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Should You Feel Happier More Often?

Research shows that “flourishing” people are happier and more resilient. These are the are high-functioning individuals who score well on things such as self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery, positive relationships with others, personal growth, creativity, and openness. (For more about Flourishing, see the last Science of Finding Flow post, The Positive Emotion Tipping Point.)

But flourishing is not about feeling happy all the time or about trying to turn every thought and emotion into a positive one. Our human brains are differential systems; our perception of good depends, in part, on our experience of bad. Like sailboats—to use Barbara Fredrickson’s metaphor— flourishing people move through life using both sail and keel. Positive emotions put wind in our sails, propelling us forward, giving us direction. Negative emotions are like the weighty keel below the waterline. They balance our boat and help give us direction, too.

Everything we do in life changes our brain in some way. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly but surely sculpting neural structure.” Day after day, our emotions shape our experiences and our brains.

“Happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that values performance and achievement.” Click To Tweet

This is why more than two hundred studies show that positive emotions precede success in virtually every arena that has been tested. Happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that values performance and achievement. On average, happy people are more successful than unhappy people at both work and love. They get better performance reviews, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher salaries. They are more likely to get married and, once married, they are more satisfied with their marriages. Happy people also tend to be healthier and live longer. And guess what? Our ratio of positive to negative emotions—which determines whether or not we truly flourish—is largely within our control.

So how do we change our ratio?

The easiest way to change your ratio of positive to negative emotions is to add experiences and behaviors into your life that will make you feel the way you want to feel. So for starters: How do you want to feel?

Positive emotions come in a lot of different flavors. When we seek to increase the quantity of the positive emotions and experiences we have in a given day, we need to think beyond happiness or pleasure. Think about contentment, bliss, engagement, mirth, frivolity, silliness—these are all positive emotions based in the present. We can also cultivate positive emotions about the past (like gratitude) and the future (like faith, hope, confidence, and optimism). A flourishing life is also fed by positive emotions that are global in nature, like awe and elevation and inspiration. Positive emotions that connect us to other people, like love and compassion, are our most powerful positive emotions, and they are the most important ones for creating a better world and a flourishing life—so much so that all of the next unit is dedicated to love, connection, and compassion.

The next activity, “What Makes You Happy?” will give you scientifically sound ways to increase your ratio of positive to negative emotions.

This post is from a series about flourishing from the “Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing LessWant to go on to the next class or start the course from the beginning? It’s free! Just go to The Science of Finding Flow course page. Enjoy!