How To Feel Happy

A simple smile can be the first step

Arthur C. Brooks From The Atlantic Published Mar 21, 2022 20:10:02 IST
How To Feel Happy Photo: Getty Images

Norman Rockwell created some of the most iconic images of 20th-century America. His paintings, such as theFour Freedoms series from World War II and The Problem We All Live With from the civil rights movement, were intended to evoke the best in people who saw them: hope, solidarity, courage, justice. Much of his work also inspired happiness, capturing scenes of lighthearted joy.

And yet Rockwell himself struggled with happiness. In 1953, he moved to a bucolic small town—not for its natural beauty and peace but because it was home to a psychiatric hospital where he and his wife could receive treatment for chronic depression. There, he was a patient of a famous psychoanalyst, with whom Rockwell racked up large bills.

That a man with such significant happiness problems would be known for painting images of undeniable happiness might seem ironic. In truth, it's not strange at all. Research shows that not only can you bring joy to others even if you’re unhappy but also that doing so is a reliable way to improve your own well-being.

The key is to act like a happy person would, even if you don’t feel like it. In 2020, researchers at the University of California at Riverside asked people to behave in either extroverted or introverted ways for one week. Those who purposely acted extroverted—which decades of research have shown is one of the most common characteristics of happy people—saw a significant increase in well-being. (Meanwhile, acting introverted led to a decrease.)Similarly, spending money on others and volunteering have been shown to raise one’s own happiness levels.

One plausible explanation is that prosocial behaviors induce a cognitive dissonance—I feel unhappy, but I am acting happy!—which people resolve subconsciously by feeling happier.Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at theUniversity of Hertfordshire, in the UK,calls this the ‘As If Principle’: If you want to feel a certain way, act as if you already do, and your brain will grant you that feeling, at least for a while.

This is not a substitute for traditional medical treatment for depression, of course. Rockwell was in formal therapy most of his adult life. But his happy paintings were clearly part of his treatment. As Rockwell’s biographer Deborah Solomon points out, “He was painting ... his longing.”

Even if not literally, you can use the Rockwell formula to bring joy to yourself and the people around you when you are down. First, think about what happy people in your situation would do to make things better for themselves and others. How would they greet someone in the first call of the day? How would they write an email?Whom would they call just to check in? If you’re stuck, ask happy people you know about the little things they do for others.

Next, make a plan to follow through on everything you just imagined. Write three ideas for extra-kind greetings on some notepaper and consult it before making a phone call. Draft a sample email in the voice of a happy person and use it as a template.

By deliberately preparing yourself to cheer up the people around you the way a happy person would, you’ll create the conditions by which you can produce your own happiness naturally—and give the gift of happiness to others as well.

From The Atlantic (4 March 2021), Copyright© The Atlantic Media Co. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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