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This article is from the WebMD Feature Archive

Choosing to be happy

Strategies for happiness: 7 steps to becoming a happier person
By Tom Valeo
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

The secret of happiness may be a mixture of simply choosing to be happy - and having the right genes. Research has shown that one’s talent for happiness is, to a large degree, determined by our genes. Dr David T Lykken, author of Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says, "trying to be happier is like trying to be taller". We each have a "happiness set point", the psychologist argues, and only slightly move away from it.

And yet psychologists who study happiness - including Lykken - believe we can pursue happiness. We can do this by thwarting negative emotions such as pessimism, resentment and anger. At the same time we can try to foster positive emotions such as empathy, serenity and, in particular, gratitude.

Happiness strategy 1: Don't worry, choose happy

The first step is to make a conscious choice to boost your happiness. In his book The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth like a ripe fruit... Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of the gods, and in this achievement, effort, both inward and outward, must play a great part."

Today psychologists who study happiness heartily agree. The intention to be happy is the first of The 9 Choices of Happy People listed by authors Rick Foster and Greg Hicks in their book of the same name.

"Intention is the active desire and commitment to be happy", they write. "It's the decision to consciously choose attitudes and behaviours that lead to happiness over unhappiness."

Dr Tom G Stevens gave his book the assertive title, You Can Choose to Be Happy. "Choose to make happiness a top goal", says Stevens. "Choose to take advantage of opportunities to learn how to be happy. For example, reprogramme your beliefs and values. Learn good self-management skills, good interpersonal skills and good career-related skills. Choose to be in environments and around people that increase your probability of happiness. The people who become the happiest and grow the most are those who also make truth and their own personal growth primary values."

In short, we may be born with a happiness "set point", as Lykken calls it, but we are not stuck there. Happiness also depends on how we manage our emotions and our relationships with others.

Jon Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, teaches positive psychology. He actually sets his students assignments during the semester to make themselves happier.

"They have to say exactly what technique they will use", says Dr Haidt. "They may choose to be more forgiving or more grateful. They may learn to identify negative thoughts so they can challenge them. For example when someone crosses you, in your mind you build a case against that person, but that's very damaging to relationships. So they may learn to shut up their inner lawyer and stop building these cases against people."

Once you've decided to be happier you can choose strategies for achieving this. Psychologists who study happiness tend to agree on ones like these.

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