Get happy: Using the powerful principles of positive psychology to live your best life! Timothy Sharp

HAPPYHistorically, psychology has focused almost exclusively on identifying
and alleviating problems. We have done a fantastic job of
helping people overcome and deal with stress and depression and
anxiety and more but … is that really all we want for life? For too
long, we have assumed that an absence of problems is as good as it
gets, but is it? If you want more than just an ‘OK’ life, then keep
Positive psychology is a relatively new discipline in which the
ultimate goal is not just alleviating distress, but rather promoting
happiness and flourishing — a full sense of mental and physical
health and wellbeing. The goal of positive psychology is to help
more people live their best lives in which they thrive, not just
survive. Even more than this, positive psychology is interested in
promoting health and wellness, not just in individuals, but also in
couples and families and even more so, in schools and organisations
and throughout institutions generally! This chapter has been
written to help you understand this exciting new science of happiness
and especially, to help you enjoy more of it.
What and why?
I would like to begin by posing and then answering two simple but
important questions: What is happiness and why would one want it?
Many readers might assume they know the answer to these
questions, especially the first one, but as I will refer to throughout
this chapter, there are many myths and misconceptions about
happiness and if we do not ever really understand what it is, and
just as importantly what it is not, then we will always struggle to
achieve and ultimately to enjoy it.
So let us begin with the important assignment of defining
happiness. Having read literally thousands of research and popular
articles, as well as hundreds of textbooks; having attended many,
many conferences and been involved in many, many discussions on
this topic, I believe it is worth noting that there is not, actually,
common agreement on an answer to this; rather, there are different
opinions, although the varied responses to this question tend
to fall into one of the following two categories:
• The first and easiest way to think of happiness is as a positive
emotion; or more accurately, as a range of positive emotions.
Happiness is just one of a number of enjoyable positive
emotions, including joy and excitement, calm and contentment
and everything in between (including pride and satisfaction and
peace and love and so on).
• A second way of thinking about happiness is as shorthand for
living ‘the good life’. This is ultimately what positive psychology
is interested in — not just enjoying positive emotions, but
more so, living a great life that includes positive emotions and
pleasure, but also fully engaging in life, building and fostering
good quality relationships so one feels connected and as though
one belongs, living a life with and on purpose, achieving goals
that are meaningful and satisfying, possessing a high level of
physical health and wellbeing, and finally, although not to be
underestimated, having fun and playing!
As one can see from this two-part definition, happiness is much
more than just slapping on a fake smile. It is about smiling, but it is
also about making a positive contribution to the world, living
healthily and interacting positively with others, which raises
another important part of real and meaningful happiness — giving
to and being of service to others.
Each of these components of happiness will be discussed in
more detail below, but for now, the next question is why would one
want to be happy? Although the answer to this might seem obvious,
there are many more reasons than many might think!
In short, happiness (by definition) feels good. So the simplest
answer to the aforementioned question is that we should want to
be happy because it feels nice. This is a perfectly valid reason for
wanting happiness in our lives, but it is worth noting that there are
many other, just as valid and arguably more important, reasons as
In addition to feeling good (controlling for other variables)
happy people are also far more likely to:
• be healthier — they get sick less often and if they do get sick
they recover more quickly
• have better quality relationships — that is, more satisfied in
their relationships and less likely to experience problems (plus
more likely to deal with problems effectively)
• perform better academically
• experience success in all areas of life including in the
workplace — due to (among other things) optimism and
resilience and better use of strengths
• be more resilient
• live longer (and with a better quality of life)
• and much, much more …
So if feeling good is not enough of a motivation for you, then
maybe some of these other positive ‘side-effects’ might be!
A question that I often ponder, then, is why are so many
people not as happy as they could be? In response to this I have
developed the following response.
The primacy of positivity
Having spent many years working with people trying to find
happiness (and achieving various forms of success) I have discovered
that one of the main obstacles to happiness is what I have
come to call ‘the tyranny of when’. To what am I referring, you
may well ask. Well, ‘the tyranny of when’ is the phenomenon we
have all experienced at some time or other when we say to
ourselves (or to others) that: ‘I’ll be happy when … when I have
more money, when I have a bigger house, when I have a better job,
when I lose some weight, when I find the love of my life, when
[insert pretty much anything you like in here].’
Now although there is nothing inherently wrong with aspiring
to be and to have more; the problem for many people is that (for a
variety of reasons) they never get there; and even if they do, they
then think of something else that they ‘need’ before they can really
feel happy. In recent years, positive psychologists have come to
refer to this as the ‘hedonic treadmill’, which is a great metaphor
likening the experience to one where we are constantly running as
though on a treadmill chasing that carrot, and never actually
getting anywhere! As a result, we do not ever really get to experience
as much joy or satisfaction as we would like but, even worse
than not experiencing positive emotions like happiness, such an
approach to life can actually cause us to feel frustrated, disappointed
and downright miserable (how else would you feel if you
frequently imagined a wonderful reward or prize but never quite
got your hands on it?).
But despite being relatively unsuccessful and unhelpful, it is
not really all that surprising that many people take this approach,
as this is what we have always been taught — that if you work hard
you will achieve your goals, and if you achieve your goals you will
then be happy. Except that, as noted above, this approach can, at
times, be counter-productive.
With this in mind, and with a view to helping more people
find happiness and success, I have developed a new approach —
get happy first and then you will be more likely to achieve your
goals (whatever they might be — losing weight, getting that
promotion, finding the love of your life, and so on). And the good
news is, this is not something I just made up. Well, it is something I
made up, or at least something on which I put a new twist, but it is
based on good, solid science. Technically, it is based on a theory
developed by an American academic, Professor Barbara
Fredrickson, and it is typically referred to as the ‘broaden and
build theory of positive emotions’. Let me explain further.
Traditionally, psychologists have focused on negative
emotions, and as a result we know quite a bit about how they
affect us. In short, when we experience negative emotions (such as
fear or anxiety) we close up. We tend to withdraw physically and
psychologically and, as a result, we tend not to cope as well. In
contrast, ‘broaden and build’ has come about through the investigation
of positive emotions, and what we have discovered is that
positive emotions lead to improved performance, coping and
resilience via the broadening of our minds and the increased capacity
to build on previous experiences.
What this means is that positive emotions are not just nice; they
are nice, but they are also much more important than that. What
they do is help us enjoy the good times even more and (and this is an
important ‘and’) help us cope with the tough times. As a result,
positive emotions are not just phenomenon we should enjoy after we
have achieved something of significance, they are also tools we can
use to increase our chances of achieving outcomes of significance.
This is a finding of profound importance, because what it
means is that rather than succumbing to the tyranny of ‘when’, we
can utilise ‘the power of then’; by which I mean that we can leverage
off the idea that if we can create happiness first THEN we can
achieve more of our goals. How great would that be? We get to
enjoy the wonders of positive emotions both before and after
succeeding in our efforts.
So, in summary, now that we understand what happiness
really is and why it is important, we need to avoid the tyranny of
when and utilise the primacy of positivity. Before we look at how to
practically do this, there is one more common obstacle to happiness
I need to address.
Learning to live with and love imperfections
One of the greatest myths about happiness is that it is something
you only experience when everything is just right, resolved, in
place … perfect! But this is just an extension of variant of the just
discussed ‘tyranny of when’! We never get there; because life is not
perfect … and it never will be. I do not say this to be negative or
pessimistic, but rather to be realistic. Because I have no doubt at
all that happiness is more likely if we realistically focus on and
enjoy the positives in our lives and realistically assess and deal
constructively with the problems in our lives.
So coming to terms with imperfection, within ourselves and
within the world, is vitally important for real and meaningful
happiness. It is, in fact, the only real option. Wishing for everything
to be perfect is a recipe for frustration and failure. Wanting
to be perfect yourself is just as much a certain path to disappointment
and depression.
The reality is that being human involves being imperfect; it is
just how it is. At the very least we need to accept this and ideally,
we will even learn to love this. An approach derived from a
Japanese design philosophy has grown in popularity in recent
years. Known as ‘wabi sabi’, it proffers that imperfections are not
just normal, they are, in many instances, beautiful. We accept this
in nature and sometimes we even accept this in others; accepting it
within ourselves can clear the way for markedly more happiness
and positivity in our lives!
That being said, and along the same lines, it is important to
note that no one should expect to be 100% happy 100% of the
time; this would be a totally unrealistic goal and again, one that
would be destined to end up in … unhappiness.
But if we do what we can to be happy as often as possible,
accepting that we have imperfections and faults and limitations,
noting also that it is important to work towards happiness not just
because it feels good, but also because its good for us; and just as
importantly, if we practise authentic happiness it is also good for
others around us … then taking care of ourselves ultimately also
means taking care of others, and if this sounds good then let’s keep
And now for the happiness-boosting strategies
Create positive emotion — to begin with, recognise the importance
of happiness and make it a priority. Appreciate also the
wonderful and varied benefits of experiencing positive emotions.
Happiness is not just something that feels good (although it does);
happiness also does good. By this I mean that creating happiness
will subsequently create inspiration and motivation and energy
that will power you on to then achieve more of whatever it is you
want to achieve in life. So do whatever you can to create positive
emotions as often as possible and remember, everyone is different,
so make sure you focus on strategies and activities that resonate
with you and with which you feel comfortable.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
• Put on your favourite music.
– Better still, put on your favourite music and dance around
the room.
– Even better still, put on your music and dance with a loved
one or friend!
• Search the Internet for pictures of cute animals (seriously, this
has been proven to enhance positive mood states).
• Search the Internet for funny jokes or buy and read a joke book.
• Watch funny videos (you can either hire these from your local
DVD store, download them or even watch them for free on
• In addition to funny videos many people will also enjoy watching
inspirational videos or movies, which again can be
purchased or borrowed in the usual way or watched on sites
such as
• Engage in some exercise — walking, running, swimming,
riding, playing, anything that gets your body moving will
almost certainly also get your happy going. Better still, do
something active outdoors. Research suggests that the combination
of exercise and connecting with nature adds even more
benefits than exercise on its own!
• Try some meditation or applied relaxation strategies — this
won’t lead to laugh out loud happiness but it will definitely
contribute to the different, but just as important, calm and
content and peaceful type of happiness.
• Practise gratitude and appreciation via one or all of the following:
– Write down three good things that have happened in the last
24 hours.
– Write a list of all the things that are going well in your life at
the moment.
– Write a gratitude letter — think of someone who in some
way has had a positive impact on your life and write them a
short (1–2 pages) letter outlining (as specifically as possible)
exactly what they did to or for you and why it had a positive
impact. Then post the letter or …
– Better still (if the person is geographically available), call this
person and arrange to meet for coffee or lunch or a chat
(without necessarily explaining why, at this stage). Meet
then at the agreed time, engage in the usual small talk, and
then read them the letter (the reason for writing the letter
before the meeting and reading it out is to ensure that you
clarify your thoughts and maximise your chances of saying
what you want to say as eloquently as possible).
– Finally, you can give them the letter to keep as a tangible
reminder of your feelings of appreciation.
• Force yourself to smile! You have probably all heard about the
suggestion to ‘Fake it until you make it’. Well, there is actually
some science to support this approach. In short, participants in
a research study were asked to hold a pencil in their mouths
with their teeth (which effectively creates a fake smile). These
people were then asked to read an article or watch a short
video and compared to others, recalled more positive information.
These results have been interpreted as meaning that when
we are happy we are more likely to perceive the world around
us as being positive (we actually see and remember more
positive things), which then makes us happier, so we create a
positively reinforcing cycle of joy! Although, therefore, faking a
smile might seem slightly superficial (and it is) it could kickstart
some positive momentum that would then contribute to a
more real and meaningful form of happiness.
• In the same vein as the previous suggestion — force yourself to
laugh. Go on, try it now and I bet you feel at least a little
• Engage in an activity you love. This could be anything — any
hobby or pastime or recreational activity that brings you pleasure.
It could be playing music, singing, cooking, drawing,
painting, arts and crafts, gardening, and the list goes on.
• Engage in something you are really good at — along similar lines
to the previous tip, but this time aimed more at generating satisfaction
and pride as opposed to pleasure and joy. Do something
that you believe will provide you with a sense of accomplishment
or achievement. These activities might not even be fun,
but they are the sort of things we like to do just because we
feel good knowing that we are skilled at something, or even
because we know they have to be done and it is simply satisfying
to tick them off your ‘to do’ list (for example, filing, cleaning,
banking, getting rid of old clothes).
Another cluster of strategies that differ slightly from the ones
listed above but that still fit into this group of positive emotion
boosters are the ones that will (over time) develop optimism and
hope. Optimism and hope are vitally important for health,
wellbeing and happiness; in fact, some psychologists argue that
without hope one can not even begin to contemplate happiness.
Accordingly, try some or all of the following strategies to develop
an attitude and outlook that is more consistent with living a good
• Reflect upon a recent negative life event and ask yourself …
– Is it really that bad?
– For how long is it really likely to last?
– Just because this is bad does it need to negate the other
good things in your life?
– Are you unnecessarily or excessively blaming yourself for
something that has gone wrong that in fact can be attributed
to other variables?
• Repeat this for as many negative or stressful life events as you
can think of.
• Reflect upon a positive life event and ask yourself …
– Are you savouring it as much as you could?
– Have you publicly celebrated this event or achievement and
shared it with others?
– Are you doing all you can to make sure the positivity lasts
as long as possible?
– Are you taking full credit for this positive life event and
congratulating yourself for bringing it about?
• Repeat this for as many positive life events as you can think of.
• Avoid overly unhelpful, negative and destructive thinking (that
causes excessive levels of distress and, therefore, makes it
much harder to cope with and enjoy life) such as …
– personalising — blaming yourself for things that are beyond
your control or not even connected to you or your actions
– black and white thinking — seeing the world in an excessively
‘all or nothing’ or dichotomous manner
– catastrophising — making mountains out of molehills
– overgeneralising — taking one situation or event (typically a
negative or unpleasant one) and generalising it to ‘everything’,
– filtering — blocking out positive information and only
focusing on negative details
– discounting the positives — minimising the importance of
positive events (such as brushing off compliments and
downplaying achievements)
– emotional reasoning — mistaking feelings for facts (for
example, just because you might, at times, feel stupid doesn’t
mean you are!)
– fortune-telling — predicting the future (usually in a negative
way such as assuming the worst)
– mind reading — believing that we know what others are
thinking which, unless you have special super powers, you
– ‘should’ statements and unrealistic expectations — engaging
in statements such as ‘I should …’ or ‘they should …’ or ‘the
world shouldn’t be like this …’. This group of thoughts are
unhelpful because more often than not they cause disappointment
and frustration and even, in more extreme cases,
• In addition to avoiding these extremely unhelpful negative
thoughts, ensure also that you actively engage in positive thinking
such as …
– List all the best things about you (including your strengths
and attributes and positive characteristics, and so on).
– List all the best things about your family and friends, and
work colleagues and community.
– List all the best things about the world in which you live.
• And taking this concept even further …
– Write down all the things you are looking forward to in the
next 12 months or so.
– Write down all the reasons why you feel optimistic and
hopeful about the future.
– Write down everything you are doing to make your life, and
the lives of others around you, better.
• Want more strategies for even more helpful thinking? Ask
yourself …
– Is there another, more helpful and/or constructive way I
could look at this situation?
– Am I taking everything into account (i.e. looking at the
whole picture)?
– Do I have everything in perspective?
– How bad will this seem in a day, a month or a year’s time?
– How good is this really and am I making enough of a fuss
about it?
Building character
As already noted (but it bears repeating), happiness isn’t just
feeling good, it is also doing good. Although positive emotions are
very important for living a happy life, they are not all there is to it.
In addition to promoting positive emotion, positive psychology
also posits that the good life is built on a foundation of character.
To begin with, it is worth giving some consideration to what
is meant by this rather old-fashioned (but lovely and important)
word ‘character’. According to some of the earliest positive
psychology research into what it meant to live a good life, led
predominately by the highly regarded and much admired Professor
Christopher Peterson (along with the equally influential Martin
Seligman), good character was deemed to be the result of the
application of ‘a family of positive dispositions, characteristics like
perspective, teamwork, kindness and hope’. Importantly, these
strengths are trait like, but not necessarily fixed or unchangeable.
Character was understood as the result of building strengths, and
notably these strengths could be built.
Over the last few decades, positive psychologists have also
been very careful to try to ensure that character strengths were
not just social constructions; all attempts have been made to
ensure that the values driving the strengths-based movement are
not specific to any one culture or religious orientation. Ideally,
therefore, good character is something that would be recognised
and appreciated anywhere in the world!
Further, for something to be deemed a character strength it
needs, by definition, to be …
• fulfilling (i.e. it contributes to happiness and satisfaction)
• morally valued in its own right, not just for the outcomes it
might lead to
• something that does not, in any way, harm or diminish the
happiness of others.
The culmination of this investigation led to the development of a
model that has come to be known as the VIA Classification of
Character Strengths and Virtues. This system is divided along the
following lines into six groups of strengths:
1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness,
love of learning, perspective
2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, zest
3. Love and Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership
5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, selfcontrol
6. Spirituality and Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and
excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality.
Again, these (in principle) cut across all cultures, and it is assumed
that everywhere, strengths such as curiosity and open-mindedness,
bravery and perseverance, kindness and love, fairness, forgiveness
and gratitude are valued and appreciated in their own way and in
their own right.
What’s most important about this body of positive psychology
research is the clear support for the proposition that those
who are more aware of and better at utilising their strengths are
markedly happier and more successful! So the remainder of this
chapter will focus on exactly that — how can you become more
aware of and then how can you more fully utilise your strengths?
Step 1: Identifying your strengths
In very simple terms, there are two main strategies you can use to
identify your strengths; the first is a formal assessment and the
second is more informal. To be perfectly frank, the formal assessment
will be more accurate and, therefore, ultimately more helpful,
but it does require Internet access and it will take about 20 to 30
minutes. The informal assessment can be done anywhere and
anytime but could potentially be biased by your self-perceptions.
I encourage you, therefore, to complete the formal assessment
if possible. As noted, this will take less than half an hour
(you will be asked to respond to 240 questions), but it could
potentially change your life. Just perform a Google search for the
‘VIA Institute on Character’ (or see the URL at the end of this
chapter) and complete the free survey. Once you are finished you
will be emailed your ‘results’, which in simple terms will be a list
of character strengths ranked in your order of preference. That is,
at number 1 will be your ‘top strength’, that character strength
you use the most and that you use most easily. Following this will
be your next 23 strengths in order of preference.
If, for whatever reason, you can’t complete this formal assessment
then there are a few alternative, less formal options. The
easiest option is to just review the list of character strengths
included within this chapter and select the ones you believe
resonate most with you. While doing so, I invite you to consider
the following questions:
• What brings you to life?
• What energises you?
• What do you do that comes most easily to you?
• On what do other people compliment you?
• What is the very best in you?
• When do you feel most you?
In answering these questions, reflect upon some specific, real-life
situations and then look for times you have utilised one or more of
the strengths listed.
Now, before you read on, I would just like to highlight a few
key points for you to seriously consider. First, this approach does
not measure weaknesses. So even your number 24-ranked strength
is not a weakness; it is still a strength, but for a variety of reasons,
it is a strength you do not use as often, or a strength that is harder
for you to fully utilise. Second, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’
strengths; they are all equally good. It is just that some work better
for different people. And third, any and all strengths can be
improved or built upon. So if for any reason you would like to
improve your ability to apply one or more strengths, the good
news is you can; just like many other areas of life, if you practise
something you can get better at it! Which brings us to step 2 …
Step 2: Utilising your strengths
Having identified your strengths using our ‘Signature Strengths
List’, the challenge now is to work out how you can best utilise
these strengths as often as possible. With this in mind, I trust you
will find the following suggestions (and they are only suggestions)
useful; it should also be noted that this list is by no means exhaustive
— accordingly, I encourage you to generate additional applications.
Please also note that this list is compiled alphabetically
(rather than within the ‘clusters’) for ease of use.
Appreciation of beauty
• Visit an art gallery or museum with which you are unfamiliar.
• Start to keep a beauty journal in which you write down every
day the most beautiful things you saw.
• At least once a day, stop and notice an instance of natural
beauty, for example, a sunrise, a flower, a bird singing.
• Refrain from telling white lies to friends (including insincere
• Think about your most important values and do something
every day that is consistent with them.
• When explaining your motives to someone, do so in a genuine
and honest way.
• Speak up for an unpopular idea in a group.
• Protest to the appropriate authorities about a clear injustice
that you observe.
• Do something that you ordinarily would not do because of
• Enrol in a writing, photography, sculpting, drawing or painting
• Choose an object at home and find another use for it rather
than its typical use — and this does not mean using that spare
chair as a clothes rack.
• Send a card to a friend that includes a poem you have written.
• Attend a lecture on a topic about which you know nothing.
• Go to a restaurant featuring cuisine unfamiliar to you.
• Discover a new place in your town and learn about its history.
• At least once a day, admit a mistake and take responsibility for
• At least once a day, give due credit to someone you do not
especially like.
• Hear people out without interrupting them.
• Let a grudge go every day.
• When you feel annoyed, even with justification, take the high
road and do not tell anyone how you feel.
• Write a forgiveness letter; do not send it, but do read it every
day for a week.
• Keep track of how many times you say ‘thank you’ during the
day and increase the number every day for a week.
• At the end of every day, write down three things that went
• Write and send a gratitude letter.
• Think of a past disappointment and the opportunities it made
• Write down your goals for the next week, the next month,
and the next year; then make concrete plans for achieving
these goals.
• Dispute your pessimistic thoughts.
• Make at least one person smile or laugh each day.
• Learn a magic trick and perform it to your friends.
• Make fun of yourself, if only by saying, ‘there I go again’.
• Visit someone in hospital or a nursing home.
• When driving, yield to pedestrians; when walking, yield to
cars (this latter suggestion also counts as an act of prudence).
• Perform an anonymous favour for a friend or family member.
• Organise a social get-together for your friends.
• Take responsibility for an unpleasant task at work and make
sure that it gets done.
• Go out of your way to make a newcomer feel welcome.
• Accept a compliment without squirming; just say ‘thank you’.
• Write a brief note to someone you love, and leave it where it
will be found during the day.
• Do something with your best friend that he or she really enjoys
Love of learning
• If you are a student, read something that is ‘recommended’ but
not ‘required’.
• Learn and use a new word every day.
• Read a non-fiction book.
• For an entire day, do not talk about yourself at all.
• Dress in a way that does not call attention to yourself.
• Think of something that a friend does much better that you
do, and compliment him or her about it.
• In a conversation, play the devil’s advocate and take a position
at odds with your private opinion.
• Every day, consider some strong-held opinion, and think about
how you might be wrong.
• Listen to a radio show or actively seek out and read a newspaper
that espouses the ‘other’ political line.
• Make a list of things to do and do one thing on the list every
• Finish an important task ahead of schedule.
• Work for several hours straight without interruptions; for
example, no television in the background, no phone calls, no
snacks, no checking emails.
• Think of the wisest person you know and try to live one day as
if you were that person.
• Offer advice only if asked, but then do so as thoughtfully as you
• Resolve a dispute between two friends, family members, or coworkers.
• Think twice before saying anything other than ‘please’ or ‘thank
• When driving, stay five kilometres per hour under the speed
• Before you eat any snack, ask yourself, ‘Is this worth getting fat
• Every day, think about the purpose of your life.
• Pray or meditate at the start of every day.
• Attend a religious service of a faith unfamiliar to you.
• Start an exercise program and stick with it every day for a
• Refrain from gossiping or saying mean things about others.
• When tempted to lose your temper, count to 10; repeat as
Social intelligence
• Make someone else feel at ease.
• Notice when friends or family members do something that is
difficult for them, and compliment them.
• When someone annoys you, understand his or her motives
rather than retaliate.
• Be the best team-mate you can be.
• Spend five minutes every day picking up litter on the pavement
and putting it in the rubbish bin.
• Volunteer your time to a charitable group.
• Every day for at least a week, go to sleep early enough that you
do not need to set an alarm, and eat a nutritious breakfast
when you do wake up.
• Say ‘Why not?’ three times more frequently than you say
• Do something every day because you want to and not because
you need to.
In summary, then, building character comes as a direct result of
building on and living by your strengths, which by definition
means (in very simple terms) using what you are best at to do
what’s best for you and for others. Remember, the use of strengths
cannot have a negative impact on or cannot diminish the happiness
of any other person, which means that by doing good we’re
spreading good. This also raises a very important issue, much
discussed within positive psychology, which is that happiness is not
a solo sport, but rather is much more akin to a team effort. For
real and meaningful happiness, therefore, it is important to think
beyond our individual selves.
Reaching out to connect because ‘other people matter’ —
these three words were made famous by one of the founding
fathers of positive psychology, the late and great Christopher
Peterson (who’s already been mentioned in this chapter). When
once asked, during a conference panel discussion, to sum up this
exciting new science of happiness, Chris responded with these
three simple but profound words: ‘other people matter’. This is
what separates real happiness (as meant by positive psychology)
from selfishness or hedonism, and the notion has subsequently
become integral to the study and application of happiness.
It is probably not hard for any of you reading this to believe
that happiness is at least partially about our relationships. Linking
back to the previous section, constructs (or strengths) such as
kindness, love, compassion, social intelligence and more are
widely understood to be important to living a good life.
What some might not fully appreciate, however, is that this is
not just about being nice; it is about being nice, but it is also about
living our best possible lives. Because what we know about the
happiest people is that they have both more, and better quality
relationships. Further, we know from decades of research that
good quality relationships promote positive experiences and
positive emotions (such as happiness) as well as buffer against
negative experiences and protect us from stress and depression.
Good quality social support is integral to resilience; it helps us
cope with the tough times and enjoy the good times.
How, then, can you create more happiness by building more
positive relationships? Try these simple but powerful and effective
• To begin with, spend more time with more people (this is
what happy people do!)
– And do this even if you are an introvert.
– And when you do spend more time with more people make
sure you engage in more meaningful conversations, as
opposed to simple or meaningless chit-chat.
• In particular, spend more time actively attending to your
intimate relationships.
– And when you are spending time with your partner and/or
kids, make sure you are really with them.
– That is, be present and be mindful.
– Turn off electronic devices (such as the TV) and do not
respond to that (email or SMS) message until later.
• Spend more of the time you spend with others (both in your
personal and professional relationships) focusing on positives
as opposed to negatives (the ideal ratio, according to the
research, is about 4 or 5 to 1).
– This is easy enough to do if you actively look for and
highlight what’s going well, rather than just focusing on
what’s not going well.
– And when you do focus on what’s going well, focus on it
with energy and enthusiasm. One of the leading researchers
(Shelley Gable) in this area argues for the significant benefits
of what she calls ‘active/constructive responding’. That is,
when things go well we should actively respond with
constructive, encouraging, supportive and reinforcing
comments as much and as often as possible.
• Remember that the previous section on strengths also applies
in our relationships.
– That is, just like focusing on our own strengths enables us to
be our best, so too does focusing on others’ strengths enable
our relationships to be at their best.
– When interacting with your partner, or child or colleague,
therefore, give some thought to what their strengths are and
how these might be beneficial within the context of your
• Praise often (and with authenticity).
• Communicate often and clearly. Effective communication is at
the heart of good quality relationships, but like many of these
positive psychology principles, is something many of us could
do better by …
– keeping as calm as possible as often as possible
– staying focused on the primary topic and not allowing
emotions or anything else to distract us from the key issue at
– listening, listening and listening
– seeking first to understand, then to be understood (thanks,
Steven Covey)
– accepting that other people have different opinions — and
that none are necessarily right or wrong (they are just
– acknowledging the other person’s opinion, actively and
– asserting your own opinion (calmly and confidently and
where and when possible, taking into account the impact
this assertion might have on the other)
– avoiding, as much as possible, unhelpful thoughts such as
catastrophising, overgeneralising, personalising and
especially, mind reading (see the earlier section)
– taking into account timing and context — that is, where and
when would be the best time and place to have this discussion.
• Until disproven, believe the best in others! There is no doubt
that bad people do the wrong thing at times but there is also no
doubt (supported by numerous studies in a variety of contexts)
that most people try to do the right thing most of the time.
And before moving on, an ‘extension’ of this concept importantly
takes the idea of building positive relationships and
connectedness a few steps further. Although considered by some
to be a subcomponent of this same domain, more recently it has
been argued that it deserves more attention in and for itself. To
what am I referring? I’m talking about the age-old recommendation
… service to others.
Multiple studies have supported the notion that in giving we
receive; when we serve others, we also benefit ourselves. The
benefits of giving can be described on multiple levels, including
psychological (we feel good and feeling good is good for us), social
or interpersonal (we connect more and more deeply with others,
which enhances relationships and support networks), and even
biological (specific hormones and neurotransmitters are released
during service type activities that protect against stress and
promote positive emotions).
All of this combines to create what has come to be known as
the ‘helper’s high’!
The good news is that there are multiple ways to serve others
and to give so we should all be able to find something that works
for us and that is within our means. To get you going, here are few
suggestions for you to think about:
• Give of your time: volunteer somewhere local, or more importantly,
somewhere that means something significant to you
(depending on whether you care about the environment or
animals or disadvantaged youth or, well anything — selecting
the most appropriate avenue for your efforts will maximise the
benefits you enjoy).
• Give of your money: if you can afford it (and let’s face it, most
of us reading this can afford something) donate some cash to
what you consider to be a good cause. You do not have to be a
millionaire; every little bit counts.
• Give of your experience and expertise: become a mentor to
someone who is interested in what you are interested in. Share
what you have learned with someone younger and/or less
experienced than you.
• Give your possessions: rather than throwing out unwanted
clothes or toys, donate them to a good charity. Much of what
we discard can be valuable to others and in sharing we are not
just doing a good thing for the receiver but we’re also often
doing a good thing for the environment.
So there you have it; for genuine happiness ensure you have pleasure
and positivity in your life and that you build character by doing
the right thing and by living a life with values. In addition, remember
that happiness often occurs in the gaps within the interactions
we have with others. Happiness is very much about belonging and
connecting, so as well as looking after yourself, look after others
because (and I apologise in advance for the repetition of the cliché)
… it really is true to say that in giving we receive.
And before we finish …
… happiness is not just a psychological construct; it is also physical!
It is hard to be happy, for example, if you are sick and tired all
the time!
I have briefly referred to aspects of health and wellbeing
within this chapter, but I want to formally acknowledge that I do
not believe I have come anywhere near close enough to adequately
doing this range of topics justice. And I do not have the space
within this context to elaborate any further now, but in short, and
in addition to all I have written about thus far, your overall happiness
will also be related to the …
• quality and quantity of your sleep
• frequency with which you practise meditation, mindfulness
and relaxation
• quality and nutritional balance of your food intake
• extent to which you exercise and/or are active each and every
At the risk of oversimplifying, you can significantly enhance your
happiness by ensuring you gain adequate, good quality sleep; by
practicing some form of meditation on a daily basis; by eating well;
and by exercising often. Neglecting any of these will undoubtedly
detract from your ability to live your best life so make sure you
devote time and attention to creating a happy mind AND a healthy
At The Happiness Institute we have said for many years now that
achieving happiness requires nothing more than practising a few
simple disciplines, each and every day. I invite you to adopt this
approach and to select just a few of the strategies I have outlined in
this chapter (to begin with, anyway) and practise them regularly.
Over time, they will become natural; over time, they will become
more effective; over time, you will enjoy more happiness more easily.
Best of luck on this wonderful adventure we call life, and here is
to your health and happiness!
Useful websites
Further reading
S Lyubomirsky, The how of happiness: a new approach to getting the life
you want, Penguin, New York, 2007.
C Peterson, Pursuing the good life:100 reflections on positive psychology,
Oxford University Press, Washington, 2013.
M Seligman, Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and
wellbeing, Free Press, New York, 2011.
TJ Sharp, The good sleep guide, Penguin, Melbourne, 2001.
TJ Sharp, The happiness handbook: strategies for a happy life, Finch
Publishing, Sydney, 2007.
TJ Sharp, 100 ways to happiness: a guide for busy people, Penguin,
Melbourne, 2008.

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