This is the last posting on the edX online course: The Science of Happiness. As well as providing video clips and written material about happiness, the course provided weekly 'happiness exercises' all based on research linking these practices to greater happiness. They are in keeping with the overall goals and philosophies of the Great Good Science Center:
Here are the do-it-your-self practices or exercises that can help you on your way to greater happiness.
Happiness practice #1: Three good things
To be happier, spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.
Happiness Practice #2: Active listening
One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.
Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness
Do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).
Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving
Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened. Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.
Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing
Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.
Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation
Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. Learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.
Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter
Write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down. This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.
Happiness practice #8: Best possible self
Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings. Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.
Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal
One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time. To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it. This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.
Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter
Think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you. The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter. The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.
Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe
Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.
Activity: Expressive writing
Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings, about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved. This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.
Each individual will have their preferences as to which exercises best suit them, but the suggestion is to try some that may not initially appeal in order to discover the possibilities. For a quick fix: Active listening and Random acts of kindness are good places to start.
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