I was once quite skeptical of people who assured me that my happiness was in my own hands.
Most of what I had learned about psychology suggested that one’s emotional state wasn’t a choice, like deciding what to have for breakfast, but a culmination of life experiences, relationships, and the presence or absence of certain levels of privilege.
That was, until I started meeting people who had faced far greater challenges than I could imagine, yet had an overwhelmingly positive outlook on life. The reverse was also true, I encountered people who appeared to have it all, but were perpetually unsatisfied and consumed by minor disruptions to their comfortable, glossy lives.
I started to question whether happiness was, to some degree, a choice after all. And, if so, whether anyone could play an active role in feeling happier, despite difficult circumstances.
Well, the good news is that you can teach yourself to be happier, and with a relatively simple method, according to research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
The researchers designed a program based on the HEAL model, which promotes activities to help people engage more fully in positive moments in their lives.
The theory was that by following certain steps, you can ‘train’ your brain’s neural pathways to experience more optimism and positive emotions, even if the individual in question was not a ‘naturally’ happy or optimistic person.
Here’s what the researchers discovered, and how you can use it in your own life.
Finding contentment by embracing the full spectrum of human emotions
Making a conscious decision to immerse yourself more deeply in moments of joy is not to ignore or deny the reality of difficult moments or negative emotions. Nor does it require pretending to be happy when you’re not, which usually reflects toxic positivity more than true happiness.
Clinical psychologist Dr Lillian Nejad PhD explained that the pursuit of happiness without also embracing and accepting more challenging times simply sets us up for disappointment.
“Happiness, like all feelings, comes and goes depending on what is happening in our lives,” she said.
“Happiness is fleeting, and if we have the expectation or the goal to ‘be happy’ and ‘stay happy’, we will be constantly disappointed, and even worse, feel like failures.”
With this in mind, Dr Nejad encourages people to get comfortable feeling all of their emotions, rather than chasing happiness.
Negative emotions can be messengers of important information, in which case ignoring them may be far more harmful than simply allowing them to be.
“All of our emotions communicate to us, they communicate to others, and they motivate us to action,” Dr Nejad said.
“The intensity of our emotions and our responses to our emotions [is what] can be dysfunctional or unhelpful, not the emotions themselves.”
She suggests that a more realistic approach is to strive to feel content and satisfied with your life overall, even if you are not experiencing happiness in the present moment.
Of course, this will be more difficult to put in practice for those who experience negative feelings intensely, and struggle to tap into feelings of joy even in the face of positive events or situations.
For these people, the HEAL method might be exactly what the doctor ordered.
Embracing positive experiences can boost optimism and resilience
The HEAL method was developed in recognition that people are not simply born with or without the psychological resources that support resilience and optimism. These skills must be developed and acquired, but until now how this occurs has been largely ignored.
The study also touches on ‘negativity bias’, which causes humans to experience negative life events more strongly and dwell on them for longer than they do happy moments.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as it likely helped our ancestors to learn how to avoid dangers they had encountered in the past. However, today this bias mostly serves to make us miserable and stressed, even when the reality of the present moment is perfectly neutral or even positive.
Rick Hanson and his colleagues hypothesised that humans could train their brain to get the most out of positive experiences, leading to an ‘upward spiral’ of increased resilience, positivity and happiness.
The HEAL process they tested on the research subjects went as follows:
H – Have the beneficial experience
This can be practiced as the positive experience is taking place, or by mindfully remembering a time or a person that makes you feel happy.
E – Enrich the experience
Increase the intensity of the positive emotions by:
- Staying with the happy memory and feeling for as long as possible
- Intensifying the positive emotion by reliving the parts that bring you joy
- Enhancing the experience by focusing on what it means to you and how it feels, looks, tastes, smells or sounds to be immersed in the moment of happiness
- Increasing the novelty of the experience. Make it stick out in your mind by treating the positive experience as if it was brand new
- Heightening the personal relevance of the experience. Explore your feelings about the experience to make them stronger.
These steps together intensify the positive experience and ‘up-regulate’ your mood.
A – Absorb the experience
Absorb the experience so that it feels like a part of you. Turn your attention inward to how the experience improves your emotional state.
This might mean journalling or reflecting on the experience later on or calling someone you love to debrief on what it felt like.
L – Link positive and negative material
There are always going to be challenges and negative emotions that momentarily disrupt our happiness.
The HEAL method suggests an optional step of focussing on something positive even when negative things are taking place in the background. The intention is to ‘drown out’ or lower the volume on negativity by redirecting our attention.
When this model was tested on 46 adults, 84 per cent of which were female, the results were encouraging.
After participating in a two month long “Taking in the Good” course, participants reported significant improvements in areas like self-compassion, emotional regulation, joy and contentment.
This may not necessarily be a mental health miracle cure, but it is a promising sign that we can indeed take a more active role in how we feel, even when there are difficult circumstances beyond our control.
How to incorporate the HEAL method into your life
There will always be tragedies and negative experiences in the world and our own lives, so any tool that helps us savour the good times is worth trying for yourself.
The “Taking in the Good” course materials from the original study have been published online for anyone wanting to explore the information and activities. However, there is no need to go through the course to reap some of the benefits of the HEAL method.
You can use the steps of the HEAL method to reflect on your thinking patterns and notice where your happiness is being disrupted. Perhaps you get to step two before becoming distracted with other things or find that you struggle to absorb the experience because of fears that it will be fleeting.
In this respect, the HEAL method shares many underlying principles of mindfulness, which encourages us to break out of limiting or negative thought patterns to fully experience the here and now.
Even in the midst of chaos or despair, we can turn inward to find moments of happiness, peace or contentment.
Finding fulfillment in life may not come naturally to you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to savour the happy times in your life and, in doing so, become more optimistic and resilient to face life’s inevitable challenges.