Books on happiness have proliferated in recent years as we confront a discomforting fact. Though more of us are richer and have more opportunities than ever before, surveys show our overall happiness levels are decreasing.
There are many different aspects of happiness, but most psychologists agree it’s made up of a combination of doing things for pleasure, and doing things for a sense of purpose. Research into happiness has burgeoned in recent years, and identified many actions that can have a positive impact on our lives.
Here are five research-based, movie-illustrated tips for happier living.
Draw your Zorro Circle
According to Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, feeling that we are in control is one of the strongest drivers of wellbeing and performance.
One tool to regain feelings of control is Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence. Within our world of worries and concerns, there’s a circle of things we can directly influence. Outside is another circle containing things we’re concerned about – such as the economy, terrorism, or what other people think of us. By focusing primarily on your circle of influence, you’re more likely to retain a sense of control and efficacy.
There’s a neat allegory for this in The Mask of Zorro. Veteran swordsmaster Don Diego trains his talented but volatile protege Alejandro by using a circle marked on the ground. ‘This circle will be your world,’ he tells him. ‘Your whole life. Until I say otherwise, there is nothing outside of it.’
Start a journal
Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can often choose our response. Building resilience when things go wrong is one key to happiness. In Choose the Life You Want, Harvard professor Tal Ben Shahar suggests one way to do that is by opening up and expressing our feelings, rather than keeping them bottled up.
Journalling is a powerful technique for this, and it’s modelled to good effect in Freedom Writers. Here, teacher Erin Gruwell attempts to get through to her troubled students by setting them an assignment: to write something – anything – in a daily journal. She doesn’t even insist on reading them.
She’s surprised, however, to find that her students use the task to express their innermost feelings and fears on paper, as you can see in the scene below. And the cathartic benefit they derive from it helps deliver extraordinary improvements in their performance.
Spend on others
While it’s tempting to think a bit of retail therapy will make you happier, research shows any benefits are usually short lived. Spending on other people, however, has a more lasting effect on your wellbeing.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the movie It Could Happen to You. New York police officer Charlie Lang promises to share his lottery ticket with waitress Yvonne Biagi in lieu of a tip. And when his numbers come through, he’s true to his word, sharing half of his $4 million winnings, to his wife Muriel’s horror.
Muriel spends her share of the winnings on fine clothes, jewellery and interior design. But Charlie and Yvonne find a more rewarding approach: spending it on others. They buy commuters a free subway ride home. In the scene below, they hire the Yankees stadium for a baseball game with the kids from their neighbourhood. And ultimately, it’s Muriel who ends up the unhappy one.
“Always remember, your focus determines your reality,” counsels Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
What Qui-Gon is advocating is mindfulness. And while there are many aspects to this practice, two principles stand out. First, that staying ‘in the moment’ for longer allows us to appreciate life more and perform to our full potential, less encumbered by worries. And second, by understanding, recognising and accepting negative emotions, we can choose to spend more time focusing on more positive aspects of our lives.
The Star Wars series is one of the great movie proponents of mindfulness: look closely and you’ll see references everywhere. We’ll look at some of them in more detail in a future post.
Expect a favourable outcome
Research shows that feeling we are lucky or unlucky can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychologists call this predictive encoding. Priming yourself to expect a favourable outcome encodes your brain to recognise it when it arrives. It can also prevent nerves affecting performance.
This is neatly illustrated in a scene from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. A panic-stricken Ron Weasley is paralysed by nerves on the morning of his first Quidditch match. He then discovers that Harry has slyly spiked his drink with ‘liquid luck’ – a magical potion that bestows good fortune on anyone who takes it.
Now filled with confidence, Ron delivers an outstanding performance. But to his surprise, Ron later finds out that Harry hasn’t spiked his drink at all. He’s been brilliant because, well – he expected to be.
We may not have liquid luck to help us – real or imagined – but we can still train our brains to focus more on the positive. One way to do this is to regularly write down ‘three good things’ that happened during your day.
For more information on happiness boosters visit the Action for Happiness site.