Dr. Dan’s Top Five Happiness Boosters

It’s fair to say that the vast majority of humans—if not all of us—want to be happy. Yet happiness means different things to different people. For some, it might mean excitement, a feeling of gleeful anticipation that accompanies each day. For others, it might mean joy at work and in relationships, or lots of laughter. Still others might experience happiness as a state of satisfaction and contentment.

Psychologist and speaker Dan Tomasulo says that, while there are different types of happiness, the broader and better definition of happiness is “subjective well-being.”

“Subjective well-being includes a self-report of how we experience the quality of our lives, which includes their emotional and cognitive elements,” Dan (often called Dr. Dan) explains. “This is the definition we use in science because it can be measured across people and cultures.”

Life is chock full of challenges that can compromise our subjective sense of well-being. Dan says what often gets in the way of happiness is the inability to be ourselves. “Whenever we can’t do or be what we were meant to be or do, this causes an emotional irritation that immediately diminishes our well-being,” he explains.

What also diminishes happiness is the lens through which we perceive ourselves and our circumstances. How we choose to interact with others and even how we choose to think affect our happiness quotient.

Enter positive psychology—the science and application of what makes life worth living.

Positive psychology proposes that we take ongoing action to boost our happiness. “People have to step up and do more of the things they know will bring joy into their lives and less of the things that don’t,” Dan says. “Everyone knows that vegetables are better for you than red meat, but if you keep eating hamburgers, you won’t get the benefit. Positive psychology is the science behind the ‘emotional nutrition’ you need to have higher well-being. You need to practice it to get the effects.”

One of the best ways to do that, according to Dan, is to engage in gratitude. “Gratitude interventions are typically aimed at reflection on the past—what has happened,” he explains. “If I ask you to think of the last 24 hours and identify three specific things that you have gratitude for, it will change your perception of yesterday. If you had a crummy day, it got better when you highlighted the gratitude, and if it was a good day, the practice of gratitude made it that much better.”

The effects of practicing gratitude are physiological, too, due to the plasticity of the brain. “When we highlight what we’re grateful for, we change the pathway of our perception,” Dan says. “This will shift our brain neurochemistry. If we’re grateful because of a relationship, it’s very likely to increase our oxytocin levels. It’s a pretty good bang for the buck.”

Another simple way to boost happiness is to practice kindness. “One of the beautiful things about kindness is that we seem to be wired to notice it and express it,” Dan points out. “When we see an act of kindness, we’re just as affected as if we had either done or received it. Evolution has given us the tools to know what moral beauty is. It’s our job to try and spread kindness around as much as possible.”

This has a physiological impact as well: The vagus nerve and our vagal tone, a measure of physical well-being and stress resilience, shifts upward.

Another happiness-boosting tool is to increase the volume and strength of our positive thoughts. “Hope is never further away than your next thought,” Dan notes. “What I mean by this is that the choice and power to change our thoughts is the essential ingredient in increasing our positivity.”

Since feelings are fleeting by nature, we need to activate them continually if we want to experience positive emotions more often. And because thoughts have such a powerful effect on feelings, consistently working with the mind to enhance our positive thoughts is key. “Regular practices are important,” Dan says—keeping a gratitude journal, meditating regularly (loving-kindness meditation is particularly effective), and practicing mindfulness.

It turns out that our well-being also increases when we identify and activate our character strengths; the same is true when we appreciate the character strengths of others. “Character strengths are the colors of happiness,” Dan says. “Just like the color of a room will amplify the choices of the trimmings, the same is true with character strengths. When we use our own, we’re showing the world our colors. When we acknowledge them in other people, we’re celebrating theirs.”

Dan suggests taking the VIA Institute’s character strengths survey and becoming vigilant about practicing our top five or six character strengths. “As an example, one of my top strengths is humor,” he notes. “I’ll take a whole day trying to find new and different ways to use it. I’ve been in some faculty meetings where it was difficult to employ, but you start thinking of subtle ways to use your strengths in new situations.”

Pick one of your top strengths and make a conscious effort to use it six out of seven days that week, and then choose another the following week and do the same. “After a while,” Dan promises, “it’ll become second nature.” The sought-after speaker says that looking for ways to use his top strengths—which include creativity, perspective, appreciation of beauty and excellence, and zest—has enhanced his life and the way he connects with others.

Dan says when we begin to practice positive psychology interventions like these, we become like airplanes lifting off. “It’s very subtle,” he admits, “but you gain momentum. It doesn’t happen all at once. But little by little, you’ll start challenging how you’re perceiving the world. You’ll recognize that you may have been seeing things in one way when it was possible to see them through multiple lenses. This becomes the new habit.”

Find out about Dan Tomasulo's program at Kripalu, Dare to Be Happy: The Power of Positive Being.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please email editor@kripalu.org.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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