Monday, June 11, 2012

How to Be Happy

This is the kind of job I have: as part of my JOB I was expected (well, warmly invited) to attend a three-day Prindle Institute retreat called "Living with Joy: The Science and Skill of Happiness." Our retreat leader, Douglas A. Smith, teaches DePauw's extremely popular, life-changing Winter Term course on happiness; as our preparation for the weekend he had us read What Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, by Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth; the retreat was attended by DePauw alumni returning for Alumni Weekend, as well as current and retired faculty and staff, and one current student.  My favorite attendees were two mother-daughter pairs.  Can you think of any lovelier mother/daughter activity than attending a happiness retreat together?

I won't be able to stay for the third and final day of the retreat, tomorrow, because I'll be on my way to the Children's Literature Association Conference in Boston.  But here is some of what I have learned so far.

Research in the field of positive psychology shows that only 10 percent of our level of happiness is caused by our circumstances; 50 percent is caused by our "set point" (influenced by our genetic makeup); 40 percent is caused by our voluntary choices.

Happy people do better in life by almost every measure; they even live longer. One study measured the link between cheerfulness and longevity in nuns.  Of those in the most cheerful quartile (assessed upon the time of their taking holy orders), 90 percent were still alive at age 85; of those in the least cheerful quartile, only 34 percent were still alive at that same age.

What are the two key skills for making peace with one's past?  Forgiveness (of others and of oneself) and gratitude. Men are measurably better at forgiving themselves than women are; women are measurably better at forgiving others.  (Hmmm.....)  Our leader, Doug, made the pronouncement that forgiveness is THE most essential skill for happiness.  When we have painful events in our past, we only have four choices for how to deal with them: 1) forget them (good if you can do it, but most of us can't); 2) repress them (never works); 3) hold on to them (a heavy burden to carry); or 4) forgiveness.

What are the four key skills for finding confidence in the future?  Remember them by the acronym FOFO: faith, optimism, flexibility, and openness. In one study of survival in difficult situations: those who survive are those who 1) face reality, and 2) believe that anything is possible.

Then we learned a range of skills for living in the present, ranging from "doing now what you are doing now" (i.e, be mindfully present as you do it), to honoring your mental, physical, and spiritual health (by asking yourself the question, "To whom and to what do I give access to my mind, body and spirit?"), altruism (mega-important for happiness), focusing on cooperation not competition (believing in a world of abundance, not a world of scarcity), mastering the stories we tell ourselves, finding purpose in our lives, and cherishing friendships.

Then of course there are the five happiness traps to avoid, but that can be the subject for another post!  I've absorbed all I can for one day.  We alternated between large sessions and small group discussions, and I now love all the people in my small group from today (previously strangers) and will love them for all of time!  Well, at the least, I am grateful to them for sharing this happiness journey with me, and to the Prindle Institute for hosting this event, and to the universe for letting me have a job where I actually get paid to spend two days learning more about how to be happy.  That itself is cause for happiness.

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