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The Secret to Happiness Revealed (No, seriously)

Being happy makes you not only live longer, but it makes you more successful in life. Philosophers have been writing about happiness for ages, and it is today one of the most popular topics in psychology research. Luckily, the science is gradually becoming more clear on what factors do and don’t contribute to happiness. However, this article is not about a list of things that will increase your happiness; it is instead about the single most important thing about being and staying happy. It’s the reason why some people who you would expect to be absolutely miserable are in fact exceptionally happy. So what’s the secret?

Locked-in to Unhappiness?

The right to die

Locked-in syndrome is one of the scariest conditions that people worry about. The idea that your mind could be a fully-functioning prisoner within the cage that is your own body terrifies people; but that is the reality for people with this syndrome. Tony Nicklinson, a former British civil servant with a loving family, suffered from a stroke in 2005 which left him totally paralyzed, except for slight head movements and the use of his eyes, which he used to communicate. He was in one of the world’s most recent “right to die” debates. A few years ago when the case began, he said that his life was no longer worth living, since he has been robbed of his dignity and is painfully suffering in silence.

Over the years, he convinced his family that this was the right decision, and Nicklinson fought for the law to allow a doctor to kill him without committing a crime. Otherwise, he would have to wait for an illness to kill him, since he has ordered the doctors not to give any medical attention. These are some of his messages:

I have no privacy or dignity left. I am washed, dressed and put to bed by carers who are, after all, still strangers. You try defecating to order whilst suspended in a sling over a commode and see how you get on. I am fed up with my life and don’t want to spend the next 20 years or so like this.

Am I grateful that the Athens doctors saved my life? No, I am not. If I had my time again, and knew then what I know now, I would not have called the ambulance but let nature take its course.

It’s a sad story that we can scarcely imagine, but his battle with the law ended a year ago. In the middle of August 2012, he was rejected – told he wasn’t allowed to die by the hands of a medical professional. A few days later, he died with as much dignity as he could, fighting the law for the betterment of everyone else in his situation – and believe me, there are many of them, traveling for what some might call suicide tourism. For example, Susan Griffiths – a Canadian woman from Winnipeg, Manitoba – traveled all the way to Switzerland just to be legally assisted in suicide in April of this year.

So are people who suffer with locked-in syndrome or other painful realities just hopeless? Not according to former language instructor Marini McNeilly, who – despite having locked-in syndrome herself – said in an interview last year that life is certainly worth living, and that you don’t want to disappoint those who give you hope. “Communication is key,” she said. “We have a saying in Spain: God squeezes but he doesn’t choke.”

The now 59-year-old McNielly made history a few years ago, being the first person to compose music exclusively using the power of thought.

Locked-in, not locked out

Kevin Weller had a similar experience to Nicklinson, beginning with a massive stroke in 1990 – at the age of 32 – despite being in good health. Here are his words:

One evening I was having dinner at my mum’s and couldn’t swallow my food. While driving home, I started getting pins and needles in my left arm and by the time I reached my house the sensation had spread to my tongue, so my wife, Janet, took me to A&E. [. . .] At first the nurse thought it was an ear infection and as we had our six-year-old daughter with us, we didn’t want to cause a drama. But as my speech started to slur and my face dropped, my wife knew it was serious.

The doctors refused to accept it was a stroke, saying I was too young. But by midnight I was in a coma. Soon afterwards my wife was told that my body was shutting down and that I was probably going to die. They said a tracheotomy to help me breathe probably wasn’t worth it, but Janet insisted.

Back then, we didn’t know nearly as much about locked-in syndrome as we do now, which is why there was so much confusion for doctors at that time. They believed he was brain-dead, and that it was a waste to use resources to keep him alive. After decades of research, we now know better.

Two weeks later I woke from the sedation drugs with no recollection of the trauma, and thought I must have been in a fight. When it slowly dawned on me that I couldn’t move, and couldn’t speak, I felt such fear. I was paralysed below the neck, unable to speak, move or feel anything – I was trapped in my own body and petrified that no one would realise I could understand.

When I flashed my eyes the doctors thought I was fitting and gave me more sedatives. Back then they didn’t know much about locked-in syndrome and they assumed I was braindead. It was my wife who eventually spotted the recognition in my eyes and persevered – showing me flashcards with simple words. She realised that, though I couldn’t speak or move, I was fully conscious and aware of everything. With time, I learnt to communicate through the use of an alphabet board, blinking my eyes to spell out words.

As the weeks and months went on I felt an unimaginable grief for the person I’d lost – the old me. [. . .] As someone who is stubborn, difficult and awkward, being cared for in every way imaginable has been hard to accept. To be cuddled, rather than give a cuddle, to be kissed rather than give a kiss, to be fed, to be changed, have all been hurdles.

I miss eating, as I am fed through a tube in my stomach. I miss being able to shout at the football. People have to guess what I’m saying with my eyes, and my spelling sometimes isn’t at its best. Before the stroke, I was always active and on the move. Now I watch others move. I watch my daughters living their life, the life I gave them. I watch my seven grandchildren grow and play. They sit with me on my bed and we watch DVDs or the football. [ . . .]

There’s always plenty of conversation, and my wife reads to me. We row like any married couple – I can scream at her with my eyes – but I don’t know what I’d do without her. It’s a love story. We got married as teenagers, 35 years ago, and last year we had our wedding blessed. Janet shares my dark sense of humour. I’ve lost friends, I’ve gained friends. But she’s always there.

When it came to the all-important question of life or death, this is what Weller had to say:

But though I’ve had my teary moments, I’ve always believed that if there’s life, there’s hope. With no exception. I know that some people who have been locked-in have asked not to be resuscitated if their heart stops, or have elected for euthanasia. But if that had been me, look at how much I would have missed.

I have a sense of humour, and although I cannot laugh or move any other muscles in my face, I can smile – which is rare for someone with locked-in syndrome. I do feel happy, and I will not give up. I have never once considered suicide or needed antidepressants. I wish to remain here as long as possible. No doubt there. There’s so much going on, so much to look forward to.

I think you can either cry your way through life or laugh, and in the end, I guess you do what you believe is right.

Why are Weller’s and McNeilly’s attitudes to their condition so different from Nicklinson’s or Griffiths’? We may never know, because there are probably many factors at work in such a complicated issue. I couldn’t possibly imagine the pain that these individuals have faced, but it seems to me that Weller believes that if he had taken his life, he would have lost out on seeing his children grow. He didn’t want to be locked out of the lives of his family – he didn’t want to miss what the world had to offer.

There is something specific happening in these stories; something that we can actually master.

Gifts and curses

Lou Gehrig’s Disease – known scientifically as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – is what Stephen Hawking has. Though the famous physicist is now the face of the disease, he is not typical. He has lived an uncharacteristically long life with the disease, and his progress as an intellectual does not seem at all to have been hindered. But generally, ALS weakens people’s muscles until they are basically limited to the same extent as someone with locked-in syndrome, and then they gradually die.

One man who experienced a sudden onset of ALS was Neil Selinger. In 2008, he quit his job as a lawyer in order to write and do volunteer work. He had just enrolled in the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College the year prior, so he had a new goal in mind. However, in 2009, he received his diagnosis of ALS; and as the New York Times wrote in 2011, “he has deteriorated with heartbreaking speed from cane to walker to wheelchair, to puréed food, an inability to speak and almost total immobility.”

Obviously this is a very sad thing to have happened, especially to a man who wanted so badly to help others. But Selinger was not hindered by his inability. He was strengthened by it.

As my muscles weakened, my writing became stronger. As I slowly lost my speech, I gained my voice.

As I diminished, I grew. As I lost so much, I finally started to find myself.

These amazing words can be felt by the people who view their diagnoses not as a curse, but a gift.

Wayne Dyer is a well-known American self-help author and motivational speaker. While some of his teachings are, in my opinion, a bit nonsensical, I do respect him as a writer and a storyteller. On his PBS broadcast of “Excuses Begone,” he talked about how we make excuses when we shouldn’t, and how not to. One of his best stories was about one of his guests.

Dyer introduced Dan Caro, a drummer, by explaining that he was badly burnt at the age of two in an unfortunate accident that left him permanently damaged. After the bandages were removed from his badly burnt body, his hands literally fell off. He was left with limbs so burnt that they could hardly function, and most people thought he would not live for much longer. The following video shows Caro, in one of the most memorable stories of resilience and determination you may ever see on TV. Start from 1:45.

Caro is truly an inspiration. Not only is he seriously talented with music (as seen in the video), but he lives his life with few complaints. He understands the realistic challenges that come his way, and he cherishes the accomplishments we take for granted, such as simply tying our shoes. But more than anything, he views his affliction as a gift.

You can see that he truly believes that God has given him a gift with the experience at the tender age of two, and the reason makes sense because it is the way he has lived his life. God, he says, gave him this gift because it inspires and moves the people who he comes across. This could not have been done if he was not burnt, he believes. As you can imagine, Caro is very happy with the way his life has turned out. “If I looked at this in a negative light,” he says, “it would be an insult to God. But not only that – to my family, to my friends… to everyone.”

Discovering Happiness

The “Awesome” Mr. Pasricha

Perhaps the name “Neil Pasricha” means nothing to you. He gave a deeply moving talk at TED in 2010, and explained what he had been doing for the last few years. His personal story did not involve something as physically severe as locked-in syndrome, but he had certainly been going through emotional anguish of his own. He explained why 2008 and 2009 were very difficult years for him.

I was going through a lot of personal problems at the time. My marriage wasn’t going well, and we just were growing further and further apart. One day my wife came home from work and summoned the courage, through a lot of tears, to have a very honest conversation. And she said, “I don’t love you anymore,” and it was one of the most painful things I’d ever heard and certainly the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever heard… until only a month later, when I heard something even more heartbreaking.

My friend Chris, who I just showed you a picture of, had been battling mental illness for some time. And for those of you whose lives have been touched by mental illness, you know how challenging it can be. I spoke to him on the phone at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night. We talked about the TV show we watched that evening. And Monday morning, I found out that he disappeared. Very sadly, he took his own life. And it was a really heavy time.

In June of 2008, he began his new journey – a blog called “1000 awesome things.” Maybe you have heard of it. It was a daily record of the little things in life that make life so great, counting down from #1000. The blog would later win the Webby award for the “best blog in the world,” and he has written several books on the same subject. Here is how he described its inception:

As these dark clouds were circling me, and I was finding it really, really difficult to think of anything good, I said to myself that I really needed a way to focus on the positive somehow.

So I came home from work one night, and I logged onto the computer, and I started up a tiny website called I was trying to remind myself of the simple, universal, little pleasures that we all love, but we just don’t talk about enough – things like waiters and waitresses who bring you free refills without asking, being the first table to get called up to the dinner buffet at a wedding, wearing warm underwear from just out of the dryer, or when cashiers open up a new check-out lane at the grocery store and you get to be first in line – even if you were last at the other line, swoop right in there.

Pasricha’s experiences left him with a greater understanding of happiness, because he experimented with his own emotions. And I’m sure without even intending on it in the beginning, he has stumbled onto something profound about our most important of emotions.

As psychologists Ed Diener, Ed Sandvik, and William Pavot say, “Happiness is the frequency, not the intensity, of positive versus negative affect.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how good you feel, so much as how often you feel good. This is why writing down the details of things that make you happy has a lasting effect (not to mention you’ll sleep better if you do it before bed).

But these are not the important things I want to emphasize about the Neil Pasricha story. The most important thing is what he chose at the end of his list of 1000 awesome things. Not just his fellow Canadians, but also fans from all over the world were eagerly waiting to see what this self-made happiness-guru would call #1.

While it left many readers puzzled – because they clearly did not understand it – Pasricha said that it was “meant to be different than the other awesome things.” That is, instead of his usual (sometimes lengthy) write-up, with pictures and links to accompany his points, he made an empty post with the simple title: “#1 Anything you want it to be.”

Pasricha was absolutely right.

Mr. Morton and the wrongfully accused

The renowned investigative report program 60 Minutes aired a piece on March 25 2012 regarding Michael Morton. This is a man who was imprisoned for 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit – the murder of his wife.

Since the prosecutor in the 1987 trial withheld the completely exonerative evidence, Morton was of course convicted. He spent his next painful years in jail, seeing his son, Eric, for short periods of time every week or so. He said it was the only thing that kept him going.

At first things were normal, but around the age of 12, Eric stopped coming. He had begun to believe the things that people in the community were saying: Michael Morton was a cold-blooded killer.

His son then sent a letter when he was 18, saying that he would be adopted by his aunt and uncle, and legally change his name. He wanted nothing to do with the man called Michael Morton.

But in fact, his son – three years old at the time – witnessed the murder himself. He stated at the time that his father was not even present, but that a “monster” with a moustache hit his mother. However, since prosecutors in the state of Texas only get a slap on the wrist for withholding evidence, there was very little incentive to submit such information to the court, whereas there was big incentive to withhold it. The broken American justice system seems to award prosecutors for putting someone away, regardless of whether or not they are guilty or innocent.

Ken Anderson, the man responsible for withholding the information – which included police reports, exonerative blood tests, and confessions from the real culprit – was named the “prosecutor of the year” in Texas for putting Morton away. Despite just a year or so ago admitting that he made mistakes in that case, Anderson has been a district judge in the same court that Morton was convicted in since 2002. Obviously that comes with a lot of power, and Morton could not legally sue Anderson for legal damages, because America’s Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors have “absolute immunity” from civil lawsuits regarding their legal work. However, Anderson came under rare investigation for legal misconduct at the time of the 60 Minutes story from last year.

These problems with the American justice system are echoed in the words of the Innocence Project, an initiative that tries to free wrongfully convicted individuals who serve time in prison. The Innocence Project was featured not only in the Morton story, but in another 60 Minutes piece that aired in 2008, showing several others who were subject to miscarriages of justice. On their website, they say “To date, more than 300 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 18 who served time on death row. These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.” That’s an increase of eight people from a year ago, including an additional from death row.

The judge who finally set Morton free said – with a sincere apology – that Morton is not getting justice, but the end of injustice. But in some cases, such exoneration comes far too late. Cameron Todd Willingham was given the death penalty in 2004 for killing his three daughters in a house fire. The forensic evidence used to convict him was totally unscientific and ridiculous.

Unfortunately, Texas still uses the death penalty – which is a problem that Americans obviously care deeply about, since the 2nd-most tweeted event of 2011 (at that time, at least) was the controversial death of Troy Davis, who also faced an obvious miscarriage of justice. Therefore, the state has the reputation, especially in the city of Dallas, for being the worst place in the US to be arrested in; regardless of whether or not you’re actually guilty.

The light beyond the dark

With 25 years of false imprisonment under his belt, Morton knows injustice well. He was put into a system that failed him, in a situation that left him with no one he loved on his side; not even his own son. What was a prisoner to do?

As it turns out, during his time in prison, Morton got a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in literature. He evidently did not let his time go to waste. He found that being alone was essentially a constant state of introspection – certainly a hint of psychology there. But what I really want to emphasize is something he said to interviewer Laura Logan on 60 Minutes Overtime. “What ends up happening to you may not be the most important thing, but how you deal with it is.”

What Morton discovered during his time in prison was – just like Pasricha – the secret to happiness. And he was not the only wrongfully convicted person to stumble upon this revelation. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, gave a TED talk in which he described the story of Moreese Bickham, who spent almost four decades in prison.

Moreese Bickham is somebody you’ve never heard of. [. . .] He was 78 years old. He spent 37 years in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he didn’t commit. He was ultimately exonerated, at the age of 78, through DNA evidence. And what did he have to say about his experience? “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Glorious! This guy is not saying, “Well, you know, there were some nice guys. They had a gym.” It’s “glorious” – a word we usually reserve for something like a religious experience.

Both Morton and Bickham left prison without any feelings of regret or sorrow. Despite Morton saying that he wanted someone to be held accountable for the wrongdoing, he did not seek revenge. He just wants to focus on living a good life.

Although it’s worth mentioning that just a few months ago, Ken Anderson was finally charged for withholding evidence, leading to Morton’s 25-year sentence. So it seems that justice isn’t just blind; it’s blind, deaf and dumb. But clearly, even after that ordeal, Morton is still a truly happy man.

Wheelchairs & Lotteries

Optimism 2.0

As Daniel Gilbert also mentions in his TED talk on happiness, there was a much lesser-known former member of the Beatles, who was eventually basically kicked out of the band:

Some of you recognize this young photo of Pete Best, who was the original drummer for the Beatles, until they… you know… sent him out on an errand and snuck away and picked up Ringo on a tour. Well, in 1994, when Pete Best was interviewed — yes, he’s still a drummer; yes, he’s a studio musician — he had this to say: “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” [. . .]

OK. Now I [. . .] can predict your next thought, which is, “Yeah, right.” Because when people synthesize happiness, as these gentlemen seem to have done, we all smile at them, but we kind of roll our eyes and say, “Yeah right, you never really wanted the job.” [Or] “Oh yeah, right. You really didn’t have that much in common with her, and you figured that out just about the time she threw the engagement ring in your face.”

We smirk because we believe that synthetic happiness is not of the same quality as what we might call “natural happiness.” What are these terms?

Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.

Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning if we believed that not getting what we want could make us just as happy as getting it?

In other words, what Gilbert calls “synthetic happiness” is basically a fancy term for making the best of a situation; going beyond mere optimism. It is not only accepting a result, but being satisfied or even happy with it. Of course, even with false imprisonment, you still probably can’t imagine to what extent we are talking about being happy with a bad result. This next story is going to change your mind.

The paraplegia paradox

A fascinating study Gilbert mentioned in his talk began with a thought experiment:

Here’s two different futures that I invite you to contemplate,and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars. And the other is becoming paraplegic. So, just give it a moment of thought. You probably don’t feel like you need a moment of thought.

Just to be clear, this absurd comparison is on permanently losing the use of your legs vs. becoming instantly rich. As you can imagine, the graphs on Gilbert’s next slide shows that paraplegics show markedly less happiness than the lottery winners. No surprise there. But then Gilbert said the following, before changing the graph onscreen:

But these aren’t the data. I made these up! These are the data [. . .].

A year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

Now, don’t feel too bad about failing the first pop quiz, because everybody fails all of the pop quizzes all of the time. [. . .] From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study — this almost floors me — a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

Why? Because happiness can be synthesized. [. . .] Human beings have something that we might think of as a “psychological immune system.” A system of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious cognitive processes, that help them change their views of the world, so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves.

By now it must be clear that happiness is not simply an intuitive emotion thing that we all understand and agree on. And it must be surprising that paraplegia eventually yields the same amount of happiness as winning the lottery – not to mention the fact that paraplegics also seem to enjoy mundane tasks even more than lottery winners (Brickman, Coates, Janoff-Bulman; 1978). But everything in this article has all come down to the simple fact that happiness can be different things for different people, and different things for the same person in different circumstances. While we all have images of what makes us happy, as Gilbert has explained in detail, we’re all wrong.

It’s all up to you

In 2011, Shawn Anchor took to the TED stage and talked about happiness. He mentioned one story of his friends meeting him at his university and being in awe of it. (Bold parts added for emphasis.)

They say, “Shawn, why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? Seriously, what does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?”

Embedded within that question is the key to understanding the science of happiness. Because what that question assumes is that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels, when in reality, if I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness. 90 percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world. And if we change it, if we change our formula for happiness and success, what we can do is change the way that we can then affect reality. What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ. 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.

Anchor goes on to explain how our current beliefs are not only wrong, but they’re not as effective as they could and probably should be.

In the last three years, I’ve traveled to 45 different countries, working with schools and companies in the midst of an economic downturn. And what I found is that most companies and schools follow a formula for success, which is this: If I work harder, I’ll be more successful… and if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier. That undergirds most of our parenting styles, our managing styles, the way that we motivate our behavior.

And the problem is it’s scientifically broken and backwards for two reasons. First, every time your brain has a success, you just change the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades – now you have to get better grades. You got into a good school – and after you get into a better school. You got a good job – now you have to get a better job. You hit your sales target – we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there.

What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.

But the real problem is our brains work in the opposite order. If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a “happiness advantage,” which is: your brain at “positive” performs significantly better than it does at “negative,” “neutral” or “stressed.” Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, what we’ve found is that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37 percent better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.

This is yet another reason to explain why winning the lottery doesn’t usually result in a massive difference in long-term happiness (not to mention, in many cases it actually worsens the winner’s life significantly). That’s because even if you lived in poverty for a long time and have wanted money for ages, if you eventually become rich, once you get used to the notion that you can spend money and still have plenty, you may change the definition of what makes you happy.

In other words, we have a tendency to think that the grass is green on the other side, even after we switch sides. This human tendency is not conducive to our happiness. In fact, a lot of our tendencies make us unhappy, and one of them was the focus of a brilliant TED talk released earlier this month, by Kelly McGonigal.

McGonigal is a health psychologist who admits that in some ways, she has been doing more harm than good in her psychology practice for a decade. What she learnt recently should overturn the often-believed notion that stress is bad and should be eliminated, something that Anchor touched on, above. The research she cites is astounding. (Bold added for emphasis.)

Let me start with the study that made me rethink my whole approach to stress. This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, and they started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records to find out who died.

Okay. Some bad news first. People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous yearhad a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.

People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.

That is over 20,000 deaths a year. Now, if that estimate is correct, that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.

The results are certainly surprising, but understandable, considering how much we know because of research on the self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, one of the most famous studies includes a teacher who is told that she has several gifted students, and by the end of the year, those students’ grades have improved despite the fact that those students were actually selected at random. If we believe something, we are much more likely to live our lives in a way that are consistent with that belief and perceive the world in a way which doesn’t contradict it – which is why prejudice is often so hard to eliminate.

McGonigal goes on to explain what is going on in these stress studies.

Now, if you were actually in [a stress] study, you’d probably be a little stressed out. Your heart might be pounding, you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat. And normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure.

But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge? Now that is exactly what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University.

Before they went through the social stress test, they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. “That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, it’s no problem – it’s getting more oxygen to your brain.”

And participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, but the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed. Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict [. . .] and this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time.

But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. [. . .] Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.

Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters. So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress. [. . .]

Now I wouldn’t necessarily ask for more stressful experiences in my life, but this science has given me a whole new appreciation for stress. [. . .] The harmful effects [. . .] on your health are not inevitable. [. . .] How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress.

The full talk is very interesting, but the thing I most want to emphasize is the fact that it is not beyond one’s control to change the way they experience the world.

The Bottom Line

It’s not that people like Nicklinson and Griffiths have such character flaws that they simply give up on life – such mortal decisions are far more complicated than can be summarized in a simple newspaper article or two, so we’ll never know. But presumably, we can comment on those who have lived through the hardships they faced and decided to live on. They all had one major thing in common: They took control.

It was not control of the situation – Caro didn’t choose to be burnt, Pasricha never asked for depression, Morton and Bickham certainly didn’t want to be thrown in prison for decades, and the ALS that afflicted Weller was totally out of the blue. But these people all controlled the way in which they responded to these situations.

So if someone cuts you off in traffic, you can’t stop it – it already happened. But whether or not you get angry is up to you. One article from the Huffington Post makes an interesting comment on our ability to be happy.

Fifty percent of your happiness is genetic. Sorry, you can’t do much about that. Another 10 percent comes from your circumstances (geography, family, health). So that leaves you with 40 percent of your potential happiness that you can actually do something about. [. . .] Your happiness depends on the activities you choose to participate in on this planet, your experiences. How are you spending your 40 percent?

If this worries you, don’t stress! This should empower us to take control of our actions and make us more likely to be happy and satisfied with our lives.

The secret to happiness is the fact that we each have the power to control the way we feel about something that may or may not be beyond our control. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can influence how it affects us. And if you don’t understand what that means, then you probably just skipped to the bottom of this post instead of actually reading the content of it. But hey – whatever makes you happy.

The world will always act upon us, but we will always have the power to define what those actions mean to us.



Brickman P, Coates D, & Janoff-Bulman R (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative? Journal of personality and social psychology, 36 (8), 917-27 PMID: 690806

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