Archive for Happiness

Happiness: Spending our time wisely

What are our goals in life? How do we allocate our time? It may seem obvious, but the activities that make up our day have a substantial impact on our level of happiness. Yet despite this, many people waste their days on activities that they do not enjoy, and that are often unnecessary.

Research by Shkade et al (published in Science) surveyed the daily activities of 909 employed women. Many were surprised at the amount of time spent on activities that they didn’t like. Now clearly we must often engage in unpleasant activities whether we like it or not. For example, dentist appointments are a necessary evil (unless you are prepared to accept far more unpleasantness in the long run). However, there many activities that we do have a choice in. Do we work longer hours and get higher pay? Do we spend time with friends or time alone? Do we watch TV or go for a run? These are the activities that define our days, and they have a major impact on our well-being.

The classic example of a misguided goal is the pursuit of wealth. Studies consistently show that wealth has only a small impact on happiness, and yet people pursue it with a fervour. On the other hand, engaging in volunteer work, spending time with family and friends, or taking the time to exercise, can often be highly correlated with happiness. Perhaps this would be a better use of our time?

Different activities will be suited to different people – it is up to us to find what suits us best. However, a restructuring of our day and shifting of priorities can bring much more enjoyment into our lives. We should resolve to reflect on what activities do make us happy, and we should then make an effort to increase them. As part of this, we may need to question our long-term goals – such as the pursuit of wealth – and ask how well these goals serve us. This may seem like basic advice that should be given to a child, but it is advice that almost everyone ignores. We often wish for more time or energy – perhaps we can make better use of what we have.

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Relating to our moods: labeling and monitoring

Moods colour our judgement. When our mood is bad, life seems grim and everyone is out to get us. Numerous studies show that a low mood causes us to judge others less favourably and to have an irrationally negative attitude towards life. Fortunately, studies also show that an awareness of our moods can mitigate this effect. If we know that we are in a bad mood, we can compensate for our negative thinking.

So it is good to be aware of our moods, but we must be careful of how we do it. There are two main styles of mood awareness. In the first, we cheerfully acknowledge our negative mood and realize that our dim outlook is probably a result of this. We ignore our grim thoughts and wait until we feel more positive. Thus, an awareness of our bad mood helps us to take our thoughts less seriously and stops us from making any rash decisions based upon them. The second style of mood awareness is less positive. Here, we tend to dwell on our mood and allow the thought “I’m in a bad mood” to keep us trapped in this state and to intensify our negative feelings. I’m sure we have all experienced this at times. These two styles of mood awareness are known as mood labeling and mood monitoring respectively (Swinkels and Guiliano, 1995). Mood labeling refers to the ability to identify and categorize one’s moods, whereas mood monitoring refers to a tendency to scrutinize and focus on one’s moods.

Although both styles involve self-awareness, mood labeling has positive results whereas mood monitoring has negative. The problem with mood monitoring is that we devote excessive attention to our state of mind, and have difficulty concentrating on other things. In other words, we dwell on our bad mood far too much. When we catch ourselves doing this, we can gently shift our style towards one of mood labeling. We want to be aware of our moods and the effect that they are having on our thinking, but we do not want to be caught up and absorbed by them. Awareness of one’s moods is good, absorption in one’s moods is not. Mood labeling is a useful tool to achieve this goal, giving us an awareness of how our moods are influencing our thinking, but without intensifying them or giving them power over us.

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