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How do Happiness and Positivity Do What They Do?

written by Dave Shearon 17 February 2010

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

hotel party guys How do happiness and positivity help create good things in life? How do they “work?”

I mean, really – research has shown that happiness is linked to longer life, better health, more satisfying relationships, and greater success.  (These are averages.  No magic.  Your mileage may differ!)  Happiness defined in its broadest sense can include satisfaction with life, frequent positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and a sense of meaning or purpose.

In this broad sense, happiness contributes to success, but how?  Here are three quick stories from my own life  that have given me a hint how happiness might create  good things in life.  Perhaps you have stories that also illustrate the mechanisms at work.

Woken Up by Family

My younger son came home for Christmas this year. As can be the case with college students, he and some friends came in late one night – or at least late enough that my wife and I were asleep.  And, as can also be the case with college students, they made some noise.  Talking, laughing, a door slammed in the basement, a garage door going up and down a couple of times.  Nothing terribly loud, but enough that it woke me up.  When I woke up, I thought about how glad I was that he was doing well in college, enjoying being home and spending time with good friends. With those thoughts, I smiled and went back to sleep.

Woken Up by a Wedding

That was family; I had a similar experience related to work.  Last July, I was in England helping lead a training program on resilience. My hotel had no air conditioning so I needed to sleep with the window open, which opened onto a courtyard.  One night the hotel hosted a wedding in the courtyard.  The talking and laughing rose from the party late into the night.  I needed to be up early, and this time I thought that the experience could be upsetting. But then I thought about people being with friends, talking and laughing, and a new marriage starting.   I smiled , went off to sleep, and woke up the next morning rested and ready to work.

Woken Up by a Party

happy sleep Finally, a few weeks ago, I was at another training, staying in a small town motel.   On a Thursday night at 3:45 a.m., I was awakened  by the sound of laughing and talking  near my room.  It wasn’t overly loud.  There was no loud music.  Just folks talking and laughing in a manner consistent with a good but controlled party.  This time, it crossed my mind that 3:45 was awfully late for this to be going on. But again, the sound of friendly conversation and laughter struck me as a good thing.  I thought about friends being together and held on to the thought.  Thus I made a choice to favor that thought to thoughts of being trespassed against. I went back to sleep and was rested the next morning.

Small Positive Shifts

Forgiveness happens to be one of my signature strengths.  I am not quick to anger and generally accept a wide range of behaviors without getting offended.  But, I also need a good night’s sleep, and in the past have felt angry in similar situations and the anger has made it difficult to sleep.  But I’ve learned to cultivate greater satisfaction with life, more positive emotions, fewer negative emotions, and a sense of meaning. This enabled me to exercise that strength of forgiveness, roll over, get to sleep, and be ready to go the next day.

How much does that contribute to health, good relationships, or success?  I don’t know, and there is probably little if any way to tell.  But, it is not hard to see how small positive shifts in every day reactions — multiplied over many situations and several years — could result in stronger marriages, better business partnerships, and more effective performance that leads to success.  Could it be that, cumulatively, those small events make for a big difference in our lives?

Each of us  has stories of how happiness has “worked,” helping illuminate seemingly small, but very important, opportunities and achievements we might have otherwise missed. What’s your story?  How has greater positivity or well-being allowed you to rise above things that might have otherwise held you back?



Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.


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WJ 17 February 2010 - 2:49 pm

Dave – you catually don’t have to put a positive spin on it. Mindfulness also improves sleep quality.

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 17 February 2010 - 5:31 pm

Love your stories, Dave!

Interestingly, they all refer to sleeping soundly, and sleep time is also serotonin-replenishment time for the brain. Serotonin helps regulate mood, so there’s actually a physiological link in what you are sharing here!

Something worth sleeping on? 🙂


Denise Quinlan 17 February 2010 - 5:43 pm

lovely article – thanks! I really like the idea of paying attention not just to the positive experiences [the broaden] but also the positive resources [the build] and shifts that we can attribute to happiness. It strikes me as a great ‘happiness hunting’ and benefit-finding exercise.

Jeff 17 February 2010 - 7:10 pm


I’ve got severe sleep apnea. I can attest to the fact that sleeping well is not a luxury. Your brain needs it to function well. Upon waking 9 mornings out of 10 I have a headache. When I’m roused at midnight, I’m not as forgiving as you. My wife says I look like a red-eyed demon and, half-asleep, I hurl obscenities at the trespasser. Usually it is the cat. She likes to walk on people’s faces. The funny thing is that when I wake up in the morning, I can’t remember a thing!

So if being happier/more mindful/exercising strengths helps, I’m willing to try anything.


Dave Shearon 17 February 2010 - 9:13 pm

Hi, Wayne. I know you are a big fan of mindfulness. Have you got any stories of how small effects wrought by positivity, happiness, well-being — whatever broad term one uses — might cause longer life, better health, better relationships, and success?

Dave Shearon 17 February 2010 - 9:14 pm

Hi, Marie-Josee! You’ve written about sleep before, also! Thanks for pointing out the physiological connection.

Dave Shearon 17 February 2010 - 9:21 pm

Denise, you’re right — it is broaden & build, including the physiological! Thanks for pointing that out.

Dave Shearon 17 February 2010 - 9:23 pm

Jeff, the sleep apnea sounds like a tough challenge. I do not function well when I am low on sleep, so I feel for you. I assume you’ve checked it out medically. Best wishes on finding some approaches that let you get a solid night’s sleep!

wayne 18 February 2010 - 1:18 am

Hi Dave, nice to see you practicing PP in your question. Let me ask you a question. What if mindfulness were more powerful than reframing? How would that effect what you do?

Dave Shearon 18 February 2010 - 5:55 am

Wayne, as you and I have discussed by email, I’m convinced by you, Barb Fredrickson, Jonathan Haidt, and others that mindfulness is an important and powerful factor in well-being. It just isn’t the subject of my post.

What I noticed about my experiences was that I really did not have to make an effort to “reframe,” to use the terminology that you suggested. Rather, my view of the situations and reaction to them was relatively easy and natural; it just seemed right. I was aware that I might could have taken a trespass view and been angry, but I really wasn’t and felt no need to go there. Part of the reason why reflecting on these experiences captures my attrention is that I suspect that those who are naturally optimistic, hopeful, happy, and positive sometimes wonder about others why we do the way we do. Reflecting on these experiences helped me to better understand one way in which positivity might lead to the array of better outcomes that seem associated with it. The response that worked better for me seemed more natural, easier, and “right.” To me, this helps explain why the causation arrow appears to run from positivity, happiness, etc. to longer and healthier lives, better relationships, and greater success. Also, my experiences are personal confirmation that working to increase my positivity, optimism, hope, etc. not only feels good, but can also work toward increased overall well-being for me, physically, relationally, and professionally.

WJ 18 February 2010 - 12:58 pm

Dave – I’m glad reframing works for you. It doesn’t for everyone. My experience (both personal and with clients) is that mindfulness is more powerful in times of extreme stress. Reframing is ok for light duty stressors like what you are talking about in the article.

Kristen Hamilton 18 February 2010 - 1:57 pm

Hi Dave – thanks for linking from your Facebook page. I enjoyed reading.

One of the personal compliments I often receive is that I have the ability to see the bright side of anything. Indeed, from being involved in a car accident, remaining calm, and saying, “wow, we’re so lucky that wasn’t worse than it was,” to learning that someone deceived me and being grateful that their true character was revealed, it really is something that I do routinely which contributes to a happier outlook, stronger relationships, and more successful focus.

In my opinion, I think that what it does is eliminate the victim mentality. When we get angry and affronted, we blame others and place ourselves in a reactive, not proactive role. We allow others to determine our mood and, therefore, how we approach the world. An angry person walking through a public area is going to have an entirely different experience as a smiling person doing the same thing. By staying positive, we create happiness, give ourselves power, and almost “will” good things to happen by staying receptive to new opportunities, no matter how subtle.

At least that’s my experience, and I can say that the more I do this, the better my life gets. My only challenges are in situations in which I feel as if I’m restricted from actually altering anything around me because the consequences – like being fired from my job, for instance – are too great. Those require more of a challenge to overcome, but as I think you know about me, I’m not afraid of admitting that the situation isn’t right for me and moving on to something that is more in my power to create good results.

WJ 18 February 2010 - 3:18 pm

Dave, Kristen comments reinforce what I’m suggesting about mindfulness. When things are outside your control then mindfulness is the only way to go

Jeremy McCarthy 19 February 2010 - 10:02 pm

Hi Dave,
I smiled when I read your post because like you, I have forgivenss and mercy as one of my top strengths. I found this highly counter-intuitive since I don’t often find myself performing acts of forgiveness or mercy. My theory is that this strength is also found through “acceptance”. In other words some people simply have a higher threshold before feeling that they have been trespassed against. It is not that they are more forgiving, but less often feel the need to forgive.

Forgiveness and mercy implies making a mental shift along the lines of “reframing”. But if you think of this strength as “acceptance” it may be more like the mindfulness approach that Wayne describes.

James Pawelski wrote a wonderful article on this (which I’m not sure has been published yet) describing the “yielded life” as another pathway to happiness (along with pleasure, engagement and meaning): simply letting things be.

WJ 19 February 2010 - 10:36 pm

Dave – I think Jeremy makes an interesting point when he says “have a higher threshold before feeling they are trespassed against”.

One of the outcomes of meditation is people are more forgiving

Beth 24 February 2010 - 5:47 pm

I have to add my story.

15 years ago I was married to an alcoholic. He would drink heavily every evening and then snore like a bandsaw. It used to wake me up every night and made me very angry. It really disrupted my sleep.

After my divorce I remarried a wonderful man who has severe insomnia. He has a very hard time getting to sleep, but when he does, he also snores heavily. At first I found it annoying, but then a shift occurred. If his snoring woke me up, my thought was be, “Thank goodness he’s sleeping!” And now, it doesn’t wake me up at all.

I should mention that when we wrote our own vows, he promised to make me laugh, and he has lived up to that every day.

Dave Shearon 24 February 2010 - 10:29 pm

Thanks, Beth! Your story is heartwarming!


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