Each quarter, our wellness team tries and reviews a popular wellness trend. This quarter, we're trying happiness hacks, and Katherine is trying out optimism.
“Wellness Tries” is a quarterly series where the GatorCare wellness team tries out and reviews different wellness trends, so you can see what might work for you! This quarter, we’re testing out various “happiness hacks” from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness. In Lyubomirsky’s book, she claims that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetics, 10% is determined by our circumstances, and 40% is determined by our thoughts and actions. The happiness hacks. These strategies are research-supported methods to increase happiness levels to help us max out that 40% we can control.
Our team chose this project back in January when life looked very different. Most of us started our hacks before the pandemic hit hard and continued our experiments into our current shelter-at-home situation. While the implementation changed quite a bit over the course of our hacks, we all agreed that the focus on increasing our happiness could not have come at a better time.
This week, Kat is diving into the world of optimism, and how searching for a silver lining can improve happiness.
What is Optimism?
Optimism doesn’t mean engaging in wishful or fantastic thinking. It’s a way of looking at the world that acknowledges the negative but ultimately gives more agency to the positive. Optimism also means searching for the positive in every situation, even when things aren’t going so well.
Trying to cultivate optimism meant trying a number of different exercises, as suggested by Lyubormisky and my team. I began these exercises in the second week in March amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. At first, the impact of the virus on my daily life was minimal: social distancing, calling into meetings, etc. But a week and a half later, I felt like my world had been turned upside down; I began working from home, learning new technology, and adapting to isolation. In the face of a global pandemic, I needed optimism more than ever.
I started this happiness hack by writing down my goals and sub-goals. For example, one of my goals is to one day work in a management capacity. The sub-goals I listed included ‘interview a manager’, ‘seek management training’, and ‘apply for management positions.’ After my list was complete, I realized how much more achievable my goals felt once I had broken them down into smaller goals.
The next activity I tried was a journal entry. The prompt was to idealize and then write about your 5-year and 10-year “Best Self.” This activity isn’t meant to be an “I’ll be happy when…” exercise, but instead to help shift the locus of control back to the individual, showing that they have the power to create the life they want. As someone who often daydreams about the future, I really enjoyed this activity. The difficult part for me was writing down my thoughts. I wrote about my career, family, and goals as if everything would go according to plan for the rest of my life. It was nice to suspend my doubts and anxieties about the future, even if only for a few minutes.
After completing these two initial activities and reflecting on them, I shared my thoughts with my team. I felt myself thinking ‘okay, so what now?’ That’s when they recommended I search for everyday opportunities for optimism by reflecting on my thoughts and words. This led me to start pausing after each thought and considering if I was practicing optimism. For the times that I wasn’t, I ‘flipped the script’ to find a more optimistic thought. It wasn’t easy at first. In fact, I felt myself getting down on myself for not automatically being optimistic. There definitely is a learning curve to cultivating optimism for someone who, apparently, is not a natural optimist. For the times that I was being optimistic, it felt like an ‘atta girl’ moment. The optimism snowball had swept me up.
Reflecting on the experience as a whole, I found that the initial activities were really helpful and got me in the right mindset. Also, building in pauses to my day to seek optimism was the most beneficial trick when it came to my day-to-day optimism practice. Every few days, I would also do a short reflection on the day to think through any missed opportunities for optimism and to celebrate any successes.
After four weeks of this practice, I started to feel the effects. I started using optimism in my emails when faced with less-than-ideal situations. I started noticing the optimism around me. When I picked up on the pessimism in my friends’ and families’ words, I encouraged them to flip the script, too. I noticed that my thoughts on the COVID-19 situation shifted too, from confusion and fear to asking myself, “What good is coming out of this? What good can I find?” At the beginning of this happiness hack, I took a Subjective Happiness Test to establish a baseline. My initial score was 4.25. After almost a month of practicing, my score jumped to 4.625. Clearly, this happiness hack had an effect on me. I’m optimistic that it could boost your happiness, too.