I teach an undergraduate course at Drexel University each year called “Happiness 101: Living a Life of Meaning.” Today I was reviewing my course syllabus to see which topics we cover in my course might be worth sharing during a time of unprecedented uncertainty and fear caused by the Coronavirus.
My course is primarily based on a book, The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at UC Riverside and authority in Positive Psychology, a field developed by University of Pennsylvania professor, Martin Seligman, among others. Rather than focusing on understanding the basis of mental illness, Positive Psychology instead studies factors that increase our sense of well-being.
Lyubomirsky’s book includes fourteen “Happiness Activities” based on research studies published in peer reviewed journals. While these “Happiness Activities” seem obvious and intuitive, they’re also grounded in science.
Here are the top three “Happiness Activities” my Drexel students say help them more than any others in feeling happier:
1. Expressing Gratitude
We have much to be thankful for but tend to forget this when stressed or overwhelmed. Experts say there are multiple approaches when expressing gratitude. Two student favorites are writing 3 or 4 things they’re grateful for twice a week and sending a ‘gratitude letter’ to a family member, friend, or mentor who shaped and influenced them.
Studies by Seligman, Lyubomirsky, among many others, and the experiences of my students confirms that expressing gratitude is easy and powerful.
Of the fourteen “Happiness Activities” in Lyubomirsky’s book, there’s probably a good reason Expressing Gratitude is listed first. It works!
While my students typically struggle with meditation (or sitting quietly) at first, they find it becomes easier with practice. I encourage my students to try apps like Headspace or Calm to guide them if they’re trying meditation for the first time.
The most common meditation question I’m asked by students is some variation of, “How do I do this the right way?” I’ve learned that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate and doubting our abilities are merely thoughts and feelings of a busy mind. I tell students that thinking about meditating the “right way” also misses a bigger point. Meditation is an opportunity to know and accept ourselves as we are right now. Meditation also reminds us that this moment right now is all we have so we relax a bit and try to be more present.
3. Acts of Kindness
Researchers find that acts of kindness gives our lives a greater sense of purpose and increases self-esteem. Lyubomirsky suggests starting with a few small acts of kindness several times a week. She finds that varying the kindness acts as well as its recipients keeps it fresh.
My students tell me that acts of kindness are powerful because they’re easy and yet have a disproportionately positive impact on the recipient–including strangers. They also note that acts of kindness toward friends and family is reciprocated over time and this builds stronger social bonds.
While there are many ways to lift our moods in difficult times, Expressing Gratitude, Meditation and Acts of Kindness are the three that resonate with my Drexel students. Perhaps they can help you, too.
It’s not surprising that exercises that lift our moods encourage us to either change our orientation from self to others, or to recognize that what we believe is permanent is not. And maybe that’s the best lesson for us all.