Wednesday, July 20, 2011

psychological perspectives on happiness and well-being.

last night i went to a lecture/discussion held by the st. olaf college alumni association with vanessa. professor donna mcmillan (the psychology department chair) was speaking on happiness and well-being from a psychological perspective and gave some valuable insights on behaviors which promote happiness and well-being. she began by talking about how happiness or well-being can be influenced by a variety of factors, those factors including circumstances, genetics, personality, etc. she dug into personality a little bit by talking about extroverts vs. introverts and how a person is not just one or the other but how we have different levels of extrovert and introvert in us for different aspects of our personality. extroverts tend to be "happier" people than introverts, the explanation for which, she explained, was that extroverts tend to express more extreme emotion more often, while introverts are more reserved with their reactions to things. where an extrovert would say "that was the best concert ever!" an introvert would say "it was good," even if both people really really enjoyed the show. she talked a little bit about studies she had done to discover how introverts and extroverts experience happiness or what they consider to be "happy," and the results were interesting in that extroverts often need the extreme expressions of emotion to bring themselves up to a level of excitement that introverts may already feel, meaning the introverts have no need for intense expression.

after a few introvert/extrovert discussions, donna proceeded to talk about various practices that have been proven to increase a person's well-being, or state of happiness. they are as follows:
1. Foster your relationships (Nurturing meaningful relationships give your life a sense of purpose and remind you of the people who truly know you, understand you and love you).
2. Be physically active (Not only is being physically active good for your mental state with the release of endorphins, but being healthy and active regulates your body's hormones and mental state, making you feel more confident in yourself).
3. Sleep (Studies have shown that sleep is one of the most important aspects of feeling positive about your life).
4. Do things for others (Philanthropy has a much bigger effect than pleasure; doing something for someone else has far greater emotional rewards than doing something that is pleasurable for you at the moment).
5. Spend discretionary money on experiences rather than material possessions (If you spend your money on a concert, the memory of the experience will live on far longer than a pair of shoes you buy).
6. Approach things you want, more than you avoid things you don't want (Vanessa gave the best example for this; she knows she wants to be a teacher so she's focusing on becoming a teacher rather than focusing on how she really hates her current job).
7. Seek flow experiences: absorbed engagement (Experiences that you are actively engaged in yield an emotional sense of purpose and happiness. For me, a flow experience is playing piano. It's easy for me to do, but once I start playing I get completely wrapped up in the music, the speed, the dynamics, the pedal, etc. I find more emotional satisfaction from playing the piano than I would watching TV, for instance, because I'm mentally/emotionally engaged in the experience).
8. Cultivate gratitude (Keep a gratitude diary and write in it once a week. Try and write about different things that may have happened that day or things that have made you feel particularly happy that week. A good resource for your gratitude journal is OhLife, an online resource where you can respond to an email to say something you're thankful for and in a month or two they will send you an email saying "2 months ago you were thankful for this" or they will send you notes asking "how is your day?" A really neat free internet service).
9. Savor positive experiences (Make positive experiences last as long as possible by reminiscing about them, being thankful, building memories, sharpening your perception of the experience, etc.)-
10. Be careful about analyzing positive events (Don't overanalyze an evening out with your friends that was great, because you will inevitably find the imperfections in the evening and that positive experience will be lost).
11. Don't engage in social comparison (In today's Facebook-driven social culture, this is very hard to do. But if you can be content with your life and yourself, you will lead a happier life).
12. Consider your goals and motivation: intrinsic/identified rather than extrinsic/coerced (Make sure your goals are YOUR GOALS, not goals you feel pressured to achieve or you feel make you look better to others).
13. Discover your strengths and intentionally use them (We just did a team building exercise at work about finding your strengths and we've had several meetings to discuss our strengths and what it means in our professional and personal lives. Focusing on my strengths really has had a positive impact on me in the workplace).
14. Attend to spiritual/religious aspects of your life (Even if you aren't super religious, find things in your life to hold sacred, whether it's a treasured relationship, marriage, great job, etc.)
15. Increase the frequency of positive sensory (Identify things that make your senses happy- sight, taste, smell, touch, etc.- and be sure to have several or more ways to experience those things throughout the day. If you are not experiencing them frequently, look at ways to change your daily routine. For more information on the sensory awareness inventory, search George W. Burns).
16. Psychological significance of nature (Professor McMillan's main research is focused on what place nature plays in our well-being. She believes there is a human connection to nature which all humans need varying degrees of to lead a happy and healthy life. I completely agree!!)

So there you have it. Some interesting facts in there! If you want to talk more about any particular point, let me know. Would be happy to discuss :)


  1. Good advice! Especially "seek flow experiences" - makes each day seem purposeful.

    Love you!

  2. I think all these ideas for leading a happy, purposeful life are excellent... good reminders no matter what age you are! I have always told you girls that when the going gets tough in your life, go out and do something for others''' and I also read somewhere that if the only prayer you ever said was " Thank you", that would b enough. Mom