Monday, 5 February 2018

The little things

My 10-year old son and I are playing a game at the moment: the 30-day Happiness Challenge*. I bought it after he finished his entrance exams for secondary school. A bit of light relief. So each day he plucks a 'happiness challenge' from a little box covered in smiley faces. Two weeks in, he's been smiling at strangers, looking back on old photos and walking barefoot in some rather soggy grass.

List of 'happiness' challenges
My main objective is to keep him on a positive track after the stress of all the exams. Like many of us, he can get lost in the more negative aspects of his day. Apparently, this is a common human trait. "Our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt to the negative," says social psychologist Alison Ledgerwood in a TEDx talk. 

Psychology experiments show that people are much more influenced by negative events (a job interview that went badly, for example) than good events (winning a competition). Our minds will also fixate on that bad event, even if it is countered by something more positive. "Bad tends to stick; a bad comment can last all week," Ledgerwood says.

But it's not all glass-half-empty! Ledgerwood believes we can change our behaviour. "Our minds may be built to hold onto negative information, but we can also re-train our minds," she says. This can be as simple as forcing yourself to dwell on the positive events of your day (a compliment someone paid you) rather than the negative (the test mark that was lower than expected). 


Smelly socks


My son's little Happiness Challenge is an attempt to re-frame the day in a positive light. Smile at the stranger and she might smile back. Last night, we duly walked barefoot in the grass (a better experience in summer, I imagine) and returned inside to discover the dog had stolen our socks. Much giggling as we watched him (the dog) tear around the house like he'd won the lottery, with four smelly socks hanging out of his mouth. One happy event led to another. Non-stop fun in our house.

The 30-day challenge smacks a little of tokenism - giving a random hug is probably not enough to erase a bad experience - but by making a conscious effort to tinker with our brain circuitry, we are acknowledging that positive experiences are important. As the game says, "Think happy, be happy!"

I suspect our tilt toward the negative derives from an evolutionary survival instinct, the need to learn from danger. Nowadays, however, the greater challenge seems to be achieving a robust state of mind so why not accentuate the fun side of life? 

According to Ledgerwood, "writing about things you are grateful for can dramatically boost your wellbeing." As part of the game, my son also had to list 10 things he could do well. Loving my family, making friends and taking exams all made the top ten. Bingo! The little box of smiley faces could be making a difference.

Hug, anyone?




TEDx talk by Alison Ledgerwood, social psychologist



* Some of the challenges in the 30-day Happiness Challenge Game are not entirely suitable for children!