How Happy Are You These Days? Determine Your Life Satisfaction Score and Get Happier

by Diane Berenbaum

These turbulent times can take a heavy toll on our mental health. It's very tempting to focus on what's gone wrong, causing us to slip into an occasional pessimistic mindset. But, some people seem to be happy all the time, even in the most seemingly dire situations. Why is it that they stay positive regardless of their circumstances? I was determined to find out, since I must admit I am one of those “glass half-empty” types. I was even skeptical about the practicality of the song, “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” ubiquitous in the late 80s (though it was a catchy tune).

Interestingly enough, the seeds for the field of positive psychology were planted in the late 80s by University of Illinois professor, Dr. Edward Diener. Positive psychology is a discipline that focuses on cultivating positive emotions and traits like strength and optimism. Now president of the Positive Psychology Association, Dr. Diener focuses on the measurement of well-being and determining the causes of life satisfaction. He recently published a book entitled Happiness:  Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.

Research on Happiness and Its Impact on Life

He found that happy people tend to have better health, perform better in their jobs, have more friends and experience greater success in life. As you might expect, happier people also tend to live longer than unhappy people. 

However, you may be surprised to learn that the very happiest people do not live the longest. (I always wondered about those people who are happy ALL the time.) Turns out it is the group at the second highest level on the happiness scale who live the longest. The author's argument, and it makes sense to me, is that people who are too happy take more chances and are less likely to recognize and heed danger signals. And, a bit of unhappiness is a cleansing agent; experiencing a great difficulty and resolving it or battling your way out is truly gratifying.

What is your Life Satisfaction Score?

How happy are you? How satisfied are you with your life? Do you really want to know?  If so, click here to complete Dr. Diener's Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)* and find out your score. [Once at the site, in the left-hand panel, click on Research Information then Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS)]. I was pleasantly surprised to learn I am indeed satisfied after all. Not “extremely satisfied”, but “satisfied,” which means my life is rewarding but I would like to see improvement in some areas. 

Happiness is certainly a hot topic these days. In fact, Professor Tal Ben-Shahar's “Happiness” course is one of the most popular classes at Harvard University, attracting 850 students per semester. Dr. Ben-Shahar studied Dr. Diener's work and has become a recognized expert on the topic. His class focuses on fostering joy, satisfaction, motivation, love compassion, surprise, calm and generosity—clinically, this means focusing treatment on the part of the glass that is half full (OK, that got my attention).

Happiness is a Process—How Can You be Happier?

Does he think we should be happy all the time? Thankfully, no. According to Ben-Shahar, “Happiness is not the end of a process, it is a process.”  Instead of asking yourself, Am I happy? He says “The more helpful question to ask is, how can I be happier? Being happier is a far more realistic goal than total happiness, which is impossible.” 

So, how do you get happier? Here are some suggestions from these experts on the topic:

  • Give yourself permission to be human.  When you accept emotions as natural, you are more likely to overcome them. And when you accept your feelings and allow yourself to experience painful emotions, you are more likely to open yourself to positive emotions. “Reject the painful emotions and you pay a price,” he warns.
  • Manage your reactions. Happiness is more dependent on our state of mind than our bank account.  He says that “money is actually a poor predictor of happiness.” Instead, our well-being is mostly determined by how we perceive and react to external forces and events. Do you look at setbacks as catastrophes or learning opportunities? If you lose your job, do you dwell on “why me” thoughts or on what you can contribute to another organization?
  • Engage in meaningful activities. When you volunteer and give your time to a worthy cause, a local organization or a friend in need, you get something back. It feels good to do good. Quite often, it also opens your mind to a great deal of learning about the world and yourself. Research confirms that helping others and connecting to the things that are truly important will lead to a more satisfied life.
  • Simplify! Ben-Shahar says many of us suffer from TBD today (that's “too busy disorder”), given the prevalence of e-mail, IM, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I can certainly relate to that! He suggests that we focus on one task at a time, achieving a “flow of intention.”
  • Plan for “rubbish time.” Our achievement-focused society has many of us programming every minute in every day. We don't give ourselves enough time to relax, reflect or recover. We need to have “rubbish time” time when we don't have to achieve anything. He notes, “We live too much from the neck up.  We need to pay attention to ourselves from the neck down.”
  • Foster friendships and relationships. We all know our friends are important, but so often we take them for granted. Yet, relationships are truly the key to happiness. Of course it's not the quantity of relationships that matter, but the quality—so take the time to connect with friends in a meaningful way and nurture those relationships that matter most.
  • Express gratitude, whenever possible. Make it a way of life. Ben-Shahar suggests that every family member think of five things they are grateful for before going to sleep. Not only will this help you feel happier, it will also improve your sleep, which leads us to the last suggestion…
  • Pay attention to your body-mind connection. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet will lead to improved physical and mental health. Drowning our sorrows with junk food while watching TV may only make us more miserable—even if it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Clearly, it's in our best interest to be happy. I felt happier and a bit more satisfied just by taking the Satisfaction with Life Survey and learning what it takes to be even happier. So, instead of letting the economy get to you—don't worry, be happy!

*The Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) was developed by Ed Diener, Robert A. Emmons, Randy J. Larsen and Sharon Griffin as noted in the 1985 article in the Journal of Personality Assessment.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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