The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, once told a cute story of him and his daughter Nicki gardening together:
“She was just five. And I should confess that when I garden, I’m goal-directed, time urgent. Nicki was throwing weeds in the air and dancing around. And I yelled at her.
She came back to me and said, ‘Daddy, do you remember before I was five, I whined all the time, I whined every day? Did you notice that since my fifth birthday I haven’t whined at all?’
I said, ‘Yes, Nicki.’
‘Well, Daddy, that was because on my birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to whine anymore. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being so grumpy.’ ”
It’s important for us to reflect on habits that we don’t need. We all have the tendency to become easily fixated on a certain mentality, lifestyle or emotion. But we often become fixated without realizing it, and this can really create negative impacts on our lives.
We may desire a specific career, appearance, or personal achievement. For instance, I am someone who tends to create high expectations for myself, so it’s easy for me to feel unsatisfied about my efforts and progress on a day to day basis. This feeling of self-doubt creates unnecessary pressure, which can really bring down my level of motivation. Then the whole thing can become a vicious cycle of me being less productive and feeling unhappy about that.
Does this sound like you or someone you know?
The negativity bias is an evolutionary conditioning deeply imprinted in us. It is based on our own experiences that bring up fear or pain, or sometimes passed down to us from people like our parents. It’s important to know that being negative is part of our human design. We are inclined to look for negativity all the time.
So with this understanding, we can remove the self-blame or judgement when we think or behave in a “disappointing way”. It’s not our fault to be inclined to be negative or see the wrongs, but it is up to us to recognize and retrain our fixations on these feelings or behaviors.
It takes intention and practice to identify these fixations on what will go wrong, how something is missing or needs to be different.
To re-evaluate and reset our intention, we can ask ourselves these questions:
- Why am I doing what I am doing? In this moment now? Today? And what about tomorrow?
- In a difficult situation I encounter, how do I respond to it or feel towards it?
- What mentalities do these behaviors and feelings come from?
- Do these mentalities align with the intention to be good to myself? To be good to others?
After re-evaluating our intention, let’s try to remember that in everything we say and do, big or small. I have found this to be extremely impactful personally.
Here is something else that I also want you to consider in this grand scheme of feeling happier.
While being negative is something deeply wired in us, studies suggest that being compassionate is also a human instinct. Compassion is a natural and automatic response that helps with our survival. It not only makes us more attractive to others, it’s actually been proven to make us happier and healthier.
Numbers of research have shown that while giving or doing a compassion gesture, our brain areas associated with positive emotions are activated, so we feel better and happier.
From research on anxiety and depression, we understand that these states are extremely self-focused. Compassion can broaden our perspective beyond ourselves, and this helps with lifting some negative emotions too.
There is this very interesting research by Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson, where they studied people who described themselves as “very happy”, specifically their levels of inflammation at a cellular level.
Inflammation is common for people under a lot of stress. It is also the root of cancer and many diseases. So people who are “happier” should have lower level of inflammation.
Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for specific “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” had high inflammation levels. While people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning had low inflammation levels.
A life of meaning and purpose is a life focused on not so much to satisfy oneself but more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism and deeper purpose.
So it is no longer a surprise when I tell you that happiness does not actually come from accomplishments, relationships, possessions, or any of these extrinsic things. It comes from us not only being good to ourselves, but also being good to others.
My teacher Tara Brach talks about the concept of compassion in this beautiful way,
“Consider how many moments in your life where you felt like the world stops moving so fast. You felt like in that moment, everything is enough, just as it is. No grasping. No clinging.
So savor it and then serve.
And when we serve, it could be with a smile, or with a touch, words, actions, when we express love, there’s something in us that becomes more who we really are.
Have the intention to really brings out the fullness of who we are, to serve each other, to offer each other blessings, wishes of care, to let others know. Sometimes I think the most deep and precious giving that we can offer to each other is to be a mirror of the other’s goodness, to really see who that other is.”
In a world where you can be anything,
Be honest and true to yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others.
And then will you feel happier? You will find out.
Melody Zheng :)
Kornfield and Brach. (2020). Session06–bTranscript [PDF]. Retrieved from https://product.soundstrue.com/power-of-awareness/
Greater Good. Compassionate Mind, Healthy Body. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/compassionate_mind_healthy_body . June 16, 2020
Psychology Today. (2012). The Best Kept Secret to Happiness & Health: Compassion. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201211/the-best-kept-secret-happiness-health-compassion . June 16, 2020