Aisha Sultan | News & Observer, December 2014

There are times when a foggy malaise can settle into a spot. Even when cracks of sunlight break through this vapor, a heaviness lingers.

Despite being a reporter – a job where we’re conditioned to notice and document what’s wrong, unfair, tragic and broken – I usually enjoy being a happy and positive person. But there has been so much striking and detailed pain on display in our world recently.

This summer, the gruesome images of the war in Gaza were soon joined by heartbreaking ones out of Ferguson. Couple this with the fact that my generation has entered that period of life when there’s a steady stream of devastating personal news among our peers: Parents (or even children) die, alarming diagnoses are more common, and friends divorce.

We have been through cycles of tragedy, death and destruction before. But this prolonged dark period provoked a deeper anxiety in me. From the personal to the political, the onslaught of bad news has felt relentless.

During this run of gloominess I decided to embark on a happiness project. Not happiness as in a constant state of chipper: Some of the most outwardly cheerful people I’ve known have been deeply unhappy inside. But happiness in the way that psychologists have defined it: the pleasure of feeling good; engagement in living a good life with family, friends, work and hobbies; and finding meaning in being able to use our strengths toward a greater purpose.

Is it possible to increase those pieces of happiness, thereby becoming happier?

There’s an entire body of research that looks at ways to make people happier in life and work. I sifted through some of this positive psychology analysis and watched the most popular TED talk on the subject.

Positive psychology experts Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan have written extensively about the habits that can train our brains to think more positively, which they argue leads to our brains making us feel happier. Scientists say there’s a biochemical process at work: Positive emotions like love and joy release dopamine and serotonin into our brains. This biochemical wash helps our brain process new information, think more quickly and creatively, and connect better with others.

Achor and Gielan suggest that incorporating these five daily habits for as few as 21 days can make us happier:

1. Write down three unique and new things you are grateful for every day. This teaches the brain to scan for new, good things.

2. Spend a few minutes writing down in detail the most meaningful moment from your day. This allows you to relive what made it meaningful for you.

3. Praise or thank a different person in your social network every day, either by email or phone, for something specific. This will remind your brain of the support around you.

4. Exercise for 15 minutes a day. The effects can be as powerful as taking an antidepressant.

5. Take two minutes to meditate and breathe. Pay attention to your inhale and exhale. It will focus your attention and lower stress.

I tried to do all five habits and recorded my efforts daily for 21 days last month. The only ones I did religiously for three weeks were listing three new gratitudes each day, describing the most meaningful moment and thanking a person for a specific act each day. The 15 minutes of exercise was hit or miss. I completely failed on the meditating. That was very challenging.

About a third of my meaningful moments were with my children. The rest were interactions at work, with friends or with people who were essentially strangers. It was revealing to keep track of which moments moved me during the day.

And the researchers were absolutely correct. While I was committed to this task, I became more attuned to the good things, no matter how small. I spent more minutes in my day contemplating the positive. I felt more grateful and engaged with people and connected to the meaning in my life.

A few times, I struggled to come up with a meaningful moment or a different person to thank. On the days I was very tired, it felt like a chore. But overall, it lifted my spirit. When things looked especially bleak, this happiness project was an antidote.

The only defense we have against the sometimes overwhelming and random pain in this life is belligerent happiness.