Getting, And Staying Happy

happinessBrittany Clifford, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, is doing something that makes her happy–and bringing fun, caring, and happiness to many children in hospitals. “The best thing I like is giving the slippers to them–and everyone laughs and smiles.”

It all started when Brittany visited her friend Michael in the hospital in 2000. Michael was having trouble keeping his feet warm, so Brittany decided to buy him slippers. She then noticed that many children in the hospital didn’t have slippers. That was the beginning of the Fuzzy Feet Foundation. “I’ve always loved wearing a cute pair of slippers. They make me happy,” she said. “I got really excited when I realized I could do something to make a difference in a sick kid’s life just by giving them slippers to make them feel more at home when they are in the hospital.”

Brittany contacted several manufacturers and told them, in handwritten notes, about the many children in hospitals who didn’t have slippers. Soon the Clifford house was full of fuzzy donations. Since then, through the Fuzzy Feet Foundation, Brittany has given more than 1,000 pairs of slippers to sick children.

Brittany is not alone in her desire to do good. Every time William Shepherd gives a needy child a gift, the high school senior smiles. Experts call this the “do-good-feel-good phenomenon.”

Happiness Is …

People can’t always predict what will make them happy, says Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. For instance, the college student who decides to go into a field where he can make a lot of money may later find out he enjoys helping people more.

Happiness can be a confusing concept. In fact, experts can’t even agree on a definition. You might say that Ruut Veenhoven, a professor from Rotterdam who manages the World Database of Happiness, gives us a global definition. He says happiness is having your needs met by living where you want and choosing work based on your passion for it, not on its earning potential.

Being Positive

According to psychology professor Martin Seligman, people can find happiness by identifying their signature strengths. Those are positive abilities, skills, and traits. Some examples are mechanical know-how, intelligence, and sociability.

Take Pete, a student from “Positiveville High School.” His strengths include computer skills, intelligence, and independence. They help him tackle his school’s technology problems. Pete’s strengths help him become a more resilient person, says Seligman, the author of Authentic Happiness. “They buffer against misfortune and mental disorders.”

After 9/11, for example, courageous survivors and rescuers used their signature strengths-physical fitness and compassion–to save others. And relatives, the business community, and New York’s mayor praised these heroic actions. These positive acts helped balance some of the painful emotions Americans felt. People had to deal with the destruction, death, and anger. But they also had positive images, so they could grieve and gradually return to a happier frame of mind.

Identify Your Strengths

Seligman downplays the role of genetics in happiness. But many scientists believe in a person’s “cheer level” or “set point.” Most psychologists agree that people can influence their cheer level. For instance, choosing a career is within your control. And a career decision has a big impact on your set point.

“A calling is the most satisfying form of work,” says Seligman, “because … it is done for its own sake rather than for material benefits.” Mike Colucci, 16, has comedy for a calling. The 16-year-old was recently named the “Funniest Person in the Valley” (Phoenix area). His next goal is to host several shows at the Improv, a comedy club in Tempe, Arizona. Not surprisingly, Mike’s career model is Robin Williams.

How can you identify your strengths?

First, ask yourself lots of quastions. Ask yourself about your interests, skills, academic favorites, hobbies, and natural talents. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-SENT-mee-high), a psychologist at Claremont College, suggests people pinpoint their passion. Total absorption in an activity might indicate that it relates to your passion. Csikszentmihalyi calls it being in the “flow.” As a child, Tony Laconte was in the “flow” with astronomy. But Laconte ignored this interest until choosing a second career. Today, he owns Stargazing for Everyone, a company that educates and entertains people about the heavens.

Observe the activities you repeat happily and successfully, suggest Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., authors of the book Now Discover Your Strengths. Also, think about what you learn rapidly. Which activities “exert a consistent pull or yearning”? They usually are keyed to your abilities and talents.

Think about your talents. A talent is “any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied,” say Buckingham and Clifton. You may have a talent for public speaking, humor, or efficiency. Perhaps you bring out the best in others or display a take-charge style. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, award-winning writers and actors, identified their talents at age 10. They would talk over their acting projects in the school cafeteria.

Observe your reactions. How do you handle tough problems, such as disagreements with family members? Do you ask for help? Start brainstorming. Also, review any awards or honors you have earned. What type of compliments do you receive?

Clues can come from anywhere, even from dreams or memories. In a recent article in U.S. News & World Report, an unhappy Allison Waxberg recalled pleasant childhood memories of painting and drawing. This helped explain why she disliked her job. She needed a more creative career. So Waxberg signed up for art classes. She now plans to become a design consultant.

Be happy

“Be happy,” say parents, relatives, and friends. It sounds simple, but happiness is not that easy to achieve. However, in the last 10 years, scientists have studied happiness. Now people can learn to maximize their set point. Here are some suggestions from noted psychologists:

* Brad Schmidt, an associate psychology professor at Ohio State University, discovered that college students who had friends as roommates felt happier. They were better able to manage anxiety, anger, and depression.

* Barbara Frederickson, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Michigan, found that specific treatments, such as relaxation therapy, meditation, or deep breathing exercises, promote happiness.

* Psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers says positive change triggers happiness. “If you live in sunny weather day after day,” says Brothers, “you take it for granted. If every once in a while it rains, then you appreciate the sunshine.”

* Oxford University psychologist Michael Argyle says recreation encourages happiness. This can include exercise such as swimming, biking, or working out.

* Psychologist Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the happiest people have close friends. And one of the best ways to keep friends is to keep envy out of the relationship.

* According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, a “steady diet” of small pleasures will raise your set point. Enjoy the little things, such as sunsets, healthy snacks, and a new CD.

* Psychologist Ken Sheldon, of the University of Missouri at Columbia, found that self-esteem is critical to happiness. So choose activities that make you feel competent.

* Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, at the University of California-Riverside, suggests pursuing meaningful goals every day.

Learn to be more optimistic by changing your thinking, says Martin Seligman. Instead of exaggerating your flaws, concentrate on improving. Define a goal. Map out a strategy. And take active steps toward the goal.

* Robert Emmons, of the University of California-Davis, studied people who listed five things for which they were thankful. He found that people who expressed gratitude were happier.

* Performing good deeds (“acts of kindness”) can raise your spirits, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia.

* Christopher Peterson, a University of Michigan psychologist, says forgiveness is the “queen of virtue.” But it takes hard work. So congratulate yourself for your efforts, not just for your successes.

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