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See Inside April 2005

Make Yourself Happy

Small acts that create immediate pleasures can add up to long-term satisfaction


LITTLE EVENTS sometimes have far-reaching consequences. For example, the reason I'm no longer driving a delightful but temperamental Alfa Romeo is because of a chocolate Easter bunny. I used to bring my car to a repair shop that employed a mechanic with whom I was most pleased. Then one day he phoned to inform me that he had resigned. “But why?” I asked him. “A new owner has taken over,” he replied. “The working atmosphere isn't like it used to be. I just didn't feel good there anymore.

Immediately the psychologist in me was intrigued. “So what was different?” I wanted to know. “Well, I guess it was just little things,” he said. “Like, at Easter, the owner's wife would always slip a chocolate bunny into everyone's toolbox. It made you feel like someone out there was making an effort.” The Easter bunny didn't come anymore, the esteemed mechanic left, and my next car was a reliable but less glamorous Saab.

Behind this trivial story lurks a central topic of psychology: how personal happiness originates. Psychologists hope that once we understand this, we might be able to create these feelings at will.

Short-Term Joys

Personal happiness has two components: one is short-lived and immediate, and the second is long-term and “habitual.” The instant variety could best be described as an intense experience of joy. These feelings range from sensual pleasures to so-called flow experiences—brought on by acts in which we become totally immersed and lose all sense of self. Instant happiness can also emerge when you are just relax-ing on your balcony after a hard day's work, with your feet up as you watch the sun go down. Short-term pleasures create a stirring of emotions that psychologists refer to as positive affect.

Many people can motivate themselves before beginning an unpleasant task by anticipating the good feeling of success they will get when the job is completed. And simple acts of social caring can create positive affects for others: a smile, a word of praise, a kind letter—or a chocolate Easter bunny.

Most individuals underestimate the power this factor can have in both their private and professional lives. One extravagant annual company picnic does not create a healthy working environment; it takes many immediate, smaller happy moments to achieve this atmosphere. All employers should demonstrate to their employees that they care. Even if employers are focused only on the bottom line, for only minimal time and expense they can noticeably increase job satisfaction and, therefore, productivity. The same applies to family relationships and partnerships. Each person—alternating each week, for instance—can take a turn “being responsible” for positive feelings by bringing home flowers, getting tickets for a movie, or planning a weekend outing together.

A very different tactic can also elicit immediate feelings of happiness—the reduction of anything that makes you unhappy. Let us say you are in a meeting at work at which another employee shoots down one of your proposals with an unannounced set of statistics. Because he did not submit his figures before the meeting, you have not prepared a reply. Everyone is impressed with his pie chart, even though you are sure no one really understands it. You are overtaken by a wave of anger, and, worse, you can think of nothing to say.

To dissipate the unhappiness that will most likely stay with you after such a meeting, you can use a device we have developed at the University of Zurich called the idea basket. Imagine that there is a basket in front of you and that you are going to fill it with suggestions from your colleagues and friends. Begin by making a detailed list of which situations, circumstances and triggers have led to specific negative emotional experiences. Then ask as many trustworthy and discreet people as you can to come up with appropriate ways to respond.

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