Written by Dr. Sherry Skyler Kelly and narrated by Aria Edwards
Can we code our minds for greater happiness? Yes, we can! Happiness is cultivated from decision to view our world and respond to it with a positive perspective. The belief that you have control over responses and the desire to feel self-efficacy in your life, is one of the first steps on the path of greater happiness. Let’s start the journey together with this Coding for Happiness Toolbelt.
Step One: Coding for A Happy Choice
- What does “Happiness” mean to you? Most of us have been influenced by our cultures, the media, and societal norms to perceive happiness in different ways. Think of how each of these factors may have influenced your perception of happiness. What do you believe is true happiness for yourself? Ask yourself, “Do I deserve to be happy?” What is your answer? For many people, happiness is a goal. For others, happiness is a reward for hard work and achievement. Research has shown that being happy and positive is actually a determining factor of success – not the other way around.
- Explore if you are ready for a conscious choice to generate greater happiness in your life. Examine your motivation for starting a new journey toward happiness. What brought you here to this point of seeking different outcomes? What have you noticed that doesn’t work? Are there patterns of when your life works better? What are those patterns or factors that foster positive outcomes?
- Reflect on your expectations about what happiness would mean to you. What do you hope will happen in your life if you are happier and more positive? What are your expectations about changing thought and behavior patterns?
- Understand the importance of cognitively reframing events or thoughts to promote resiliency and coping (more on that, later).
Step Two: Coding for Hopefulness & Optimistic Mindset
- Are you mindful of your mindset? Are you someone that perceives events as “all or nothing”? Can you find the pebble of positivity in even disappointing outcomes? Is your mindset tilted toward pessimism or optimism? Dr Martin Seligman, the pioneer of Positive Psychology, has published extensive research on the power of optimism. He believed that optimism can be learned. “Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism” – Martin Seligman. If you too often blame yourself for setbacks or disappointments, it is training your mind to be pessimistic. Optimism is not only reinterpreting what happened. It is cultivated by feelings of self-efficacy and positive future expectations.
- A brief word about toxic positivity. We feel and we hurt. Optimism is not pretending feelings don’t exist. Optimism is not being in denial of feelings, minimizing, or invalidating negative emotions. Rather, the point is to manage emotions more effectively. The next time a negative emotion and resulting reaction is about to surface, take a pause. Observe your feelings and the physical reaction in your body. Breathe for at least 15 seconds. Are you making the emotions worse by blaming yourself or others? Can you think of a more positive way of responding, rather than reacting?
- Realize that emotions are like an alarm system. Ask yourself, “What are these emotions trying to tell me?”
- Examine your self-perception biases. Is self-blame your default mode? Has being negative or blaming yourself for results led you to an unhealthy life narrative? When we blame ourselves, it’s often an easy rationale for understanding why bad things happened or a way to “make sense” of our lives – even if it’s not true.
- Try this first reframing exercise by writing down this question in a journal: “I have become ___________because of__________”. It may feel uncomfortable, yet it is also a step toward change. Next, ask yourself this question and write it down – “ The lessons I learned and the self-discovery I gained from those experiences were______________”.
- “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones” – Dr Rick Hanson, Positive Psychologist. In my course “Coding for Positivity”, I review the bio-evolutionary reasons why we have a negativity bias. One important reason is for survival. We are tuned into possible threats – even emotional ones. Can we train ourselves to be more tuned into the positive? Yes, but it takes a conscious commitment and practice. You can start by preparing for positivity, by anticipating situations and how you will choose to respond.
Step Three: Learn What Happy People Do
- Happy people tend to be cognitively and emotionally flexible. They are adaptable to situations and not “fixed” in their mindset. You may have heard of Dr Carol Dweck’s important research on the “Growth Mindset”. Dr Dweck found that people are a combination of both a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset. According to Dr. Dweck, “Your view of yourself can determine everything. If you believe that your qualities are unchangeable – the fixed mindset – you will want to prove yourself correct over and over rather than learning from your mistakes.” People with a growth mindset don’t let set-backs or failures define who they are.
- Catch yourself in the Fixed Mindset, Pessimistic and Negativity Bias trap. Become aware and be on the lookout for negative thought patterns. How might you respond differently? Stop yourself from thinking in absolutes, such as “Things never work out” or “I am always passed over for recognition”. Then ask yourself this question, “Is there a time when this isn’t true?” and “Can I recall a time when I didn’t experience this problem or disappointment?”. This is also a good time to examine what your expectations were for the situation or event. Often times happiness vs unhappiness will be influenced by expectations and if they were in line with the reality of what happened.
- Happy people have agency to make positive changes in their lives and to take action. According to a variety of research on Happiness, there are many factors we have control over that can plant the seeds for a happier life. Some of those “happiness seeds” arise from a positive future orientation, making realistic goals, acknowledging challenges, practicing optimism, practicing gratitude, being supported by others, sharing support with others, practicing self-compassion, positively reframing experiences, finding meaning & purpose in your life, making healthy lifestyle choices and living responsibly.
- Happiness has a lot to do with relationships. For over 80 years, scientists conducted a longitudinal study of students. Originally known as the Grant Study, the research is more well known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study followed students throughout their lifespan. One of the key findings was how influential relationships were to overall wellbeing and happiness. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-secret-to-happiness-heres-some-advice-from-the-longest-running-study-on-happiness-2017100512543
- Focus on your strengths and the uniqueness of you. Embracing the qualities and passions of your being is integral to happiness.
- Learn more with Dr Sherry Kelly’s work through Meaningful Paths.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol Dweck (2007), Ballentine Books.
The How of Happiness: A New Approach To Getting the Life You Want. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007), Penguin Books.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin Seligman, PhD. (2006) Vintage.
Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. Rick Hanson, PhD (2016) Harmony.
Good genes are nice, but joy is better. Liz Mineo, Harvard Gazette (April 11, 2017).
Dr. Sherry Skyler Kelly, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist. She has over 30 years of experience in the field of health psychology and child development. She earned her Doctorate in Health Psychology from Yeshiva University. She is a former National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) Fellow in psycho-oncology and neuropsychology.