The Happiness Connection  

Happy ways to get healthier

As I was reading positive psychology studies published in 2020, I found one that captured my attention.

Kostadin Kushlev, of Georgetown University, worked with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and the University of Virginia to examine if improving the happiness of individuals who weren’t hospitalized or undergoing medical treatment, increased their physical health.

There’s already a large body of evidence that shows a strong link between happiness and health. This study was intriguing because it wasn’t just interested in the link. It wanted to test whether physical health could be improved by boosting a person’s sense of wellbeing.

155 adults aged 25-75 were randomly assigned to a waitlist or enrolled in a 12-week happiness course, which the scientist referred to as an intervention.

The waitlist represented the control group.

The course was broken into three sections.

  • Core Self – identifying personal goals, strengths, and values.
  • Experiential Self – learning emotional mastery, mindfulness, and ways to identify patterns of thinking that interfered with a sense of wellbeing.
  • Social Self – discovering tools to increase positive social engagement and cultivate gratitude.

The content was made up of information and activities that previous studies had found to boost happiness. None of them focused on sleep, exercise, or diet.

During the 12-week positive psychology intervention, participants reported feeling happier than those on the waitlist. They also took fewer sick days not only during the initial 12 weeks, but also during the three months after the intervention had concluded.

This shows that diet and exercise aren’t the only things that improve your physical health.

This would be an important finding at any time, but it seems especially significant during a global pandemic.

Happiness isn’t just about feeling good, it’s about your values, beliefs, and intentions. It’s a way of approaching life.

Among other things, happy people:

  • Are life-long learners.
  • See humour in challenging situations.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Understand their emotions.
  • Are interested in the greater good.

If practising happiness sounds like something you’d be interested in trying, the following are evidence-based activities proven to help.

  • Commit Random Acts of Kindness. This means doing something for another person without expecting them to do anything in return. This could be as simple as opening the door for another person, smiling when you pass a stranger, or giving your server an extra good tip.
  • Give to charity. Helping a cause by donating items, contributing money, or becoming a volunteer have all been shown to make you feel better.
  • Smile, even if you don’t feel like it. Even a fake smile will make you feel happier. When the muscles involved in smiling are activated, a message goes to the brain. This triggers your brain to release feel-good chemicals. If you don’t believe me, try it.
  • Spend time outside. If you can surround yourself with nature, so much the better.
  • Establish a regular habit of journaling.
  • Meditate daily, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
  • Connect with someone. Pick up the phone, arrange a virtual meeting, or strike up a conversation with your neighbour – while maintaining a suitable distance between you, of course.
  • Be creative. The sky is the limit here. Paint, write, compose, build, or organize. They’ll all make you feel better.
  • Limit the amount of negative information you expose yourself to. I’ve discovered that I always find out about important things, even though I rarely watch the news.
  • Do something that makes you laugh. Watch a funny movie, read a humorous book, or share comical memories with a friend or family member.
  • Listen to uplifting music. Feel free to dance.

Don’t limit yourself to just one strategy. Listen to inspiring music while you walk in nature, smiling at everyone you meet. If no one else is there, smile anyway.

One barrel at a time

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

If you’re a fan of the IIHF world junior hockey championship, you’ll understand that the above statement isn’t a reference to Christmas.

It’s the song played to announce the pending start of the amazing tournament we look forward to every December.

This year, the final was between Canada and the United States. The American took home gold.

As they got ready to take their championship team photo, a blue barrel with the Canadian team logo taped to it, was pushed onto the ice and into the shot. This simple act sparked speculation and controversy.

These barrels are used as garbage cans, so it isn’t a stretch to interpret this as an insult to the Canadian team. Without any other information, many observers jumped to this conclusion.

The Americans had an explanation that was quite different.

During the tournament, they used the barrels as a metaphor for taking the championship one game at a time.

It came from a story about crossing the Sahara. A barrel was placed at the end of each stage of the trek. Instead of seeing the enormity of 500 miles of heat and sand, they took it one barrel at a time.

This is how the coaching staff counselled the team to see the tournament. Rather than thinking about taking home gold, they should only concentrate on the next game.

Yes, I’m sure there was also some jokes about trashing the next team they faced, but that isn’t something to take offence from.

There is always more than one way to interpret anything you see or hear. You can believe someone acted with malevolence, or you can consider their motivations to be kinder.

In my experience, it’s hard to establish truth at the best of times, because there’s more than one reality, depending on who you talk to.

Ask yourself which option makes you feel a greater level of peace?

  • The Americans were being arrogant and rude.
  • The Americans were marking the philosophy they had embraced throughout the tournament.
  • I don’t care.

Release the need for there to be one right answer and for it to the one you choose to believe. Each person gets to make their own choice.

Being annoyed, angry, or hurt are all negative emotions. When you experience them, your body is experiencing the fight/flight/freeze response. You’re preparing yourself for survival.

This is useful, when a foe presents itself, but not when the enemy is imagined.

Your initial reaction to anything may be negative, but you have free will. You can stop and reassess.

  • Take a breath.
  • Recognize how you’re feeling.
  • Thank your negative emotions for showing up to support you but tell them you don’t need them just now.
  • Release them.
  • Take a few more deep breaths.
  • When you feel more positive, look at the situation again.
  • Choose whatever belief makes you feel the greatest sense of peace.

Does it make you feel better to believe that someone was deliberately trying to hurt you, or that their actions were innocent although possibly misguided?

I know it may take some people time to adjust to this way of approaching life. You may be so used to your negative emotions that they feel comfy and familiar. But that doesn’t mean they are good for you.

There are times when you need to stand up and prepare for battle, but the necessity to do that presents itself less often than you might think.

You get to choose whether you want to feel positive or negative.

If your interpretation of what you see or hear gives you a sense of peace, it’s aiding your well-being. If it makes you feel agitated and annoyed, it isn’t. Stop to examine your emotions and then make a conscious choice about how you want to feel.

Were the Americans thinking about barrels and the Sahara Desert when they included the container in their team photo, or were they saying our team was trash?

I don’t know, but I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Colour-blind consciousness

On Christmas day, after my parents had been returned home and the kitchen cleaned, I collapsed on the couch and looked for something to entertain me.

I turned to Netflix.

As I browsed through the new shows, I saw Bridgerton. It caught my attention because my daughter had mentioned that she had seen previews for it. It had only been released that day, so I decided to see what it was like.

The story is based on a series of novels, set in regency England. I’ve never read a Harlequin romance, but this is what I imagine they’d be like.

When I plopped down on the sofa, I had no idea that I’d soon be receiving a final Christmas gift: an opportunity to learn something new.

It didn’t immediately feel like a gift because it was wrapped in niggly feelings of irritation.

As I watched the first episode of Bridgerton, I felt bothered by something I couldn’t immediately put my finger on.

I’m not sure how long it took to identify the source of this jarring feeling, but eventually it surfaced.

Regency England frowned upon racially mixed marriages, its nobility excluded people from African or Asian descent, and, to my knowledge, every queen of England has been Caucasian.

That isn’t the case in this production.

I have no problem with the colour of anyone's skin. It wasn’t the ethnicity of the actors that caused me an issue, it was an inability to get around what my brain perceived as historical inaccuracy.

I felt challenged to continue watching something that seemed to have got it so wrong.

Whenever you feel annoyed or irritated, you’re presented with a chance to discover something new about yourself or the world.

With this awareness, you can choose to swallow the red pill or the blue one – I recently watched The Matrix for the first time.

You can stand still by choosing to see stupidity or wrongness in whatever is irritating you, or you can investigate to find out why your brain seems to think there’s a problem.

This new television series was causing my brain to get its knickers in a twist.

I mentioned how I was feeling to my daughter. She was patient as she reminded me of a conversation we had had a few years back when the musical Hamilton first debuted.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the show and played the lead role, decided the historical figures should be played by actors of colour.

This new way of casting a show was originally called colour-blind casting, but is now more commonly referred to as non-traditional or colour-conscious casting.

Gender, age, and other physical traits are considered less important than how suitable an actor is for a part. As a result, there may be a family with each person in it being portrayed by an actor from a different racial background.

It’s about the story, not the colour of an actor’s skin.

I was offered the gift of choosing a new perspective, although I had to unwrap and discard irritation before I could recognize it.

Rather than immediately thinking that whatever’s bothering you is the problem, take a breath, and examine the situation a little closer, or better yet, share your opinions with someone of a different generation. Get a new perspective.

The world changes, and if you aren’t willing to change with it, you’ll be left behind.

As I age, I don’t want to become old in my perspectives. The way to achieve that intention is to continue to accept new ideas and not judge based on my survival instinct telling me that new things can’t be trusted.

Was this series meant to be a good story, or an accurate portrayal of an historical event?

It was a beach read. The story wasn’t dependent on the racial background of any of the actors.

I feel like I’ve grown from this experience. My beliefs were challenged, and I had the opportunity to choose how I wanted to go forward.

If you’re a millennial, you may be mystified that this caused me even a moment of thought. Be mindful that not every generation is as quick to assimilate as you are.

Rather than hating things that seem jarring and wrong, stop to examine where your feelings are coming from.

Embracing new ideas is part of moving forward and loving your life.

Choosing the right word

I’m pretty sure the universe has a sense of humour. I’m equally certain, it’s been laughing at me this year.

Rather than setting resolutions as I go into a new year, I like to choose a theme word. I picked spacious for 2020.

My thinking behind this was to create a year when time pressure was less evident. I wanted space to enjoy life and to live in the moment, rather than being ruled by a to-do list.

Instead of flying to Arizona in February, I decided to drive. It would give me more time to myself to enjoy an expansive experience. Fate had other ideas.

Only 10 days into the new year, I slipped on the ice while walking my dog. I broke my ankle and needed surgery to insert numerous screws and a metal plate.

To top it off, it wasn’t just any ankle; it was my right one. That meant I couldn’t drive. I had more time and space than I’d thought possible as I convalesced at home alone.

I thought maybe I had experienced all there was to experience with my chosen word for the year. But the universe wasn’t finished with me yet. It decided to provide me with even more spaciousness.

I’d postponed my road trip, but after spending so much time at home, I was eager to set off for an adventure. I had to wait six weeks after my surgery to start driving. I then gave myself three weeks to build my right foot stamina.

Just as I was packing my bags, COVID came to Canada. That marked the end of my adventure. It was time to experience the spaciousness of a lockdown and social distancing.

When I chose my word for 2020, I had no idea how it would show up. I’m not sure I have enough imagination to have predicted the way the year unfolded. Of course, it hasn’t been all bad.

I’ve had time to release my habitual need for a never-ending to-do list and discovered that time pressure doesn’t have to be part of my experience. I’ve also uncovered an artistic side that I didn’t know existed.

As the new year approaches, it’s time to choose a new word.

If picking a word for the year ahead isn’t something you’ve ever done, I’d highly recommend it.

It isn’t a magic trick. If you choose money as your word, that doesn’t mean you’ll become rich. Instead, you’re inviting experiences that involve money. That’s what you want to focus on during 2021.

You might learn about the value of money, change your attitude toward it, or decide it isn’t as important as you thought it was. There’s no predicting how any of your lessons will unfold.

Why choose a word for the year?

  • Rather than only having specific goals, a word gives you an umbrella that encompasses all the things you want to achieve.
  • Life happens. Things change. Your word will guide you regardless of your circumstances. If I’d decided to set a resolution to go to the gym regularly, that would have been broken ten days into the year.
  • A theme word can bridge rigid resolutions and desires or dreams that are only beginning to take shape.
  • Your word can help you make choices. I thought driving to Arizona would provide me with a more spacious experience than flying.

How to choose a word?

  • Think about the experiences you’d like to have in the coming year.
  • Brainstorm words that fit with your intention. Take a few days to do this.
  • Whittle your list down using your intuition. This is more about how a word feels than how much sense it makes.
  • Put your word somewhere you will see it regularly. My friend Myrna Parks had a sign made with my word on it. I have it hanging in my kitchen.


  • You can use any word. It can be a noun, verb, or adjective. There are no rules.
  • If you find a better word in the first few weeks of the year, feel free to change it, but draw a line at some point. Don’t continually hop from one word to another. Commit.
  • Every word has polarity. There is both a bright and a shadow side to every experience. You’re likely to face varying degrees of both. Savour them all. They have things to teach you about yourself.
  • Keep a journal. Pause regularly to reflect on how your word is showing up.
  • Remember, your word is for the year, not just for January.

I think my word for 2021 is going to be light. I want more experiences that are fun, and I want to move more easily.

The universe may have other ideas. Lightness may come from occurrences that I haven’t even considered and that I wouldn’t consciously choose.

Whatever word you pick, I wish you a year of peace, happiness, and a greater level of personal understanding.

More The Happiness Connection articles

About the Author

Reen Rose is an experienced, informative, and engaging speaker, author, and educator. She has worked for over three decades in the world of education, teaching children and adults in Canada and England.

Research shows that happy people are better leaders, more successful, and healthier than their unhappy counterparts, and yet so many people still believe that happiness is a result of their circumstances.

Happiness is a choice. Reen’s presentations and workshops are designed to help you become robustly happy. This is her term for happiness that can withstand challenge and change.

Reen blends research-based expertise, storytelling, humour, and practical strategies to both inform and inspire. She is a Myers Briggs certified practitioner, a Microsoft Office certified trainer and a qualified and experienced teacher.

Email Reen at [email protected]

Check out her websites at www.ReenRose.com, or www.ModellingHappiness.com

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories