Engineering Happiness: How to think yourself happy.

Engineering Happiness: How to think yourself happy.

One of my 2012 resolutions was to be happier. Not by reaching some goal, but by being happier anyway. This is what engineering happiness is all about.

And being happier anyway…needs practice. However, I have found that it is a learnable skill. And it does produce results. Like sleeping better. Or, becoming more productive. Or, boosting your creativity. Or, dealing better with uncertainty.

In this essay I will be describing the strategies I have used during the last month to learn the art of being happier anyway…as well as the lovely results I have experienced so far. 🙂

But before I get started with strategies, let me explain more about my motivation.

engineering happiness
I’ll take happiness for a lifetime, thank you!

Why happier? Well, because this is my aim in life! My purpose is to live a happy life. The sooner I learn how to do that, the better for me! Plus, it feels awesome.

So here is why we act stupid: We cannot control conditions. Still, we keep trying to do that. Yes, all of us hate uncertainty, but that does not justify us acting stupid and worrying about things we cannot change!

We should know better than that!

For example, we may worry about the weather – will it spoil our trip? We may worry about how someone else’s reaction – but we have no power in making that person feel the way we want them to feel!  Agh, how much we hate uncertainty!

These behaviors are really stupid. Since we cannot, e.g., control the weather – at least not yet (hehe), why do we worry about it?

However, what we can control is our emotional response, or our stance. E.g., bad weather can make me feel bad, or maybe good. It’s my decision whether I will react well to it or not.

So starting in 2012 I decided that I will try to control conditions less, but will try to control my emotional response more.

Controlling my stance is actually something that is in my power. It helps be more positive with life. Plus, being positive has proven to make people more productive, spot opportunities they wouldn’t see before, more likable, etc. Not to mention that… it FEELS so much better!

So here is a list of what I initially expected to get by learning to be more positive:

  • Feel better generally.
  • Manage to get out of feeling bad faster. E.g., if I am going to feel bad about something then I prefer feeling bad for 1 hour rather than 2.
  • Become more productive, efficient, and effective.
  • Become more creative and relaxed.
  • Spend more quality moments with my husband and friends.
  • Sleep better.
  • Increase mindfulness.

Measuring Happiness: The emotional scale.

I started the year learning about happiness techniques. Practices like meditation and feeling appreciation (or “counting your blessings”) are renowned for making people feel better.

However, I felt they were not enough.

Luckily, I came across this book: “Ask and it is given”. It is actually a Law of Attraction kind of book. However, it’s the best manual I have ever discovered when it comes to actually learning how to feel happier!

So the method described below is based on this book’s teachings…

In our lives there is a range of feelings we may feel.  If we were to create an emotional scale it would look like this:

  1. Love and gratitude
  2. Excited
  3. Content
  4. Hopeful
  5. Optimistic
  6. Pessimistic
  7. Angry
  8. Miser
  9. Overwhelmed
  10. Desperate

[the book includes a far more detailed emotional scale, but you get the idea]

The point of feeling happier is managing to move up the emotional scale, by purposefully guiding our thoughts.

E.g., it feels better to be hopeful rather than pessimistic.

Some thoughts feel good, while some others feel bad. The more good feeling thoughts we choose, the better we will feel. The more bad feeling thoughts we choose, the worse we will feel.

Cannot be simpler than that right?

The whole point is feeling a little bit better, and then a little bit better, and a little bit better…

This is a great way to cope with uncertainty that governs our every-day life, but also to manage the few reaaaaally big risks that happen to us, or that we decide to take 😉 .

However, it’s not just about “managing” something stressful. It’s about being happier no matter what. It’s about being independent of conditions. It’s about being awesome 🙂

Engineering happiness: The experiment.

Anytime during the day, I may check on myself to see how I feel. Am I hopeful? Am I worried? Am I content? Am I Angry?

Then, I am thinking how I can make myself feel slightly better. Slightly is the key here. E.g., several people try to go from despair to contentment. However, that only brings them more despair as they can no way achieve such a leap. But despair can go up to misery (yes, misery feels better than despair, so that IS progress!).

However, even though it sounds simple, when trying to apply this it turns out to be quite tricky…

So let me start by showing this method with a simple example:

Initial situation: “I don’t like my car. It’s old.”

Feeling better attempt #1: “I wish I had the money to get a better one.”

This attempt fails because it makes me feel worse.

Feeling better attempt #2: “I love the smell of a new car!”

This attempt works – makes me feel better!

As you just saw in this example, the whole point of this practice is to change your stance towards any situation. You can do that by changing your thoughts. And yes, there is a lot of trial and error involved, until you actually understand what works vs. what doesn’t.

Now let me give you an even trickier example:

Initial Situation: I was stressed with work and had no idea why. I didn’t know what to do feel better. I had a hard time concentrating and my mind was wondering.

Feeling better attempt #1: Meditation by focusing on my breath.

Meditation is generally a good strategy, but it failed in this situation. I was too stressed for it.

Feeling better attempt #2: Counting my blessings.

This technique also failed miserably. Again, I was too stressed for techniques like appreciation to work.

Feeling better attempt #3: Thinking why I had every reason in the world to be optimistic about my work! Feeling angry at everyone (incl. myself) who would even possibly dare to question this! (This is the kind of anger-determination feeling)

Well, getting angry did provide relief! Once I thought of the “whys” I did become angry, but it felt so, so much better.

Generally, thinking of the reasons you deserve to have/be or do something is a strategy that works even if you rank low at the emotional scale.

Let me give you another example:

“I should go on a round-the-world trip because my actions will help inspire other people to do it too.”

Just to remind you…Angry is higher in the emotional scale than overwhelmed. So getting angry actually provides relief when you are feeling overwhelmed!

Engineering Happiness Experiment: Results after 1 month of practice.

I have just being doing this for a month and have already experienced results:

1. I am more aware on whether what I am thinking helps me feel better or not.

Example:
One of the activities I love is stretching. However, I generally get injured really easily, so I often myself unable to e.g., do my splits because of a thigh injury.

On those days (or better say, months) I may think: “You don’t take good care of you and this is why you get injured”.

Oops, I just felt worse.  But at least…I noticed that it happened.

When I catch a thought that makes me feel worse, I discard it right away! In the past, I wouldn’t even notice it, but now…I know better.

Next step: Notice even more thoughts that have a bad effect on me, and then replace them with positive ones.

As for my injury example? Here is a good replacement: “I have felt this before and it will pass as it has passed in the past.” Victory!

2. Even though I am not yet good at managing myself when stressed, I am becoming better and better at making myself even happier when feeling optimistic or higher.

The result?

It’s an irresistible chain of events that start from the night before and expand to the next day at noon:

I feel so joyful and content before I sleep (because I have added mediation and appreciation thoughts), that I am looking forward to those moments every day.

I sleep while feeling so happy and optimistic that I rest really well.

I don’t need an alarm clock to wake up as I do on my own. I am rested so I can just get up, don’t need to stay in bed whining that the day has started.

When I get up I feel so optimistic and so excited to do my work…that I decide that I will start working earlier: My usual routine involved 1 hour of coffee drinking and waking up time before actually working. This 1 hour does not happen as often anymore as I wake up and feel like I can’t wait to get started!

The work I do is of better quality: My writing gets better, I get better ideas, etc.

Next step: Make this awesome routine happen every-day, rather than once every few days.

3. Unintended consequence: I am now better at comforting my friends.

Instead of rushing to tell them why they should not feel as bad as they do (this never works), or trying to get them to be happy, I now understand that they cannot go from despair to hopeful. So I try to get them angry instead 🙂 This works!

Results Summary from this happiness experiment

This is how I am doing comparing to what I expected to get at the beginning of this experiment.

Happiness results
Happiness Results after my first month of experimenting

How to be more positive Strategies summary

Below are the strategies I have found to be working…

Happiness Strategies
The happiness strategies that worked

Final Notes:

Feeling appreciation works if I am optimistic or happier.

I have found meditation to work starting from angry and up.

Thinking “why” works regardless of current status on the emotional scale.

So what about you? Do you have any strategies to feel happier and better manage uncertainty?

Photo credit: ernohannink

This post was originally written in March 2012 for Advanced Riskology, a super blog that helps people cope better with risk and uncertainty. My favorite post? “The riskologist’s guide to decision making“. Have fun reading!

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