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Why Being Positive Is Easier Said Than Done

There are tons of tips out there on how to be happier, but actually putting this advice into practice is often harder than it first appears. Here's why.
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By all accounts, from the anecdotal to the rigorously research-backed, having a positive outlook can have a huge impact on your happiness, productivity and even your business. No wonder audiences respond so strongly to stories offering tips on improving your psychology and boosting happiness, then. Nor is it a surprise that tons of websites, including this one, regularly offer advice on how to have a sunnier disposition.

But after reading many of these articles, you may have noticed that the sort of things they suggest--practicing gratitude, say, or getting out into the natural world more regularly--are easier to read about then they are to effectively implement. Not every technique works for every reader and some simple interventions actually turn out to be incredibly difficult to put into practice.

Why? Because positive psychology research has "fine print" that rarely gets mentioned in the media, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Lyubomirsky recently spoke to the newsletter of Greater Good, a science center at UC Berkeley that studies well-being and positive psychology, laying out what the newsletter calls "the little details you should consider before undertaking happiness activities." 

Getting your brain into a more positive mode isn't quite as simple as all those blog posts and morning show segments make it sound, Lyubomirsky explains, for several reasons, including:

Motivation and beliefs. In one study, Lyubomirsky posted online two nearly identical requests for study participants. The only difference? One version told participants the study was meant to increase their happiness, while the other simply told them they’d take part in a cognitive exercise. After performing the same happiness-inducing activities, the people who signed up for the happiness study--the group Lyubomirsky saw as more “motivated” to become happier--gained more from the study than those who signed up for the other exercise.

Culture. So far, Layous and Lyubomirsky’s analysis suggests that Westerners benefit more from positive activities than other populations, including Asians. One study conducted at UC Riverside found that Anglo-Americans benefitted more from happiness-increasing activities; however, researchers did see a small trend that Asians gained more from activities directed toward benefitting others’ happiness, like writing a letter of gratitude, than activities strictly intended to benefit the self.

Starting levels of happiness. A person’s level of happiness before he or she undertakes one or more happiness-increasing activities also impacts how well an activity works.

Age, level of social support and amount of effort play a role in determining the effectiveness of attitude adjusting activities as well. Lyubomirsky also stresses that not every happiness booster works for everyone and finding a proper fit between intervention and individual is more important than many people realize. You need to choose "the particular happiness activity that’s the best match for your personality and circumstance. That will affect how much you enjoy the activity, reinforcing your motivation and effort to continue." Extraverts, for example, may do better with activities that have a social component rather than something solitary like writing a letter of gratitude.

So how do you determine which happiness intervention has the best chance of working for you? Check out the rest of the article for some tips on sorting through the avalanche of advice on happiness for the bits most suited to you.

Do you struggle to put positive psychology advice to work in the real world?

Last updated: Aug 28, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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