Five Tips for Success
2010 Alumni Association Faculty of the Year Todd Kashdan, an associate professor in Mason’s psychology department and author of Curious?, shares his tips for beating stress and finding happiness.
1. Getting What You Want Doesn't Bring Lasting Happiness
To be happy, all it takes is a lottery win, and there is no way we could be happy after being mugged and physically assaulted on the street. But human beings are remarkably adaptable. After a variable period of adjustment, we regularly bounce back to our previous level of happiness, no matter what happens to us. (There are some exceptions, such as an unexpected job loss, which tend to permanently reduce people's well-being). Unfortunately, our amazing human ability to adapt to life events also makes it difficult to extract long-lasting pleasure and meaning from positive events. We quickly get used to many of the accomplishments we strive for in life, such as affording a flat-screen TV or getting married. Soon after we reach a milestone, we start to crave something else. Stuck on a "hedonic treadmill," we are on the constant search for the next surge of pleasure or meaning. The way to step off the treadmill is to focus on activities that are novel and attention-absorbing, and thus less likely to bore us. We can also learn to savor positive events. Share the good things that happen with other people, and positive experiences become more intense and enduring. In fact, when we share positive events with other people, we remember more details. Positive events stick out in our memory and we can recall them easily when we are in need of a mood boost. Search for new information and experiences, find what is unfamiliar in the familiar, and learn to savor, appreciate, and share the good things that happen.
2. Mindfulness Brings Wellness
Mindfulness, is about being open, receptive, and attentive to what is happening in the present moment. A mindful individual can be described as openly “observing” moment-to-moment events and experience rather than evaluating and judging. This is a powerful tool for enhancing well-being when practiced regularly. In a mindful state, negative feelings lose their sting. Distance is created between thoughts and the thinker; distance is created between feelings and the feeler. Don't avoid the negative, instead don't let them get in the way of striving towards what matters most in life.
3. Wellness Hinges on Introspection
Feeling good in the midst of getting through day-to-day activities may not have much to do with our overall life satisfaction. Time skews our perceptions of happiness. For instance, adults reminisce about how easy it was in childhood before work deadlines, car payments, and trying to figure out why our romantic partner is giving us the cold shoulder. When adults are asked if they prefer work or leisure, almost everyone chooses leisure. People crave weekends, sick days, and vacations. And yet, if you ask people from moment-to-moment about what they are feeling at work and what they are feeling on the weekends, people invariably feel happier at work. When we step back to evaluate our lives, we often miss the fact that it feels good to be engaged, doing something challenging at work. We often forget this and focus on the pain of getting up early for our commute and the mental exhaustion at the end of the day. As for weekends, we often forget that most of the time people are bored. Evaluate your well-being at the macro as well as the micro level to get a clear understanding of which people and what situations are optimal for you.
4. Know Your Values and Use Them as a Compass to Navigate the World
If you aren't living according to your values, you won't be happy, no matter how much you are achieving. Some people, however, aren't even sure what their values are. If you're one of them, here is a question for you: "Imagine I could wave a magic wand to ensure that you would have the approval and admiration of everyone on the planet, forever. What, in that case, would you choose to do with your life?" Once you've answered honestly, you can start taking steps toward an ideal vision of yourself. Life is an experiment to be relished. Uncover your values. Create concrete goals that link up with your values. On a daily basis, devote energy and time toward those goals that are aligned with your values. Remember that the building blocks of lasting wellness are moments. Choose to spend moments doing what is most important to you, and you are liable to catch happiness along the journey.
5. Embrace Your Natural Coping Style
Some of us are simply not cheerful and sociable. Thinking positively or putting a smile on can be counterproductive. When you put pressure on yourself to feel positive, it not only doesn't work, it makes us feel inauthentic and guilty (for failing at the strategies touted by so many self-help books and motivational speakers). Forget the notion of a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your emotional life. Some people cope by seeking out people. Some people cope by seeking solitude, nature, and music. Instead of being optimistic, some people set low expectations for upcoming challenges and review all of the bad things that might happen. This anxiety motivates them to prepare carefully to prevent any of those bad things from coming to fruition. This so-called defensive pessimism is a wonderful coping strategy for some people and training them to be optimistic only serves to cause them distress. Know what helps you down-regulate negative feelings and up-regulate positive feelings. Don't fret if nobody else uses your tactics, what matters is that they are helpful to you.