Happiness by a Project
By Kendall Haney
Some people take a psychology class because they desire to become psychologists. Others, bent on pursuing their own unhappiness, consider a journey through a course like this one because of its unpromised therapeutic value. It was in the vein of the latter that I found myself electing to take this course on positive psychology, in pursuit of elusive happiness and wishing for years I could figure out why. What luck then that the focal point of our major project would be myself, and the nature of the project would be to find happiness via scientifically proven interventions that one might be given by a licensed psychologist. The question is, did those interventions work? And more interestingly, would the effect of the interventions offer a longevity quality about them a la a vaccine against my emptiness infection?’ Only time would tell.
The project I was asked to embrace was simple in its nature. Over a period of no less than 30 days I was to employ happiness interventions meant to bolster my sense of self. All of the typical ‘selfs’ in this experiment were hypothetically predicted to be affected. Sense of self determination, gratification, esteem, and so forth, for example, would improve if interventions were employed religiously. To get started, I mapped out in my notebook and then executed three ‘happiness interventions’ discussed in the course. As a twist to what the assignment asked me to do, I did not cease one intervention when I started a new one. My first ten days I executed a rigorous exercise and physical activity routine. In my next ten days I continued my exercise routine but layered on top a perfunctory offering of random acts of kindness wherever I went. In my final ten days, I continued the first two interventions, but included strong doses of forgiveness to anyone and everyone regardless of the grudge in question. I did not choose these interventions lightly, nor the order, but rather as a self-medicating prescription based on course and outside readings.
It is noteworthy to mention here before discussing the effects of my experiment that I have come to some conclusions about psychology in general based on what I have learned this semester. First, I elected physical activity and exercise because I believe the basis for unhappiness could be biologically oriented from the start. If it is true that we are a Molotov cocktail of emotion due to errant neurotransmitters potentially firing and misfiring based on what I ate and did, I felt I could fix that by tinkering with my corporeal form like a mechanic might his favorite machine. There is no other underlying medical condition that I am aware of that could be contributing to why I felt so emotionally bad with such frequency. Perhaps, I theorized, a healthier lifestyle would be even necessary for the next two interventions to work well, or at all. Second, I chose to sprinkle random of acts of kindness wherever I went. I considered this a stab at a cognitive-behaviorist approach to retool my brain to think in terms of others all the time. I was most interested in any side effects that might occur. In the last ten days, I let go of feeling angry while continuing to employ the first two, specifically with my father. My methodology could best be described as adopting the cliché adage that lingering feelings of hostility could be likened to drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
The Interventions – A Walk Through
Day one of this 30-day gauntlet did not start out any easier than day 30 if I am to be completely honest. Exercise and physical activity was the name of the game, and it was not a game that I enjoyed with consistency. This fact was due in equal parts to previous frequent injury to my ankles and a strong desire to do anything that did not require sweat, increased heart rate, nor getting beaten by my highly athletic brothers.
But my commitment was king, and thus I dragged myself to the karate school each day to get my face kicked in during sparring yet take comfort in my forms and weapons performances remaining smooth. I cannot really say I loved coaches and other students—especially my family—telling me that I had such ‘potential’ if I just stayed with it. The attention didn’t make me, for lack of a better word, happy.
And, unfortunately for my hypothesis at hand, I cannot really report that the exercise made me all that happy either. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, daily exercise is proven to increase endorphins and thus mood. Since by day 5 I found exercise to be more of a downer than the upper I had craved, I started doing some research. Some web sources suggested that people with a Type A personality should engage only in exercises that are non-competitive in nature. Thus, I attributed some of my apprehension and annoyance I felt at the karate school each day to the fact that I am always in a position to feel like I am competing. And at the end of the ten days, I realized that I did not really want to compete with anyone. I would rather be the hand up than the person in the limelight. When I adjusted my attitude towards exercise, and karate in general, I found that a mantra of ‘just live the experience’ improved tenfold my relationships with other people. In fact, I would say that improved relationships could have been what made me happier by day 11 as opposed to the smelly shirts and black bottomed feet I washed each night. At least I belonged somewhere.
This sense of community was an unexpected side effect of this first third of the project that made it easier to drop random acts of kindness as a normal part of routine over the second set of ten days. People that I previously did not speak to much, I made a point to observe. Upon those observations, I acted. Some things I did included taking water to people who looked a little over heated. My best memory was comforting a crying child without being asked—a stranger—and the mother later coming up to me beaming that her child benefitted ‘so much.’ Therefore as I write my results here, I am forced to wonder if random acts of kindness are the causative agent alone for the feelings of happiness that ‘being nice’ evokes. What if it isn’t ‘being nice’ that makes a person feel good, but rather the sense of community and camaraderie that develops with heretofore unknown people. When the world is your oyster of unharvested pearls shaped like humans, does that not breed happiness?
In the final ten days I had felt better than I remember in a very long time. That feeling made it easier to stop being angry or hostile. But, it was not a decision to simply stop being angry that contributed to my success. Rather, I confronted people indirectly with an olive branch of invitations. I specifically focused on my father. Instead of ‘talking out’ previous differences, I let go of differences and just went to the movies, a lot, with him. I made a point to talk about his interests, and the end result is that I still see him occasionally do things that get on my nerves. But, by accepting him, the relationship overall has improved.
This assignment asked us to use reinforcers like bubble baths, brownies, or other positive reinforcement to keep us focused and on prescription. I cannot honestly say that I was motivated by anything outside of a desire to see if this psycho-babble mumbo jumbo might work. I gave it the old college try for thirty days and then some. If, at the end, I did not see any positive results then I would chalk positive psychology to be what already happy people talk about on TV shows like The View. If that happened, I had already made the conscience choice to stay annoyed at people who flitted about like happy fairies. People like my brother, whom I love dearly, but he sure is happy all the time and for the life of me I cannot say I always understand why even now.
And whether one is outwardly seeming happy or not, I encourage others to take the Fordyce Emotions test found online. When I took it originally, my happiness factor hovered around 30%. Today, I scored 70%. I refuse to let my competitive nature acknowledge my happiness as more of a ‘C’ status, or at least I am trying to. Thoughts that at least my score is no longer failing offers an opportunity to chuckle.
The good news is that I don’t have to understand, at this point anyway, what makes others happy. I just must engage in happiness activities. And the converse is also true. I must not engage in activities that are the opposite of happiness. The opposite of happy is angry. The opposite of actively connected is loneliness. Thus, here is my best advice to others seeking fulfillment that leads to joy. Avoid behaviors that look like the opposite of what you most desire. If happiness happens to be it, perhaps this paper can be a roadmap to finding your own inner peace. Certainly, then, this project I have engaged in over the last thirty days is more than valuable. It is a gift for those willing to open the proffered box seriously. Inside one might find their own personal happiness, and it might even give them peace. And it is that inner peace that I think likely most everyone is ultimately seeking. But, that would be a whole other class now, wouldn’t it?