).
Given the recent scientific data on the effects of positive emotion in our lives, it is a wonder why anyone would question attempting to ‘get more of a good thing’. In addition, recent research has also shown that attempts to increase our positive emotions are effective. These attempts positively affect others, our work and our future. I propose that you can ‘catch’ positivity if you employ any of the techniques outlined above. Our founding fathers certainly considered it this nation’s priority.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reivich, K., Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2005) Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60 (5), 410-421.