To celebrate my birthday this year, I had a Data barbecue party. In lieu of gifts, I asked each guest to be prepared to share some interesting knowledge with me. They could tell me about something about which they were an expert, or something they had read recently, or go on Wikipedia and randomly pick a few facts.
The party turned out surprisingly well, and I was fascinated by the variety of data presented to me. One friend brought some rope and taught me how to make some basic knots; another gave me a list of Amazon’s top-selling titles ranked by their readability scale; a nurse practitioner friend of mine shared strange and cool facts about the body. The information itself was interesting, but equally interesting was the choice of subject that each of my friends made.
One of my friends talked to me about happiness. He had been involved in a personal happiness research project over the past several months. His gift was telling me the number one most effective technique he had found for increasing personal happiness. (Which, by the way, ranks in top gifts received ever. Who needs a bunch of stuff if one knows how to be happy, right?)
His discovery was very simple, and I recognized it right away as a technique I have sometimes used myself, never knowing that I had accidentally stumbled upon Knowledge. Now this advice is permanently lodged in my head, readily accessible in case of emergency (or just general unhappiness). Ready for it? This is what he told me to do:
Think of five things that you’re happy about. Do this every single day.
Read it again. Its very simplicity is what makes it so effective. It’s not very difficult to think of five happy things. And it doesn’t take very long. And yet in the process of so doing, you’re restructuring the way your brain works.
Fast forward to now. I’ve been having a bit of a tough time lately. For starters, I’ve been really sick. And my tooth broke. And it just went on from there. At a certain point, the snowball effect kicked in when the negative thoughts built on each other, and suddenly I felt negative about things I wouldn’t normally have a problem with. I was framing the story of my life from an unhappy point of view, and I’d lost all sense of perspective. Eventually this led to insomnia, which just served to feed the cycle further. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Or maybe not. Because instead I remembered my friend’s present to me. Before bed I took a soothing hot bath and told my husband every single good thing about the past year I could possibly think of. Not just five, but all of them. Luckily, once I get started I’m very good at thinking of positive things. I think this skill might be part of the reason why I’m happy a lot. (Also because little things make me pretty happy, and after a while little things add up.)
I slept soundly that night, and the next day I felt ten times better, and therefore much more able to deal with the real challenges I was facing. The next night, I only thought of a couple good things, but that was enough because I had spent the whole day framing my life in a more positive way. I had believed what my friend told me at my party, but it took dramatic results for the knowledge to really sink in.
Do I think that anyone who tried this technique would get equally fast and dramatic results? No, probably not. I’ve spent years programming my mind to think more positively, after all. But I do think it’s a worthwhile exercise. People spend so much time worrying and hurting and complaining and seeing the bad side and being self-critical. Setting aside a few minutes for happiness sounds pretty reasonable.
Have you thought of five things that make you happy yet? Feel free to share them in the comments. Or e-mail me and tell me about them. Or keep them to yourself. As long as you think them, that’s what matters.