This is the final part of a 3 part series on the evidence behind sustainable change in happiness. In this part we’ll look at how these concepts discussed can be put to work to cause a measurable and sustainable happiness increase. Specifically, how to choose and implement activities.
Choosing an Activity: Person-Activity Fit
Every activity will not work for every person. There is a general “matching hypotheses” showing that positive affects of goal attainment on well-being are enhanced by person-goal fit. People should choose activities that align with their values and interests.
Sonja Lymbomirsky and Ken Sheldon have developed a diagnostic questionnaire that fits the person to an activity. You can search for this. However, I don’t think it’s needed to get started. Just take a look at the list below and choose something that meets these:
- aligns with your values
- you would be motivated to start
- feels natural
- Expressing gratitude
- Cultivating optimism
- Avoiding overthinking and social comparison
- Practicing acts of kindness
- Nurturing social relationships
- Developing coping strategies
- Learning to forgive
- Increasing “flow” experiences
- Savoring life’s joys
- Committing to your goals
- Practicing religion and spiritiousity
- Taking care of your body
Why choose a specific goal?
There is the problem of the 2 efforts, that is the effort to initiate and the effort to maintain an activity. The initiation effort is thought to be like a muscle that can only flex so much and gets stronger with use. To maximize the change that an activity will be started, one should choose appropriately. The second effort, maintenance, then becomes less difficult as the activity is seen to benefit if chosen properly. It becomes self-reinforcing and self-sustaining. Remember, sustainable change is the key here, not a few increased weeks of happiness.
Will I Hedonically Adapt to these changes?
The authors assume that hedonic adaptation occurs with respect to specific experiences and not to the decisions that lead to the experience. Thus, there is a distinction between initiating an activity (the decision) and implementing it (the experience) the same way every time.
For example, I found gratitude to be a good person-fit. Instead of keeping a written journal daily or even weekly, which bored me when I tried it a few years ago, I just stop every now and again when the mood strikes and pick one thing for which I’m grateful. Most of the time it’s a little thing that strikes me. Sometimes, I’m struck by a big thing, like a truck.
Maybe, I’ll take a few days and express it in prayer, or I’ll tell someone something for which I’m grateful (this works great on my 4 year old) or write it down on a sticky note to myself that day. Point is, there is no pattern, just let it happen. The adaptation comes when we pattern. Avoiding adaptation lies in varying the experience of the activity.
Positive psychology a relatively new field and as such has more than enough naysayers. I believe it’s the beginning of one that we will look back on in a few decades and think ” How did we ever thrive without it”.
Much remains on which activities are best and how to best practice these. As an example, here are the graphical results of 2 experiments mentioned in the paper measuring the change in well-being over a short (6 week) period based on 2 activities described above.
Notice the boost in subjective well-being (happiness) at 6 weeks with these activities compared with controls. However, also note that timing was everything. Acts of kindness seemed effective only when performed all on one day. Perhaps the acts were lost in the shuffle of life when spread out? Similarly, counting blessing might be boring if done 3 times per week instead of one, explaining the lack of benefit in the bottom graph.
The authors acknowledge much work remains, keep in mind this paper is 10 years old and much work has been done. However, those interested are encouraged to do the following:
- Find new activities to engage in, preferably that aligns with your values, you would be motivated to start, would feel natural and enjoyable.
- Make a habit out of initiating the activity but always vary certain aspects of the experience like timing, frequency etc
Well, this concluded my 3 part series on sustainable change in subjective well-being. I’ve been using these techniques for a few years and have noticed results. It becomes second nature.
What is your experience with changing happiness?