Practice Works
By Joel F. Wade - February 13, 2013

One of the principles of living a happy life is that it takes willpower, it takes discipline and it takes practice in order to live well.

This may seem strange if your vision of happiness is ease and momentary pleasure. But ease and momentary pleasure are not what make for a happy life any more than ice cream is what makes for a healthy diet.

A good dessert can be a part of a relatively healthy diet but it certainly is not what makes that diet healthy. Ease and momentary pleasure are part of a happy life – who doesn't enjoy relaxing and feeling good in the moment? – but they do not, on their own, make a life a happy one.

In my work I talk about and teach a lot of different skills that can make for a happier life – if you practice them. Knowing about them, understanding them, thinking about them are fine intellectual exercises but they will not improve your life.

What improves your life is practicing the skills of a good life; or if you're more ambitious, practicing the skills of a great life.

Gratitude is one of the great leverage points for a happier life. If you want to be happier, you can get a lot of mileage out of simply being more grateful for what you have, for the good people in your life and for the opportunities that have come to you.

But knowing that gratitude is a good thing won't do much in and of itself. What will change things for you is practicing specific behaviors that will focus your mind on gratitude.

One simple behavior is to think of three good things at the end of each day, and why they happened. If you do this regularly for a few weeks, you'll feel different than you do now (unless you already practice this, of course).

Optimism is another quality that can have a lot of leverage to change your level of happiness for the better. But knowing that optimism is a good thing won't get you anywhere. Practicing particular skills that grow optimism – an active, problem solving approach to life – is what will improve your life.

One simple thing to do is to notice when you get into a negative thought, where you're thinking about how bad a situation is, or you're blaming someone else for your misfortune. Knowing that this is harmful – it is literally, physically harmful to your health – is fine. But as long as you keep practicing the negative thinking, you're going to keep feeling pessimistic and you will continue to put stress on your system.

If you want to improve your optimism, you have to practice something different. When you notice yourself thinking of yourself as a victim, or focusing on how awful your situation is, or how bad somebody else is, stop yourself and look for how you may be thinking of your negative situation as permanent and pervasive – "I always end up in situations like this," or "I end up in situations like this everywhere in my life."

Those thoughts keep you passive and helpless; and passive and helpless is the road to misery, not happiness. Dispute them, think of ways in which your presumptions are not true and find different ways to look at the negative situation. If you want to feel different, you have to practice something different.

If you are feeling bad about something, one thing that can help you feel better is to reappraise your feelings. If you focus and go more deeply into those bad feelings, you will likely keep feeling the same, or worse. If you want to feel different, you have to practice something different.

Reappraising your feelings means that you reinterpret them, thinking about possible positive outcomes of what brought on those feelings, and how you could improve the situation now.

This is one of the things that people who are less at the mercy of their feelings generally have learned to do to some degree; but what about those who have a harder time with their feelings? What about those who struggle more emotionally? Can they improve their situation just by learning some skills?

Well, almost. Learning the skills is nice but it won't likely make much of a difference. Practicing those skills regularly, however, can make a difference.

In research by Weiting Ng and Ed Diener, "Daily Use of Reappraisal Decreases Negative Emotions toward Daily Unpleasant Events" (you can request a reprint here) they looked at what would happen if "high neuroticism" subjects practiced reappraising their feelings regularly each day for a week.

Usually simply teaching this skill to people has not been helpful to those who struggle more emotionally. But in those unsuccessful studies, the skills were taught but they were not practiced.

Surprise! If you don't practice it, it doesn't make a difference. Did you ever take music lessons and didn't practice? Did you ever get better at your instrument?

What Ng and Diener found, though, was that when daily practice was added to the mix, there was improvement for everybody, even those who struggle more with their emotions (what they call high neuroticism). Now, they only had the subjects do this for a week, which is not much time to change habits that are likely well established (you get good at what you practice, good or bad).

But I'm not writing a research paper here; it is a column to give you ideas to think about and play with. So I will make a wild speculation: Practicing reappraising your feelings as a daily practice over several months – reinterpreting them, thinking about possible positive outcomes of what brought on those feelings and thinking about how you could improve the situation now – will be likely to have a positive effect on your overall mood and will likely decrease the negative emotions over daily unpleasant events. And that this is worth doing even if you struggle emotionally.

Read, study, learn; these are all important and can be joyful activities in themselves. But if you want to change something, if you want to improve how well you do anything – from playing a musical instrument, to performing better at work, to living a happier life – practice, practice, practice.

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