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Should We Aim To Be Perfectly Happy?

If you were to score yourself on a scale of zero to 10, how happy were you yesterday? And how happy are you today with your life?

Over the last decade, researchers, workplaces and governments have begun repeatedly measuring our levels of happiness. Why? As we have documented in Live Happy over the past two-and-a-half years, a growing body of research suggests happy people are more successful in marriages, friendships, earning money, work performance and physical health. So surely the higher our happiness scores, the more success we’ll all have. Right?

Well perhaps.

A more nuanced look at happiness

“In our achievement-oriented culture, we often expect to see scores go up,” explains Dr. Peggy Kern from The University of Melbourne, and one of the world’s leading researchers on well-being and its impact. “But I think being 10 out of 10 on a happiness or well-being measure is probably maladaptive. It’s good to have a high level of happiness and to maintain that over time, but it’s also important to be aware that we can have too much of a good thing. And depending on what’s going on in your life, being happy is not always appropriate”

For example, researchers have found that while many of us may believe reducing our level of stress is key to improving our happiness, the Gallup World Happiness Report has found that countries with high stress also score high on happiness and well-being. Despite the common perception, stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness.

The right kind of stress

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her best-selling book The Upside of Stress explains: “The Gallup Poll found that raising a child under 18 significantly increases the chance that you will experience a great deal of stress every day—and that you will smile and laugh a lot each day. Entrepreneurs who say that they experienced a great deal of stress yesterday are also more likely to say that they learned something interesting that day.

Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.”

As psychologists Richard Ryan, Veronika Huta and Edward Deci write in a chapter of The Exploration of Happiness, “The more directly one aims to maximize pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning and community.”

The many facets of happiness

“Happiness comprises multiple elements, such as positive emotions, engagement in life, relationships, a sense of meaning and accomplishment and good physical health,” explains Peggy. “By regularly measuring how we are doing in different areas, we can start to understand what happiness means to us personally, and how we’re impacted by the actions we choose to take and our life experiences.”

“Again the goal is not a perfect score in every domain,” she says. “Instead, it’s about noticing when you are living in a way that is most adaptive for you based on what you value, the situations you find yourself in, the resources you have to draw upon and the results you want to achieve. Then take steps to maintain this consistently, or make adjusts as needed.”

How can you broaden your measures of happiness? Here are six evidence-based steps:

Track your well-being

Take the free PERMAH Workplace Wellbeing Survey developed by Peggy to see how you’re doing, set small goals for improvement and access a database of more than 200 different evidence-based practices to improve your happiness at work.

Balance your emotions

Researchers have found that both positive and negative emotions have their place when it comes to flourishing. While positive emotions can boost our energy, self-confidence and creativity, negative emotions can trigger our awareness that something important to us is not right. They can be a catalyst for change. Happiness is about having the psychological flexibility to understand when heartfelt positive emotions serve us best, and when we need to practice being comfortably uncomfortable with stress and anxiety. You can track your emotions and reflect on their impact using the free two-minute test at www.positivityratio.com.

Develop your strengths

Researchers have found using our strengths—those things we’re good at and enjoy doing—can help us feel more confident, engaged and energized about our work. They also caution that focusing only on our strengths can give us a false sense of competence, result in over-used strengths and ignores the power of our weaknesses. Happiness requires being able to find the right strength, in the right amount and for the right outcomes, and being able to tackle our weaknesses head-on when they are important. You can start by discovering your strengths using the free 10-minute survey at www.viacharacter.org.

Create authentic connections

Considerable scientific evidence suggests other people matter. Practicing gratitude not only improves our relationships, but has also been found to reduce stress and negative emotions, and increase our levels of energy and resilience. Before you leave work each day, take the time to genuinely thank one person for how they made your day a little better. Be specific about what you appreciated and why.

Find a healthy sense of meaning

Adam Grant, Ph.D., expert in altruism and professor at the Wharton Business School of Business, notes the single strongest predictor of having a sense of meaning and purpose is the belief that what we do has a positive impact on others. Think about how what you do each day can help others—even if it’s just the person sitting next to you. Then take time each week to savor the difference you make.  Be aware, however, that when our passion becomes obsession (and you hear yourself saying “I have to” instead of “I want to”), this can undermine happiness in the long term. So try to aim for balance, not obsession.

Nurture hope

While 89 percent of us believe tomorrow will be better than today, only 50 percent of us believe we can make it so. Researchers suggest this belief is the difference between wishing and hoping. When we hope, we set clear “want-to” goals, pathways to reach them, and we find ways to maintain our willpower. As a result, hope can add about an hour a day in terms of productivity, and it helps to improve our health and well-being. You can map your hopes at work by following these simple steps.

So this year on the International Day of Happiness, what steps can you take to improve your happiness?

Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author and coach with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been featured in Forbes, The Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and many other outlets.

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