Happiness has been a difficult science, as skeptics have difficulty defining and quantifying the subject. The definition may be adequately described by a “positive emotional state” (Bartram, 2011). Descriptions of happiness through theories such as set-point theory and comparison theory have a fatalistic view of the value of happiness and one’s ability to change it. However, utilitarian thought is contrary to this fixed view and believes in consequential effects leading to happiness (Veenhoven, 2006). An Italian sociologist, Nuvolati, ascribes to the notion that happiness is based on material and immaterial resources and how one manages these resources in his or her life. However, material resources seem to be negated as influential in the Easterlin Paradox where increases in wealth resulted in increased expectations, which either had little or a negative impact on happiness. At a micro level, happiness has attributes that include physical and mental health and traits such as openness, empathy, and tact. These items promote getting along with others, which increases happiness (Greco, Holmes & McKenzie, 2015). It is the micro level that provides an argument for happiness exercises and the internal, non-material resources that may have the most controllable components to happiness.
The How and Why of Happiness Exercises
Happiness exercises are meant to refocus the mind on the positive aspects of life, as it is difficult to not have a single happy part in a life even when there are many negative events occurring. A person in pain and likely to die may be able to find happiness in their children or even in a ray of sunshine or a drop of rain. It is sometimes difficult due to the weight of unhappiness on the depressed, but happiness exercises allow a distraction from the negative in order to reach a more positive state. At times, this distraction may require that one does something for someone else in order to feel that they are a benefit or value to society. Happiness exercises allow for this to happen. Society values happiness as a state of well-being, and despite difficulties in defining and quantifying this subjective emotion, exercises have led to quantifiable increases in happiness measured through surveys.
Four happiness exercises discussed here are gratitude visits, three good things in life, you at your best and identifying signature strengths. Gratitude visits are performed by thanking someone in person or in writing who has been very kind but has not received thanks. One component of happiness is caring for the happiness of others, and expressing gratitude has a duplicitous effect of giving happiness to the giver and the receiver of the gratitude (Veehoven, 2006). Another exercise is to write down three good things about each day and how these things came about. Understanding and recognizing activities that lead to happiness also has a dual effect of noting that happy things did occur but also giving direction and hope for happiness to continue. Recollecting a time when one did their best work allows individuals to credit themselves with the ability to do well and note any personal resources that facilitated the event or action. Identifying personal strengths leads to self-value, and the modest person may not realize or remember their worth without conscious effort. Furthermore, writing down ways to use these strengths leads to initiative and positive energy. Collectively, these happiness exercises have been tested and measured for their effects longitudinally, and gratitude visits have shown strong positive results (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). Each of the exercises allows one to identify happy moments in life, but it also allows him or her to have faith that there are ways to maintain or replicate that happiness.
Gratitude Visit as an Intervention
At times, unhappiness can be caused by too much introspection and regret, and one must refocus on the happiness of others to end self-pity and replace it by a concentration on someone else’s happiness. Caring for others leads to self-satisfaction and pride. One tests of happiness exercises measured the effects of gratitude visits pre- and post-intervention, and people participating in gratitude visits showed a significant increase in happiness one week and one month post intervention. The researchers noted that it may not be practical to consistently reach out to those who have not been thanked, but the results were significant and worth consideration (Seligman et al., 2005). Of the four exercises, gratitude visits were the only exercise that took the focus off of the individual and placed it on their societal benefit, which increased their value and worth in society. As an intervention, the practicality of one-month gratitude visits is not extremely practical, but it is possible.
Aristotle defined a good life in terms of lifestyle, and he said it resulted from a prosperous and virtuous lifestyle (Greco et al, 2015). When considering the immaterial resources, namely our cognitive ability, it seems that happiness can be heightened through happiness exercises such as the four previously described. As an intervention, gratitude studies have shown promise in efficacy, but each exercise has its place in an individual’s happiness arsenal. As the idea of happiness is complicated and not agreed upon, it is likely that each exercise has a situational purpose, and there is not one exercise that fits every situation. Happiness is not necessarily a comparison of one’s life to the life of others. It is more likely the comparison of one’s life to how one feels that life should be. Purposeful recognition of happiness through happiness exercises allows that comparison to be productive instead of misguided or detrimental to the ability of one to be happy.
- Bartram, D. (2011). Elements of a sociological contribution to happiness studies: Social context, unintended consequences, and discourses. University of Leicster, United Kingdom. Retrieved from https://www.le.ac.uk/sociology/db158/SCompass%201pt5.pdf
- Greco, S., Holmes, M. & McKenzie, J. (2015). Friendship and happiness from a sociological perspective. In M. Demir (Ed.), Friendship and happiness across the life-span and Cultures (pp. 19-28). New York, NY: Springer.
- Seligman, M., Steen, T., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist 60(5). Retrieved from http://www.michaelmurphypsychologies.com/seligman05ppprogressarticle.pdf
- Veenhoven, R. (2006). How do we assess how happy we are? Tenets, implications, and tenability of three theories. New directions in the study of happiness: United States and international perspectives. University of Notre Dame, USA. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~adutt/activities/documents/Veenhoven_paper.pdf