Want to feel better and improve your health? Start by focusing on the things that bring you happiness. Scientific evidence suggests that positive emotions can help make life longer and healthier.
But fleeting positive emotions aren't enough. Lowering your stress levels over a period of years with a positive outlook and relaxation techniques could reduce your risk of health problems.
Pathways to happiness
In an early phase of positive psychology research, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan chose three pathways to examine:
• Feeling good. Seeking pleasurable emotions and sensations, from the hedonistic model of happiness put forth by Epicurus, which focused on reaching happiness by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
• Engaging fully. Pursuing activities that engage you fully, from the influential research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For decades, Csikszentmihalyi explored people's satisfaction in their everyday activities, finding that people report the greatest satisfaction when they are totally immersed in and concentrating on what they are doing — he dubbed this state of intense absorption "flow."
• Doing good. Searching for meaning outside yourself, tracing back to Aristotle's notion of eudemonia, which emphasized knowing your true self and acting in accordance with your virtues.
Through focus groups and testing hundreds of volunteers, they found that each of these pathways individually contributes to life satisfaction.
How do you know if you're in flow?
• You lose awareness of time. You aren't watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes. As filmmaker George Lucas puts it, talent is "a combination of something you love a great deal and something you can lose yourself in — something that you can start at 9 o'clock, look up from your work and it's 10 o'clock at night ... ."
• You aren't thinking about yourself. You aren't focused on your comfort, and you aren't wondering how you look or how your actions will be perceived by others. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.
• You aren't interrupted by extraneous thoughts. You aren't thinking about such mundane matters as your shopping list or what to wear tomorrow.
• You are active. Flow activities aren't passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.
• You work effortlessly. Flow activities require effort (usually more effort than involved in typical daily experience). Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is "clicking" and feels almost effortless.