It's not always easy: Coping tips from psychology

An exercise to increase happiness

couldyoubehappierEverybody would like to be happy. Research has shown that, in nation after nation, university students rate being happy as extremely important and valuable (6.39 on a 7 point scale).  Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, a very popular Harvard psychologist, has described happiness as “the ultimate currency”. He believes that everything we do, every  action we take, the reason why we do anything, is because we believe it will, ultimately,  lead to happiness.

UltimatecurrencyAlthough it may seem like focusing on your own happiness is a self-indulgent or selfish goal, in fact, research has shown over and over again that happiness doesn’t just make you feel good; it also is associated with many other valuable benefits. For example, on average, happier people tend to have an advantage in terms of

  • health (immune system) and, possibly, even life span,
  • rates of college graduation,
  • job performance and satisfaction,
  • marital and other social relationships,
  • leadership skills
  • helping others and volunteering in the community
  • self-esteem and sense of control
  • ability to cope with difficult situations

With so many benefits, who wouldn’t want to increase their levels of happiness? Is it possible? According to psychology professor, Sonya Lyubomirsky, in her book, The How of Happiness, our happiness level is a result of 3 factors –

  1. our genetics determine 50% of our happiness level
  2. our environment (stuff that happens) determines 10% of our happiness level
  3. intentional activities (stuff you make happen) determines 40% of our happiness level

happiness pie

Genetics can’t be changed, and you may not have much control over the stuff that happens to you. So, psychology has recently put a lot of effort into focusing on the Intentional Activities –  what people can do, what deliberate activities they can engage in, to improve their happiness level. Evidence from well-designed studies has shown that people can markedly boost their happiness by using certain “happiness exercises”.

One well-documented and straightforward Happiness Exercise is called Three Good Things or Counting Blessings. It starts with the premise that we think too much about what goes wrong in our lives, and not enough about what goes right.  Such negative events, then, can end up having more impact on us than positive ones. Although this may have made a lot of sense for our distant ancestors who needed to recognize and prepare for disaster for their very survival, in the present time, we will feel better if we notice, think about and appreciate what went well in our lives. The goal is to change your focus from things that go wrong to things you might take for granted that go well.  Such gratitude can be  an antidote to negative feelings.

3goodthingsSo the Three Blessings exercise requires the participant to set aside 10 minutes a day (before bed works well) and “write down three things that went well today and then think about and write down why they went well”. The three things need not be earth shattering in importance. Some examples you can write about include something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved that day, specific individuals who care about you, the tasty dinner you had, etc. etc. It is like keeping a daily gratitude journal. Try to keep the strategy fresh, not using the same blessings every day, in order to keep it meaningful and interesting.


Although it may be tough to find things to be grateful for during times of personal hardship, this may be the most important thing that you can do to increase your level of happiness.


Take care and be good to yourselves, Rhonda Gilby

This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.