What I Learned about Learning and Happiness

It’s the start of a new year, a time when beginnings and endings encourage us to step back and check out where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’d like to be. Today I’d like to kick off a new section of my blog called What I Learned.

Since 2014 I’ve kept a personal happiness journal (similar to a gratitude journal), modeled on my experience with the social media app, Happier. Back when I used it, Happier encouraged users to share three happy moments every day. Users could include a photo with their daily happy moments, tag each with a category, and, of course, participate with other members by appreciating what had made them happier.

When the social aspect of Happier became too heavy, I translated the practice to my private journal. Once I eliminated the strain of entertaining an audience and could just be myself, I found that journal jotting three things that made me happy each day paid huge mood boosting dividends for such a tiny amount of effort spent.

I also kept the practice of tagging my happy moments. Tags help me spot trends of what brings a smile to my face—and it’s not always what I expect. No surprise that my kitty, my hubby, friends, good food, and reading top my list. But I’m surprised how often watching a video makes my day (I used to consider myself a reluctant video watcher). Nor did I expect (as someone who patterns herself after a Hobbit) that going out would rank so high on my happiness list. Another enlightening entry in the top quarter of my happy categories is learning something new.

Throughout 2017 I searched for other daily journal jotting practices with effectiveness as potent as my happy moments. I wrote affirmations, collected quotes from philosophers, tried noting the successes and failures of the day, and typed out my values. But of all the daily practices I auditioned, only one stood out above the others in bringing more joy and meaning to my life. This practice happens to correlate with that last entry in the top quarter of my happiness charts. The only of the  2017 journal jotting experiments that survived as a regular part of my practice is: What I learned today.

What I learned about learning in 2017 is that learning something new every day truly does make me feel more positive about life. If I’m super excited to tell my journal a juicy nugget of knowledge learned that day, I believe it was a good day. Evenings when I struggle to dredge up something I can qualify as “learned” follow down days where I perceive myself as drug out, burned out, and more than a little defeated. Learning something every day is becoming critical to my sense of wellbeing, purpose, and joy. It makes me feel more alive. If I added up all the What I learned today entries and tagged them as HappierLearning, this category would make an epic climb up the happiness list.

Sometimes What I learned today is a cool fact gleaned from reading or a podcast. It can be a life lesson learned the hard way by making a mistake and falling on my face, or a truth I’ve recognized about myself. I love when What I learned today is an insight, a new perspective or experience. Or when a new connection sparks, and I have a mini breakthrough that lets me understand, just a little more deeply, the world around me.

I learned from my Happier experience that daily posting is not for me. But when I do learn something new that I’m excited to share, it would be great to have a place to write about it. So I’m starting a new section of my blog called What I learned. I hope a few of the things that have tickled me to discover may bring one or two fun aha moments to others, as well.

If you’re happy and you know it

This month EdX is running a Massive Online Open Course offered by the University of Washington called: Becoming a Resilient Person- The Science of Stress Management. Life can get rough when I least expect it. Becoming a Resilient Person sounded like a good idea. I signed up.

My takeaway from the first week of video lectures is that resilience is not simply a matter of reducing stress. Yes, as the title of the course indicates, stress management is a key component of resilience, but it’s only half the equation. When it comes to being able to handle life’s ups and downs, enjoying a high quality, happy life, is just as important as stress reduction.

I would refine the insight even further and suggest that recognizing when you’re experiencing happiness is a critical component of a good quality life. In my cognitive science and psychology reading I keep coming across the idea that people tend to remember the negative more than the positive. Our psyches are hard wired to need the bare minimum emphasis on “don’t stick finger in flame” to get the message. Survival reinforced our instinct to run away from danger more than our instinct to run toward joy.

A few years ago I signed up for Happier, a website with app that acts as an online gratitude journal. Happier was fantastic, but its emphasis on social (sharing your happy moments) didn’t quite work for me. I began to edit the happy shares I posted, thinking I must be boring people to death posting yet again: snuggled with my kitty, read the same awesome book I talked about yesterday.

So I stole all the great ideas from Happier, such as the option to use photos as happy moments, and creating tags to categorize types of experiences that bring me joy, and recreated my private version of a gratitude journal in my Day One Journal. I aim for recording three happy moments every day, use photos when I can, and always give each moment a category tag. Thanks to Day One I can check in and review what made me happy that week. I can also get a view of category tags by frequency used, so I can begin to see what things in life bring me the most joy. Yes, animals are high on the list, but happy moments with friends top the charts.

For the majority human beings, including me, experiencing happiness is not enough, you need to recognize the happiness. Recording at least three good things every day means I’m happy and I know it.