“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.