By Camila Vallejo Hartford Courant
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the women who are tackling the subject of happiness. From a documentary to a college course dissecting the subject, they are examing the meaning of joy...and more importantly, how to capture it.
Happiness has always been a priority for Americans, with the pursuit of it even named as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. But there is no perfect recipe for happiness: What brings ultimate joy to one person might be completely different for another.
Many books, college courses and workshops have emerged in the past few years in the hopes of spreading that message far and wide, especially to younger generations. As is the case with The American Happiness Project, founded and led by 29-year-old entrepreneur Michelle Wax.
A few years after graduating from the University of Connecticut in 2012, the Massachusetts native started two successful businesses: Kitchen Millie, a cookie catering and events company; and The Local Fare, a collaborative kitchen space. Wax had a good job, car and overall life, she says, and from the perspective of someone on the outside, she should have been really happy. But her reality was the opposite.
She soon realized she wasn’t alone, as many of her friends also found themselves in an unhappy ditch.
“My friends got to a point where they had followed the path they thought would make them happy -- good job, a relationship, etc. -- but still found themselves unhappy,” Wax said. “It pained me to see them question, ‘Is this all life is?’”
It wasn’t until she started digging into neuroscience and how it influences happiness that Wax realized she had the key to happiness all along: her mindset.
“Happiness is a thing that, if you’re constantly searching for, you’re never going to reach,” Wax said. “We’re told that once we reach a certain point in a job, find that person or buy a house, then you’ll be happy. But that only contributes to 10% of our happiness, which is why when you reach a goal or buy something, a couple of days later you’re back to feeling the same way you did before. The other 90% is how you view the world, yourself and your circumstances.”
Determined to find the root of American happiness, Wax embarked on a journey to all 50 states in three months. She spoke to and filmed Americans between the ages of 18 and late 60s, and says she found two common themes:
The happiest Americans had a positive mindset trained to derail the brain’s negative thoughts.
Happy Americans were doing what they truly loved whether it was a career, hobby, etc., despite what other external factors had conditioned them to do from an early age.
During her many conversations, Wax also noticed that older generations tend to be happier than their younger counterparts. However, younger interviewees were more willing to explore their happiness before committing to anything, she says.
Wax wanted to share her findings beyond the documentary she filmed -- which is expected to release later this year or in early 2021 -- and help others find their spark of happiness. So she started offering workshops on how to live a happier and more fulfilled life, tailored for corporations, educational institutions and individuals.
Wax says her most popular workshop is the “Science of Happiness,” in which she breaks down how neuroscience is linked to emotions. She also provides her audience with several strategies on how to track negative thoughts, such as maintaining a gratitude journal or writing letters of appreciation.
“As humans, we have a negative mindset due to our primal state,” Wax said. “We are wired to be on high alert at all times and to be on the lookout for what could go wrong in order to keep ourselves safe. I encourage people to break down any thought pattern that is not helping them -- whether it’s negative self-talk or any belief about yourself that’s holding you back in your life.”
Rewiring your automatic habits and strategies is also one of the main goals of “Psychology and The Good Life,” a course at Yale University taught by Dr. Laurie Santos, a psychology professor.
“The research shows it’s not what we think. It’s not money and success at work and material possessions,” Santos said. “Happiness stems from our social connections and our mindset -- things like doing nice things for others, taking time for gratitude and being in the present moment -- as well as physically healthy activities like exercise and sleep.”
Santos’ course teaches students the theories behind the science of happiness, how our mind can be our worst enemy if we let it, and “rewirements” -- activities aimed at making students happier, healthier and more resilient -- to practice on a daily basis.
To the surprise of many, nearly 1,200 students enrolled in the course when it was first offered in 2018, crowning it the most popular course in the history of Yale. Since then, it’s been converted to an online course available to the public and influenced Santos’ new podcast, The Happiness Lab.
Similar to Santos, Dr. Liane Leedom at the University of Bridgeport also sees power in teaching her students psychological skills for well-being. As a psychiatrist and associate professor of counseling and psychology, Leedom’s course goes beyond happiness and instead highlights the importance of self-regulation.
“We are in a constant state of conflict between those things that bring us happiness or pleasure and those things that are necessary for our well-being,” Leedom says. “They are not the same. ... If I set out today to eat what would make me happy, I would go to the mall and get a Cinnabon for breakfast, a burrito and chocolate cake for lunch and pizza for dinner. Those are some of the things that make me feel happy when I eat them, but that won’t be good for my well-being.”
Leedom’s course, “Theories of Self-Regulation,” analyzes self-regulation in humans at different ages and explores skills that can help students be more present, improve communication in their relationships and process emotions instead of running from them.
“Control of attention and negative thoughts are needed for emotional regulation and self-regulation,” Leedom said. “Emotion regulation doesn’t always mean trying to be ‘happy.’ It means adjusting your emotions to appropriate levels of intensity in order to accomplish your goals.”
Regardless of which well-being practice is used, experts seem to agree on channeling positive thoughts into your daily routines and overall goals.
“Happiness all the time isn’t possible,” Wax said. “But the thing about training your mindset to go to a place of opportunity, gratefulness and appreciation is that when an unfortunate thing happens, you’re able to get out of that state where you might be anxious or upset much quicker than others.” ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.