“If you’re unhappy, you should change what you’re doing.” ~ Marc Andreessen
Around the same time I worked with a group of university academics. Again the request was to focus on the practical but it turned out to be a very different experience altogether. A vocal few didn’t want to do anything. They didn’t participate in the activities but sat round the room, arms firmly crossed, heels dug in. “Leaving aside the vexed question of whether positive psychology is really science,” wrote one on the feedback sheet, “I simply want to be happy. I don’t want to do happy. To my knowledge ‘happy’ is an adjective which goes with the verb to be, not the verb to do.” Ouch!
The Importance of Doing
According to the late, great Chris Peterson, master of the one-liner, “Happiness is not a spectator sport.” This is one of my all time favorite quotations, so packed with meaning that I use it as often as I can. In just six words Peterson tells us that we cannot truly achieve long-lasting happiness simply by watching from the sidelines. We actually have to get down onto the pitch and participate. Said another way, happiness is not something out there that we’ll find just by looking. It’s dependent on us doing something, on joining in, on trying things out.
The clinicians I spoke to really liked this quotation. “It puts me in control,” said one. “It fits well with CBT,” said another. “Changing how you think and feel just like that is hard, but changing what you do is more likely to change how you think and feel.”
The Importance of Experimenting
Despite the growing popularity of positive psychology and its coverage in the media, many of the people I come across aren’t in the least bit interested in what research says, or what the latest study is about. They want to know what happens in real life. So how do we make sense of positive psychology in these circumstances?
One of the things I try to impress upon the individuals and groups I work with is the need to approach everything you do as a mini experiment. Try it out and see what happens. One size does not fit all. As Sonja Lyubomirsky pointed out, there may be some interventions or techniques or approaches that work well for you and have an immediate and lasting impact on your well-being, whereas others may do nothing at all. You’re not going to know unless you try. For more ideas about how to experiment your way towards greater well-being, check out Kathryn Britton’s article earlier this spring.
So think of yourself as a pioneer and approach the activities you choose to engage in as little scientific experiments in their own right. Simply give them a go and see what happens. If you like, you can measure your well-being before and after, informally on a scale of 1-10 (e.g. answering a question like “How happy do I feel right now?”) or by completing a formal assessment such as the Satisfaction With Life Scale, the Flourishing Scale, or even something detailed and comprehensive like the Warwick and Edinbugh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS).
Even if you choose not to measure your well-being before and after, at least take a little time to reflect on the difference the technique made to you. If it made a difference, how and why? If not, why not? What would you change if you did it again? What happens then?Doing, Waiting, and Thinking
The other reason for encouraging an experimental approach to happiness and well-being is because science can be incredibly slow. If, as many clinical psychologists advise, we wait for new interventions to be validated through quantitative, longitudinal research and published in peer-reviewed journals before we try them, unfortunately some of us may be long gone before that time comes! Waiting really isn’t an option. If you’re not happy now, do something different. Do it now.
I want to leave you with one other of my favorite quotations, this time from the wonderful Jerry Sternin, a passionate advocate of positive deviance to enable social and behavior change:
“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” ~ Jerry Sternin
So don’t sit there too long waiting for happiness to appear, or wondering whether now is the right time to do something. Why not take a different approach? Why not act now and reflect afterwards on whether it worked? If it wasn’t quite right, you can change it, and in the meantime you will have learned something about yourself. This way, you can act your way into a new way of being happy.
Britton, K. (2014). Think of it as an experiment. Positive Psychology News.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. (2008-2012). The Good Life: What makes life worth living. Psychology Today Blog. Most of these are collected in his book below.
Peterson, C. (2013). Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Warwick and Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale
Happy Girl on the Beach courtesy of Emilian Robert Vicol
Professor Chris Peterson at IPPA courtesy of Debbie Swick
Happy mid summer guys in Gotland courtesy of Jens karlsson
AGREE! So much!
Yes, it’s not a spectator sport. And yes, doing is crucial.
And yes, it’s about experiments like Kathryn has said as well.
Right on, Bridget! I’m with Senia. I heard Chris Peterson say that wonderful phrase, “Happiness is not a spectator sport” at a MentorCoach (MCP) conference in Bethesda several years again. Actually we got the double dip as he added his “Other people matter” to his great presentation. I am also happy you reminded us to “Just do it!” per Nike, re: interventions. If it works it works. Science will catch up.
What is fascinating to me know teaching a PP course for MCP is how STORIES act as potent grounding to learn science. Seeing/hearing, feeling an application of PP in action helps cement happy learning.
Big thanks to you and other writers for continuing to make PPND shine a glimmering spotlight on PP.
What a great article, I couldn’t agree more. So often we are advised to change our views, our thoughts, our reflections. But when we change our behaviour we have new insights and then new thoughts easily follow. Doing is so powerful and I love the line ‘Happiness is not a spectator sport’. At Do Something Different we created a programme in which people had to DO a small happiness-related behaviour every day for six weeks. We found it brought about the most amazing transformations, people loved doing it and their physical and mental health scores showed it had also benefitted them enormously. Thank you for such an uplifting and well-informed article and for spreading the word about the power of doing.
Fantastic article Bridget, thanks.
This really hit home for me personally. I’m spending a lot of time thinking and not enough acting. Funny as in the positive psychology sessions I run at work I ask people to take actions each week to improve their happiness! Time to take my own and your advice!
Thanks for your comments. Kathryn’s article earlier this year was spot on (if you’re new to PPND and haven’t read it yet, please do make the time to – see link above). There is so much tied up in the idea of ‘experimenting’ isn’t there – being curious, being mindful, getting out of your comfort zone, adopting a growth mindset, being engaged, avoiding over-thinking…and so on. Peterson summed it all up beautifully.
That’s given me ideas for another article….!
Hi there Judy
Thanks so much for commenting on this – it must great to have that memory of Chris Peterson, and yes the ‘Other People Matter’ phrase is another favourite of mine! He was a genius at communicating ideas.
You’re so right when you say that stories are crucial – in fact we were only talking about this at our Pos Psych Masterclass this week. One of the participants is a counsellor and we spent some time discussing the power of creating ‘positive narratives’.
And having the facts/data/stats/evidence from Pos Psych are essential, of course, but when it comes to communicating them, what better way than through the telling of stories?
Thanks for your comments! I love the idea of your ‘Do Something Different’ programme and I’d be really interested to hear more about it if you have time.
The whole idea of changing our behavior to change our thinking is really fascinating – it shows how closely connected body and mind are. I’m reminded of Kate Hefferon’s book about Pos Psych and the Body; Laughter Yoga (we were lucky enough to have the founder of Laughter Yoga, Dr Kataria in Bristol this week – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvAkyoA7l4U); and Amy Cuddy’s work on posture and body language: http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Lots more food for thought!
How lovely to hear from you again and thanks for taking the time to comment.
I’m really glad you found the article useful! Funnily enough I was in a similar situation myself last week when someone said to me ‘Well you’ve explained what we need to do…May I ask what you are going to do?’ It’s very easy to get into little routines and habits that make one feel comfortable, and doing something or doing something different will probably upset those routines and cause some discomfort. It’s one of the curious paradoxes that greater well-being can result from feeling uncomfortable…
Good luck with your PP sessions at work!
Thanks, Bridget and all. I needed that laughter Yoga today! Right on. Change in perspective can re-boot our stories, too.
Even think something was the end of the world. And someone you love/respect. admire pipes up with a benefit in the BS and you get that eureka AHA moment of clarity, like a fun NCIS slap upside the head? DAH! YES, I say, I MA ABLE and WILLING to see this from another perspective. Goody for me. I get it. Another opportunity to re-frame and play a different acceptance game. Except the “game” is real and you begin to smile in awareness.
Life IS good! That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!
Great discussion here, and I am grateful to you all!
Your mention of Laughter Yoga makes me think of a book that I’m working on a long overdue review for — Laugh Your Way to Happiness: The Science of Laughter for Total Well-Being by Lesley Lyle, a MAPP student at Bucks New University in the UK.
Just mentioning it here in case you’re looking for something to promote your ability to laugh.
Thanks, Kathryn. I follow lovely Leslie Lyle, too. You MAPP folks are an incredible lot, and today, make that a laughter-a-lot. I appreciate the reminder.
Have a terrific weekend.
A great point – I’ve also tried Laughter Yoga and loved it, another fabulous example of how the brain follows the body. Yet with so much training/therapy we expect the body to follow the brain – no wonder a lot of it fails.
You mentioned you’d like to know more about Do Something Different – we’re using it to help people apply what they know, to actually employ the behaviours that are good for them rather than stick to their habitual behavioural patterns. I think of it as bridging the Knowing-Doing gap, training addresses ‘knowing’ but it’s ‘doing’ that makes a difference. And often it’s the micro-behaviours that can bring about positive and lasting change. At Do Something Different we profile people online, then create a programme of Do’s, small behavioural prompts delivered by text/email over a few weeks, gradually expanding their comfort zone and releasing them from habitual behaviours. Many large corporates are using it to embed learning following training, to help people actually apply what they’ve learned in the workplace. We also have a programme with Action for Happiness to help people DO happiness! The results from that are phenomenal. Have a look at http://dsd.me or let me know if you want to try out a programme or even develop one for happiness at work. It can be great fun too, with not quite as much giggling as Laughter Yoga…but almost! Warm wishes, Karen.
Hi again Kathryn
Yes thanks for mentioning Lesley Lyle and her new book which is brilliant.
I’m very proud to say that she is also one of our Positive Psychology Masterclass ‘graduates’! She was so inspired by what pos psych has to offer that she went off to do the full MAPP at New Bucks university. She’s a very talented woman and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from her.
There’s more info about her on her website here:
Thanks for posting the info about Do Something Different – it looks fascinating! I’m reminded of two UK TV series on several years ago. The first was where people where challenged to wear a different outfit everyday to see how it made the feel. The ones the stick in my mind was a woman who had to wear head-to-toe daffodil yellow, and another who had to wear a bridal gown…I guess you don’t go that far..or maybe you do?? I can’t remember what it was called though.
The second is a series called ‘I’ve never seen Star Wars’ in which celebrities were challenged to try out something that is pretty ordinary but which they’d never fancied doing, such as change a baby’s nappy (!) and wear a pair of jeans (!!). You can find further info about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I've_Never_Seen_Star_Wars_(TV_series)
Rich material for us psychologists!
I absolutely agree with the concept that we have to make our own happiness. I think that, it we are going to be happy in life, it is something that we have to seek and create for ourselves. I have found that, after some trial and error, the right mixture of events, actions, and people are what make life enjoyable.
The concept of this article is extremely true. We cannot just BE happy without having to do something about it. Happiness doesn’t just come automatically, but people have to want it enough and create their own happiness. Trying and engaging into something out of your comfort zone can be a rewarding experience, you you’ll never know if you don’t try!
I absolutely agree with the concept that we have to make our own happiness, A great point