SHOW AND TELL

How the story you tell yourself can make you happier

Harnessing happiness has become something of a cultural obsession. Countless studies have linked our happiness to money, age, location, and timing of having children, to name just a few.

But there’s arguably an easier way to make your life feel more meaningful: Tell yourself a positive story about your life. That’s the thinking behind a slew of research on happiness, and one motto of positive psychologist Shawn Achor, who researches and lectures about the link between happiness and success.

Achor’s observations draw on his days as a student counselor at Harvard University: “These students, no matter how happy they were with their original success of getting into the school, two weeks later their brains were focused, not on the privilege of being there, nor on their philosophy or their physics. Their brain was focused on the competition, the workload, the hassles, the stresses, the complaints.”

The gap between the opportunities and achievements of these students and their happiness led Achor to this conclusion: Happiness requires “changing the lens” of how you perceive your reality. The change is gradual and requires some disciplined work, he says. One example is a daily exercise in writing down one good thing that happens to you every day, aimed at training the brain to think of the good rather than the bad, he said in a widely-viewed TED Talk: “Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive it.”

The message is so attractive that it’s spread from self-help videos to management strategies in Silicon Valley and Ivy League health departments.

Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan (employee no. 107), for instance, has written a book about finding happiness, the lessons of which are the basis for a seminar he now teaches at Google called “Search Inside Yourself.” One of his central takeaways is for employees to “log moments of joy,” which aims to boost happy feelings when you look back and reflect on the day.

Need some help in keeping up with your happiness practice? There’s an app for that.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search