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Embracing Day-to-Day Positivity

How to focus on the "here and now," rather than chase future happiness.

Key points

  • A recent study indicated that few Americans report being very happy.
  • The majority of us spend our lives working toward a future “happiness,” consequently neglecting our present experiences.
  • By applying positive psychology into our daily practise, we can simultaneously encourage greater present and future happiness.

I recently had dinner with a friend who was clearly in a miserable mood. After my questioning and suggesting that she should be kinder to herself, she shrugged it off and told me that all she needed was some more work, and then she’d "be happy." While not an uncommon mindset, it’s really stuck with me, as I’ve wondered how many of us view the pursuit of future happiness as mutually exclusive from enjoying our present day-to-day.

CNN recently reported that national rates of happiness have hit an all-time low, with new data from the General Social Survey indicating that only 19 percent of Americans are "very happy."

Dale de Vera/ Unsplash
Embracing Positivity
Source: Dale de Vera/ Unsplash

The problem is that too many of us share my friend’s perspective, mistakenly equating happiness with some future state of perfection. In reality, as we get ahead, so do our peers; new targets form as we surpass old ones, and life presents new challenges.

It’s no surprise that if we keep moving the goalposts forward, we never reach them, setting ourselves up for continuous disappointment.

It is also a cruel and ironic truth that hyperawareness of our current measure of happiness probably only serves to make us more miserable.

This presents a conundrum: How do we pursue happiness without trying to "be happy"? It’s like someone saying "Try not to picture a pink elephant."...That’s all you’ll see!

How to Embrace Positivity

Champions of positive psychology suggest we should be re-framing the game and pursuing positivity rather than chasing happiness. Here are three practical ways we can do this:

1. Measure yourself backward.

Dan Sullivan’s concept, The Gap and the Gain, describes how we can choose to measure ourselves forward or backward. Many people place themselves in the "gap," constantly measuring themselves against a future ideal or milestone, while the rest (in the "gain") appreciate how far they’ve come and what they’ve already got. Unsurprisingly, the former group is likely to feel more failure and depression, whereas the latter will feel more confidence and satisfaction.

So, we must celebrate the little things more often and retrain our brains to focus on what we’ve already achieved and how hard we’ve tried.

A colleague recently told me that they try to think of three things they’re proud of or grateful for before they fall asleep. Whether it’s over your morning coffee, on your daily commute, or while washing the dishes, we should all be doing the same.

2. Embrace activities that generate positive emotions.

If we know the "happy"’ hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) are released when we smile, laugh, love, and move, we can then agree on the importance of prioritising a daily dose of them. Research shows that rather than holding a general expectation of eventual happiness, people who are mindful of joy on a day-to-day basis feel more positively.

On a small scale, this means deliberately making time every day (yes, even during the week!) for doing something you genuinely love—whether it’s cooking, writing, or watching obscure Danish cinema….On a larger scale, prioritising positive emotions means being mindful of giving proper weighting to the emotional implications of big decisions in life, such as where you live, what job you take, and with whom you spend time.

If a decision is going to limit your ability to experience daily positive emotions, then it probably isn’t the right one.

3. Accept that moments of unhappiness are healthy.

Unhappiness is not the opposite of happiness (apathy is), and experiencing occasional negative emotions such as anger or sadness can actually boost overall contentment as long as we approach it with the right mindset.

Embracing Positivity
Source: whoislimos/Unsplash

In reality, bouts of unhappiness or negative emotions can help us to learn and grow, whereas avoiding them only makes it harder for us to cope when they are unavoidable. If we can sit with a negative emotion, understand it, and empathise with ourselves, we can build resilience through self-knowledge of what will alternatively bring us comfort and joy.

When we live in a society that rewards those who hustle, applying these three tenets of positive psychology might not happen overnight, but it will eventually turn "happiness" from being an aspirational goal into a more controllable way of experiencing our lives.

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