Scientific evidence that happiness is a skill

I believe that happiness, like many other states of our mind, is a skill we acquire, and apply to living, and hopefully, living well. While it is true that many of our emotions derive from inherited capacities, humans are the first animals to learn how to ignore our feelings to reach a goal. We like to think that we are also the first species to use external stimulus to change how we feel.

I have in the past, approached this subject from a purely philosophical and mental perspective, drawing upon my own experience. I have seen first hand how the decisions I have made changed the way I feel. I have also see how changing how I think tends to lead to different emotional outcomes.

One of my favorite examples from my experience is that of writing and what it does to my mind. When I write, I am able to layout my thinking before me. Even as I write a sentence on the screen, I am able to read it back to myself to see if what I’m saying, “fits”. It’s like trying on a hat to see if l like it.

I explore my thoughts and feelings in two exercises that I do every morning, The Gratitude List and The Morning Page. In The Gratitude List exercise, I enumerate ten things that I am grateful for, and I can tell you that if you live with resentment, nothing melts resentment like gratitude.

The Morning Page is what I do to write everything that is on my mind. I think that most of what I think about is boring to other people around me, so I write what is bouncing around in my head to “talk” about it. By the time I’m done, everything that I want to say has already been said. With this exercise complete, I am “empty” and can be available to hear and listen what others are saying for the rest of the day.

I often read science news because more than anything else, science news gives me hope for humanity. It is science news that brings new technology to my consciousness. Mostly, I look for news about carbon free energy because I read about melting glaciers every month. I read about rising sea levels every month. And I see how little snow we get now compared to 30 years ago in Utah.

Every once in awhile a little gem comes across my browser, like this one from ScienceDaily:

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This article teaches us that people who have engaged in substance abuse in the past can change their mood just by performing two exercises. The first exercise, “Reliving Happy Moments”, helps by guiding subjects to look at their own photos that captured a happy moment, and then write about that experience. Subjects in the study also engaged in an exercise called “Savoring”, where they wrote about positive experiences from the previous day.

Each of these exercises displaced feelings that addicts would normally use drugs to displace. Drug use is a “displacement activity”, in the sense that the use of mood altering substances “displace” us from our current feelings or thinking. The exercises provided in the study are easily accessible by patients in recovery and take very little time to complete. So instead of using drugs to displace oneself from a negative experience, one can simply review a positive experience from the recent past.

This study, and the exercises used therein, remind me of how I recovered from my own addictions. I moved from working the program to avoid the negative consequences associated with addictive behavior to working the program to enjoy the positive benefits of introspection and fellowship provided by the program. In other words, I went from wanting to avoid negative consequences to being attracted to positive consequences of substitute behavior, and I changed the feedback loop from negative to positive.

This study, like many others that I have read before, confirm to me that happiness is a skill. Noticing that which is good in life is a skill. Making a choice to find gratitude for the good in life, instead of bemoaning the bad, is another skill. Choosing to think about what is positive and what we can change in our lives, is another skill.

By framing our experience in the context of skills, we can move away from being “bad”. I recall a song by the artist, Halsey, “Bad At Love”. In that song, Halsey sang about her perceived failures at giving and receiving love. The title of her song is an implicit recognition that “love” is also a skill. She could then move away from being a “bad person” to simply lacking the skills to acquire the experience she so longed for. Love.

This concept of skills, is why I don’t hate. I don’t hate people, places or things. Hate implies that my will can change someone else. I don’t hate people because I have no idea what battles they are fighting. And if I frame my experience in the context of skills, I can say that people who displease me lack the skills to do better. I can also say that I lack the skills to tolerate someone else for being unpleasant.

In the context of skills, there are no good or bad people. There may be difficult people, to be sure, but they aren’t bad. There may be good people, sure. But they simply exhibit the capacity to get along with and be of service to others. All cases are in a continuum, and all of them demonstrate the skill or lack thereof, to be happy.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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