Feel-good advice from Marci Shimoff’s collection of positive-psychology wisdom.
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In Happy for No Reason, Marci Shimoff weaves together some of the best ideas from the positive-psychology movement with Chicken Soup for the Soul–like stories from what she calls the “Happy 100,” ranging from authors like Elizabeth Gilbert (who wrote Eat, Pray, Love) to Michael Bernard Beckwith (founder of Agape International Spiritual Center and star of The Secret).
The Continuum of Happiness
Shimoff suggests that we think of happiness on a continuum: Unhappy. Happy for a bad reason. Happy for a good reason. Happy for no reason.
So, we can be unhappy (pretty straightforward), happy for a bad reason (think alcohol, drugs, too much TV, etc.), happy for a good reason (success in our career, good relationships with family and friends, financial security, etc.) and happy for no reason (where we live from happiness rather than for it).
What’s Your Happiness Set-Point?
“Researchers have found that no matter what happens to you in life, you tend to return to a fixed range of happiness,” Shimoff writes. “Like your weight set-point, which keeps the scale hovering around the same number, your happiness set-point will remain the same unless you make a concerted effort to change it.”
She notes: “There was a famous study conducted that tracked people who’d won the lottery — what many people think of as the ticket to the magic kingdom of joy. Within a year, these lucky winners returned to approximately the same level of happiness they’d experienced before their windfall. Surprisingly, the same was true for people who became paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they also returned to their original happiness level.”
Researchers posit that 50 percent of our set-point comes from genetics, while 10 percent is determined by our circumstances (like our job, marital status, wealth). “The other 40 percent is determined by our habitual thoughts, feelings, words and actions. This is why it’s possible to raise your happiness set-point. In the same way you’d crank up the thermostat to get comfortable on a chilly day, you actually have the power to reprogram your happiness set-point to a higher level.”
Life, Liberty and the Practice of Happiness
“Back in Jefferson’s day,” Shimoff explains, “the common usage of the word ‘pursue’ was not ‘to chase after.’ In 1776, to pursue something meant to practice that activity, to do it regularly, to make a habit of it. . . . So let’s stop pursuing happiness and start practicing it. We do that by practicing new habits.
“People with high happiness set-points are human just like the rest of us. They don’t have special powers, an extra heart or X-ray vision. They just have different habits. It’s that simple. Psychologists say that at least 90 percent of all behavior is habitual. So, to become happier, you need to look at your habits.”
So, how’s your “practice” of happiness? Ask yourself these two questions:
- What is the No. 1 habit I can develop in my life that will have the greatest positive impact?
- What is the No. 1 habit I can remove from my life that will have the greatest positive impact?
Automatic Negative Thoughts
Shimoff points out that “our minds — made up of our thoughts, beliefs and self-talk — are always ‘on.’ According to scientists, we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. That’s one thought per second during every waking hour. No wonder we’re so tired at the end of the day!
“What’s even more startling,” she continues, is that “of those 60,000 thoughts, 95 percent are the same thoughts you had yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. Your mind is like a record player playing the same record over and over again….Talk about being stuck in a rut….
“Still, that wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the next statistic: For the average person, 80 percent of those habitual thoughts are negative. That means that every day most people have more than 45,000 negative thoughts.”
That’s scary. Thankfully, in her book, Shimoff presents some smart, effective ways to make sure we “don’t believe everything we think.”
Feeding the Good Wolf
Here’s a wonderful parable Shimoff shares: “One evening a Cherokee elder told his grandson about the battle that goes on inside of people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between the two “wolves” that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It is fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, and inferiority. The other is Happiness. It is joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth, and compassion.’
“The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’
“The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’”
Shimoff talks about the power of neuroplasticity and the fact that we’re rewiring our brains moment to moment as we either continue to reinforce our old, unhappiness-creating behaviors or build new, happiness-affirming habits. She says we need to “incline our mind to joy!”
One way we can do it is to “register the positive.” Here’s how Shimoff suggests we do that: “Have the intention to notice everything good that happens to you: any positive thought you have, anything you see, feel, taste, hear or smell that brings you pleasure, a win you experience, a breakthrough in your understanding about something, an expression of your creativity — the list goes on and on.
“This intention triggers the reticular activating system (RAS), a group of cells at the base of your brain stem responsible for sorting through the massive amounts of incoming information and bringing anything important to your attention. Have you ever bought a car and then suddenly started noticing the same make of car everywhere? It’s the RAS at work. Now you can use it to be happier. When you decide to look for the positive, your RAS makes sure that’s what you see.”
A couple of other tips Shimoff shares for building your “happy for no reason” practice:
1) Start giving away awards throughout the day: the most beautiful flower award, the kindest driver award, the most amazing clouds award. By playing the game, you’re conditioning your mind to see the beauty and wonder of your world.
2) Journal about the good things in your life. Shimoff notes: “In an experiment by Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California–Davis, people who kept a ‘gratitude journal,’ a weekly record of things they felt grateful for, enjoyed better physical health, were more optimistic, exercised more regularly, and described themselves as happier than a control group who didn’t keep journals.”
Shimoff’s book is packed full of Big Ideas like these. But if there’s one you’ll want to remember, it’s this: To live with consistent happiness, to be “happy for no reason,” stop pursuing happiness and focus on practicing happiness instead.
Brian Johnson is a philosopher and (professional) student of life. He used to build businesses. Now he reads a lot and has fun integrating universal truths into his day-to-day life. He also likes to hike, laugh, write, think, teach and hang out with his wife, Alexandra. Learn more at PhilosophersNotes.com.