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.
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 owers, 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.
Try to get ideas from people in as many different social groups as possible. Certainly ask your favorite co-worker, but also approach your son's kindergarten teacher, the neighborhood bricklayer, even your 14-year-old daughter—despite her adolescent behavior that sometimes leaves you wondering how sound her thinking really is. Often those whose minds have stored experiences through very different connections produce the most surprising and helpful ideas. Once your suggestion basket is full, choose several options that could reduce the negative aspects and then resolve to act on them. Even if you cannot fully transform the negative into a positive in a given situation, curing it even halfway can greatly improve your happiness.
By creating an ongoing series of short-term highs and reversing lows, you are already on your way to long-term, habitual happiness. This state expresses itself as an all-encompassing feeling of satisfaction with life. According to psychological surveys, factors that can strongly contribute to this state are financial security, a well-ordered social environment and a trusting relationship. And yet many people experience a “dissatisfaction dilemma”—they just do not feel happy even when they have in place favorable life circumstances, such as the ones just mentioned. The way to resolve the dilemma is to squeeze into each day as much immediate happiness as possible. By using every opportunity to feel happy, you awaken positive feelings that can buoy your spirits.
Here are just a few possibilities:
- In the morning, become aware of the rising sun; at breakfast deeply inhale the fragrance of your coffee.
- While riding to work on the train, watch the landscape rather than pointlessly riing through papers from the office.
- When you get to work, greet your co-workers with a “good morning” before you check your e-mails.
- After an hour or two, take a small break; you will feel better, and it will improve your concentration on the next task as well.
- Buy a ower during lunchtime and beautify your desk.
There is only one important rule here: the more the better. It is the number of such happiness motivators that count—not their quality. Many seemingly trivial acts add up to the joy of living.
You can also stimulate long-term satisfaction intellectually. If you maintain positive thoughts, you will indeed start to feel happier. This is not to say that habitual happiness can be grounded in figments of the imagination. It must be based on a solid foundation, which means fulfilling your desires, hopes and expectations as best as you can. But to do so, you first have to know what you want. On this score, somatic markers can help.
Scientists now know that sensory information is under permanent scrutiny by an automatic, internal process that promptly monitors experiences that pour in from our external world. The ability of an individual to know what is good for him or her is relative to how carefully the person can perceive and heed this internal commentary of somatic markers. Such markers are perceived either as a physical sensation or as a feeling, or a mixture of both. They originate in our emotional memory of experiences, which is a group of brain structures that store and evaluate every meaningful moment we have gone through. Bad experiences send out negative somatic markers; pleasant ones produce positive signals.
You can train yourself to be consciously aware of your somatic-marker signals. By doing so, you will build that intellectual foundation of positive thoughts. In the long run, only individuals who have the self-confidence to guide their lives by their own system of values, regardless of public opinion or fashionable trends, can find true satisfaction. Somatic markers can provide invaluable guidance, helping you make the right decisions, realize long-term goals, and find the necessary motivation to transform your resolutions into action. In the process, you will create the preconditions that ensure long-term happiness.