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“Third year of the pandemic” used to be a phrase reserved for science fiction novels.
Maddeningly, COVID may be going from historical “event” to “era.” I don’t blame you if your optimism has stretch marks and you’re feeling phantom pain where your hope used to be. We’re all wishing life would go back to precedented times.
So what do we do to stay happy and make our lives better when the world is so crazy? Might seem like there are no easy answers. You may have declared epistemological bankruptcy on this one.
Well, I’ve got a pretty good hack. It’s far from perfect but, in the big picture, it often works surprisingly well:
Be good. Give to others.
Don’t you cock that eyebrow at me. I know you don’t read these posts for Aesopian morals but I swear I’m being no less scientific than usual. Wanna be happier, less stressed, healthier, and optimistic? Then give. Do the things you think really good people would do.
Sound corny and mawkish? I appreciate your skepticism but, seriously, this works. Neal Krause, Professor of Public Health at University of Michigan School of Public Health, says: “Helping others increases your sense of control and counteracts low self-esteem.” Nice, huh?
Tired of pandemic anxiety? A good way to reduce it is to help others reduce theirs.
Krause found that offering social support to others reduces people’s anxiety over their own economic situation when they are under economic stress. He suspects that this extends to other stress as well—that giving reduces stress about your own life…
Need a bigger upside? Fair enough. Mutating virus aside, people who help others live longer.
Brown found that those who provided no significant support to others were more than twice as likely to die in that five-year period. These surprising findings ruled out other factors like personality, health, mental health, and marital relationship variables.
Mom always told you to be a good person. Now is the time to listen to mom. You and I need the social support and kindness of others now more than ever. And they need it from us. (Let’s leave total lack of consideration for the feelings and needs of others to global corporations, shall we?)
So what are the best ways to help others – and thereby help ourselves? We’re gonna get the answers from Stephen Post, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. His book is “Why Good Things Happen to Good People.”
Let’s get to it…
Last time I checked it was still free. And it makes you feel good. Really good.
A 1998 Gallup survey of American teenagers and adults found that 95 percent of respondents felt at least somewhat happy when expressing gratitude, and over half felt extremely happy. People who see themselves as grateful… are healthier, more energetic and optimistic, more empathic, and less vulnerable to clinical depression.
How do we boost gratitude? It’s often recommended that you keep a gratitude journal. You know, writing down things you’re thankful for every day. Blah, blah, blah. You can skip that. Right now we want to focus on showing gratitude to others. Not only is it the nice thing to do, it’s also far more impactful for both of you.
And we’re going to use the research-proven, nuclear version of giving thanks. University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman calls it the “Gratitude Visit.”
Know someone who has been awesome to you over the years? Great. Write them a letter of gratitude. Doesn’t need to be longer than a page and doesn’t have to rival Shakespeare. Say what they’ve done for you. How it helped you. What it meant to you. How it made you feel. All the concrete positive effects they had on your life and how they made a difference.
If they don’t live with you, text them to schedule a video call. Be vague about why. (Yes, we’re being sneaky. It’s okay. This is like scheduling a surprise party.) And on the call, read them the letter. May wanna have tissues ready. Seligman says this often makes both parties cry. (Okay, okay, full disclosure: Seligman did say that, but I can also personally confirm this makes both people cry.)
Please do this. It doesn’t cost a thing. And these are the moments in life that people remember. How much would you like someone to designate a time to say how thankful they are for what you’ve done? How much you mean to them? And how much you’ve impacted their life? Yeah, that’s how they’re gonna feel. Give someone that gift.
Showing gratitude is so powerful that not showing gratitude should be considered a menace to your own well-being. And the research says this doesn’t just make you happier in the moment — this increases happiness for both parties for months.
And the effects go deeper than that. Do this kind of good thing and you become the kind of person who does good things like this. A good person.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Showing gratitude is great. But how else can we give? Well, by literally giving.
Man, I love when these answers don’t make me think hard…
Carolyn Schwartz did a study where 132 multiple sclerosis patients were provided with monthly phone calls providing emotional support. The calls were done by 5 MS patients that she trained to listen compassionately. So how much benefit did the 132 receive from the calls?
It doesn’t matter.
Because that wasn’t the big result. The surprising finding was that five people making the calls – the ones doing the work to help others – were the ones who got the biggest boost.
When Schwartz applied scientifically rigorous data analysis to the total group of 137, she found that giving support improved health more than receiving it. Those five MS sufferers felt a dramatic change in how they viewed themselves and life. Depression, self-confidence, and self-esteem improved markedly among these givers.
Paul Wink of Wellesley College now oversees a longitudinal study that started more than a century ago in 1920. It followed people across their entire lives. When he crunched the numbers he found that volunteering while in high school “predicts good physical and mental health in late adulthood, a time interval of over fifty years.” Glowing, molten kindness is plutonium powerful.
Skeptics might say those people are wired differently. They’re just natural helpers. Wrong. Research on teens today shows that even when they’re forced to volunteer, their lives improve.
The impact is strongest when kids are inspired to volunteer on their own, but even when they are required by school-based programs to do so, the positive impact is significant, according to Catholic University of America’s James Youniss.
So give. Offer help. Volunteer for a hotline or go assist with pandemic efforts. Or just show emotional support to people like the MS callers did.
It doesn’t have to take a lot of work to help others or to see benefits yourself. Wharton professor Adam Grant provides research showing that just two hours a week makes a huge difference.
Two hours a week. That’s one less movie on Netflix each week. And most movies have been garbage lately so this is a much better bet in terms of making you happy.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Giving makes the world a better place right now. But we can also live better lives and feel better through dealing with events in the past. (No, this does not require time travel.)
There’s no trophy for holding the longest grudge but the way some people act you’d think there was. And that’s sad because forgiveness is pretty amazing.
People who score high on forgiveness as a personality trait are less likely to be depressed, anxious, hostile, narcissistic, or exploitative and are also less likely to become dependent on drugs or nicotine… In studies in which people were encouraged to forgive, there was increased self-esteem and hope. A few studies have shown that these benefits may last as long as a year…
Most people like the idea of showing gratitude. Volunteering and giving can sound like a lot of work but few dispute it’s a good idea. Forgiveness, however, can often be a sticking point for some…
That person is a jerk. They don’t deserve it. No way, Eric.
I get it. But a lot of this resistance comes from misunderstanding what forgiveness means. And the experts agree on a number of things: You don’t have to condone someone’s bad behavior. You don’t have to trust them again or have any involvement with them. Forgiveness is more about letting your pain and anger go. You don’t have to give someone the chance to hurt you again, but you can let it stop torturing you.
Talking to the person is great but you don’t have to. In fact, research shows forgiving unconditionally helps you even more than if they actually apologize.
If it’s easier for you, you can forgive by just sitting down and writing about it.
Think about an incident that hurt you. Write down a definition of forgiveness that you feel comfortable with—whether it be reconciling, reframing silently, trying to see the offender’s complexity and humanity, asking for an apology or reparation, reframing other positive events as more important, or letting go and seeking inner peace.
You wouldn’t want your worst moments to define you. Try and be compassionate and think about how the person may be worthy of forgiveness in some way. And consider how much better your life will be if you let this go.
Set aside vengeful fantasies of a suitcase full of somebody beneath your floorboards. Collecting bits of chronic anger like Hummel figurines is no way to go through life. While anger may make you feel powerful in the short term, it actually puts control of your life in someone else’s hands. Anger isn’t self-help; it’s self-helplessness. You’re a victim. Ultimately, it makes you powerless. Forgiving is what puts you in control of your life, and gives you back your power.
The empathy and courage required for forgiveness enhance our sense of well-being and control, according to a study Witvliet did of seventy-one students… “Unforgiving imagery consistently prompts more negative, aroused self-reports and physiological stress responses. Ruminating about negative situations is linked to depression, anxiety disorders, and anger. Ruminating sustains the desire for revenge, and re-creates the physiological stress of the original harm. It also reinforces the victim role, which is linked with passivity and failure. Forgiving responses calm the mind and body.”
Oh, and while you’re at it, forgive someone else: you. We all have an emotional closet full of stuff we beat ourselves up about. Often, no one judges you as harshly as your judge yourself. Allow yourself the same luxury of making mistakes that everyone else gets.
(To learn the 4 rituals that will make you happy all the time, click here.)
Whew, that was serious. Now let’s discuss one that’s a lot less serious. And a lot more fun…
I’ve looked at your blood work and I’m concerned you may have a serious irony deficiency.
In the big box store of giving and human kindness, humor just doesn’t get as much floor space as those more “profound” ideas like generativity and forgiveness. And that’s a shame. Because laughing has some serious benefits.
As psychologist Steve Wilson says, “You’ll never die laughing but you may die of being dead serious.”
Recent research has supported a link between laughter, coping with stress, and psychological and physical well-being. According to this work, people who spontaneously use humor to cope with stress have especially healthy immune systems, are 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, experience less pain during dental surgery, and live 4.5 years longer than most.
But I’m not just recommending you watch more comedy. The key here is enjoying laughs with others. Humor bonds teams at work and when couples reminisce about shared laughter they’re happier than when they’re nostalgic about other positive events.
Most importantly, humor heals relationships. John Gottman is the Grand Poobah of marriage research. I’ve written before about his “4 Horsemen” – the things that lead to marital doom. Obviously, couples would be smart to avoid them. But what’s more interesting is that even if they don’t, they can still be happy. They just need to repair the damage that’s been done. And guess what a big part of that is? Yup, humor.
According to Gottman, the conflicts and differences at the beginning of a marriage will often last through the whole marriage—but it is not the differing viewpoints that matter so much as learning the skills of using positive emotions like humor and gentle teasing to deescalate conflict and keep marital magic intact.
Good people aren’t always serious, stalwart paragons of ethical behavior. God, how boring would that be? Sometimes good people are just loving folks who make you laugh until you wee-wee your pants.
(To learn how you can use humor to be happier, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn why being good and giving to others is the best way to be happy – even if you’re totally selfish…
Here’s how “being good” can make your life better:
Okay, so what if you’re not the most giving person? Maybe the best way to your heart is not through kindness, but through the fifth left intercostal space at the midclavicular line. Maybe you’re just really selfish.
Well, have I got an M. Night Shyamalan twist for you, my friend: that’s perfectly fine. Why would I say that?
Because being selfless may be the most effective way to be selfish.
And those aren’t my words. Those are the words of the most agreed-upon selfless person around. The Dalai Lama:
If you would like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is…seeking happiness for ourselves alone… (But) the intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others.
And science backs him up. Helping isn’t just correlated with happiness; it causes happiness.
When the Berlin Wall fell and East Germany dissolved, many volunteer groups dissolved. And researchers got a natural experiment with a control group to see what happens when people no longer have the opportunity to give to others. And the results were clear: they became less happy.
This paradox has cast-iron worth. Want to be selfish? Great. Help others. It’s a con game you can run on yourself. And you and the world will be better off for it.
But, honestly, I don’t think you’re that selfish. I think you understand the power of giving and kindness. Maybe you just needed a reminder from your friend Eric.
The pandemic has made community harder. It’s hurt our ability to gather, to assist and to just feel good with others. If we’re not careful, this could be the worst thing to come out of the pandemic – because these society-wide bad habits could last a lot longer than the virus if we don’t address them.
As we begin a new year, just try to be good. It’s not a perfect solution. It’s not a get-out-jail-free card. But it’s easy to remember. It works. It’s guilt-free. And it’s not that difficult.
So many positive things come from just being kind: happiness, community, assistance — even a longer life. Wow, sounds like kindness is “a matter of life or death.”
But not really…
It’s more important than that.
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