Category Archives: Happiness

My Cinderella Story

After the last few posts of tips and tools, it’s time for a story…





nce upon a time…

there was boy who didn’t have the pressure from parents that some people have – to Be a Doctor or Join the Business or anything.  He just knew he wanted to be happy.

This boy was a big fan of television so he grew up with endless images of happy people.   He saw that happy people drove cool cars and owned beautiful houses and went to fabulous parties and dated gorgeous women and had minty fresh breath and clear skin.  And it became glaringly obvious to our young hero that the way to become happy was to become successful.

So he went for success with everything he had — he studied hard and worked extra jobs to help pay for his education.  This effort paid off with a Biochemistry degree from Brown University and a prestigious consulting job.  He leveraged that experience into an MBA from the Wharton School and a sought-after job in venture capital and biotech.  He married a beautiful woman, bought a lovely house and had two great kids.  At 35, after 20 years of hard work and toil, he found himself successful beyond his wildest dreams.


He’d arrived.


But he wasn’t happy.


And he didn’t know why.


He’d done all the things he was supposed to do. He was externally as successful as he possibly could be.  So where was that happiness he’d been promised? Where was his ‘happily ever after?’

He started hunting for answers.  If success wasn’t the path to happiness, then he was determined to figure out what was.  He took happiness quizzes in his wife’s Glamour magazine; he tried out Oprah’s Happiness Plan and explored Buddhist meditation.  While he had some success feeling happier, his efforts felt sporadic and incomplete.

Then one day, he stumbled upon the book, Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman and discovered that there was an entire field of science focusing on happiness.  This new science of happiness was systematically evaluating what made people happy,  what each of us can do to be happier and the amazing benefits of living our lives in a more positive emotional state.

From this new science, he learned that happiness isn’t a destination and isn’t a result of achieving our dreams.  That happiness is found in the little things we do every day and in the way we CHOOSE to look at the things that happen to us.

He’s a lot happier now.  He still gets his share of disappointments, frustrations and sadness.  But they don’t take him down for nearly as long as they did in his old life.  He has many more good days now than he did when he was trying to succeed his way to happiness.  And while there is no “happily ever after” he now finds himself living very happily for hours, days and sometimes even weeks at a time, which is a pretty good way to keep on writing his story.


Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


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Form Lasting Habits, Part II

Last week, in part I of this post, I shared some of the real challenges of making any new habit stick and several proven ways to successfully lock in a new habit.  These are:

1.      Pick one thing at a time

2.      Give yourself two months

3.      Start easy.

Click here to review them in detail.  Here are four more methods and tips for making lasting change in your life:

4.      Do the activity at the same time every day.  Decide exactly what you are going to do and commit to a specific time to do it.  Put it on your calendar and protect that time.  Multiple studies have shown that committing to a specific time doubles the likelihood of the committed action being performed.  We’re simply more likely to follow through when we decide ahead of time how and when it’s going to happen.  Over time, by performing the action at the same time each day, our bodies and minds adapt and prepare for the action.  This helps lock in the new neuro-pathways more quickly, allowing the new habit to become more automatic and unconscious.  Whether it’s going on a jog as soon as you wake up, meditating immediately after dinner or writing in a gratitude journal right before bed, commit to exactly what you want to do and when you are going to do it.

5.      Reduce the activation energy for habits you want and increase it for habits you don’t want.  This simply means to take away any barriers from the activities you want to do and increase the barriers to habits you want to break.   For example:

  • Decide your morning workout plan before you go to bed.  Sleep in your (clean!) workout clothes.  Put your shoes right next to your bed.  Have your gym bag fully packed and by the door with your car keys and wallet.  With no decisions to make in your groggy morning state, you’ll be much more likely to get up and do it.
  • Store the TV remote control in the closet.  Ask yourself during those 20 seconds it takes to fetch it, whether TV is really what you want to do with your time.  Even better — put that book you want to read in the same place you usually put the remote.  See how it changes your behavior.

6.      Visibly track your progress.  We used sticker charts to get our kids to do their morning routines without 258 reminders from us (“Brush your teeth!  Put on your shoes!  Get your backpack!”).  It worked so well that I adapted it for me.     Each day that I perform the habit I’m trying to develop, I get a sticker on the blank calendar page taped to my bathroom mirror. It’s empowering to see my success (“Hooray!  I meditated for 3 whole minutes!  Sticker for me!”).    Sometimes I offer myself prizes – a night out dancing or a visit to Dave & Busters — if I can get a certain number of stickers in a month (notice I didn’t set my expectation as “every day”; cut yourself some slack and realize that missing a day – or three – isn’t a deal-killer.).  If shiny little stickers are a bit too silly for you, find some way of visibly tracking your progress.  The key here is that you put it in a place you’ll see it multiple times per day (on the fridge, in the hallway, in your written calendar, next to computer screen, etc) and that you have some way to track whether you made it or not each day.

7.      Get social support.  When you are committed to developing a new habit, tell some good friends or your partner or roommate.  Ask for their support and encouragement.  This is a role I often play for my clients – when they tell me specifically what they are going to do; they are so much more successful at doing it.  It’s simply in our nature to follow through on commitments when made to others.  Even better is to have a buddy who is trying to integrate the same new habit.  You can do the activity together, if feasible, but a regular check-in can make a huge difference as you forge ahead.  This is particularly powerful in helping you through those days where motivation is not coming naturally.  Social support is an amazing thing.

Once you’ve decided to develop a new habit, the most important thing is that you commit to it.  Really commit.  Visualize what success would look like and what benefits you’d receive by incorporating this new habit into your life.  Then take the time to make a detailed plan of what you are going to do and when.  Start easy and build up to your goal in small steps over time.  Then lock it into your schedule for at least two months.  Create a way to track your success and pull together a team of people who want you to be successful.  Throw the backpack over the wall and then start climbing!  Good luck!!!

Feel free to post any questions to me here or to share your experiences using these ideas. And if you want to read more detail about these ideas and the science that backs them, check out:

  • The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor (specifically principal #5 and #6)
  • The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (specifically Chapter 10)
Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

You can sign up to receive my weekly “Happiness Infusion” email directly to your inbox, just sign up on the right form on the right.  You’ll also get access to my free Happiness Training video series.

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Form Lasting Habits, Part I

So, you’ve decided it’s time to make a change — to start meditating or writing in a gratitude journal or to add more mood-boosting exercise to your week.  So you decide, start doing it and then boom, you are fit, balanced and grateful.  It’s that easy, right?  No?

We’ve all had experiences of making a New Year’s resolution and letting it go before two weeks (two days?) have elapsed.  Long-term, sustainable change is hard.  We are creatures of habit; in fact studies suggest that only 5% of our actions are consciously chosen.  We build strong neuro-pathways over years of repetition that make it so much easier to keep doing things the way we always have – flipping on the tv instead of meditating or pushing the snooze bar instead of going for a run.  We have very limited stores of will and discipline to overcome that inertia of do-it-like-we-always-do.

The good news is that a lot of research has been done on ways to make change stick.   With some concerted effort and focus, we can literally rewire our brain, developing and strengthening neuro-pathways towards habits that we want in our lives.  Over time and with consistent practice, the new pathway can become the default, the path of least resistance.  Then this new desired habit can become as ingrained as brushing your teeth before you go to bed.

Here are three proven steps to making lasting change.  Next week, I’ll share four more ideas for forming lasting, constructive habits.

  1. Pick one thing to change at a time. Seriously.  Just ONE and commit to it.  Developing a single new habit (and the neuro-pathways to support it) is hard enough.   Trying to change more than one thing at a time dilutes your effort and significantly increases the likelihood of failing which can lead to losing a sense of control and potentially giving up on making any change.  So prioritize the most important habit you want to bring into your life.  If done right, these changes can last a lifetime.
  2. Give yourself two months to make one change.  The research shows that it takes 30-60 days to make a new habit stick — to fully rewire your brain.  Give yourself enough time to really lock in the new desired behavior.
  3. Start Easy. Take whatever goal you have, whatever habit you want to form and find an easy way to start – put on your running shoes and go out the front door, meditate for 60 seconds or do 5 minutes of uninterrupted writing.  Stick with this initial goal for a few days.  By setting, achieving and celebrating small victories, our brains get the message that we are on track, that we are making progress and that builds our confidence, our sense of control and our focus.  Then add a little distance to your running or a little time to your meditation or focused writing.  The key is to make each step easily do-able from where we are now.
        “Incremental change is better than ambitious failure”
                   – Tony Schwartz, author of the Power of Full Engagement

Tune in next week for more proven ideas for making happiness –or any other – habits stick.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


You can sign up to receive my weekly “Happiness Infusion” email directly to your inbox, just sign up on the right.  You’ll also get access to my free Happiness Training video series.


Negative Media: Is it worth the cost?

Earthquakes!  Murder!  Genocide!  Environmental destruction!  Lions!  Tigers! Bears!  Oh, my!  The media – from news to television series to popular novels – often feeds us a continuous diet of violence, destruction and suffering.  What’s the effect of this?

Research has shown that the more television a person watches, the more violent they judge the world to be and the less happy they become.  News broadcasters are masters at pulling our emotional strings with stories of tragedy and violence that feed off our fears.  Novelists and movie-makers come up with some pretty outrageous ways people can treat one another (yes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m talking about you!).  While this keeps us tuned in and buying tickets – it comes at a significant cost to our emotional well-being – that fear, sadness and anger really register in us and make it difficult to reach that 3:1 postivity ratio that can lead us to living a flourishing life.

Several years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop listening to NPR during my commute.  Instead of getting riled up about the most recent political decisions, I decided to listen to books about how to be happier in my life.  I kept up-to-date on the outside world from a 10-minute look at each day where I could consciously decide which stories got my full attention.  My worry that I wouldn’t be as educated about the world was put aside when I saw the results of another set of studies: it turns out that people who watch less TV are more accurate judges of the degree of risk we all might encounter each day.   TV gives us a sensationalized and one-sided version of news that makes the world feel significantly less safe than it is.

And it’s not just about news.  Other forms of media – video games, movies and even fictional books – can have the same effect.  Personally, I saw my own negativity skyrocket this past spring when I got sucked into an epic fantasy series with grand battles of good vs. evil.  I was so engaged in the story that it started taking over my mindspace even when I wasn’t reading it.  I started blowing off my daily gratitude journaling and meditation to spend more time reading; I even rushed through story time with my kids to get to ‘my time’ with the books.  This constant feeding of conflict, narrow escapes and evil deeds kept me in an adrenaline-infused negative space.  And that leached into other areas of my life.  I started being more suspicious of everyone – empathy and kindness fading to distrust — and kept seeing what was likely to go wrong in every area of my life.  After about a month, my world view became bleak and I felt the fear of failure get a strong hold on me.   When I finished up the series, it took me a couple months to dig myself out of this negativity trap I’d fallen into.  That a series of fictional books was able to have such an effect on my real life was a shock.

This has been a difficult post for me to write.  I don’t like how preachy this topic sounds –”Halo is bad for you!” or “Watch less TV” – but our elders who tried to get us outside and doing anything more active were on to something.  We do take on the emotions of what media we consume – both real and fictional.  So if video games or tv is a good way for you to decompress, you don’t have to completely remove them from your life.  But notice how you really feel during and after these experiences and ask if it is how you want to spend your time.  If you are serious about upping your ratio, reducing violent media exposure is a relatively easy way to lower needless negativity.

Stay tuned over the next couple weeks as we talk about how to make long-term changes in your life – whether it’s starting an exercise routine, bringing on a gratitude practice or watching less tv.  I’ll be sharing scientifically proven ways to implement new habits into your life.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


You can sign up to receive my weekly “Happiness Infusion” email directly to your inbox, just enter your name and email into the box at the right.   You’ll also get access to my free Happiness Training video series.


Exercise: It’s not just about health and beauty!

Losing weight and getting sexy, it turns out, isn’t the only reason to tie on your running shoes. Regular exercise is another powerful tool for living a happier life. And it doesn’t take much to see a real difference. In recent studies, moderate exercise of 30 minutes three times per week can be as effective as our best anti-depressant medications (yes, Prozac, we’re talking about you!).

Moderate exercise releases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine – the brain’s happiness chemicals — and has been shown to lift mood for up to 12 hours. Exercise is also a healthy way to distract yourself from your problems when you are stuck in a negative rumination cycle.

Exercise can easily be combined with other happiness boosting activities. If the weather is nice, go outside and walk or run through a park or at least near some trees in the neighborhood; good weather and exposure to nature both increase mood in addition to the benefit you get from exercise. If you can exercise with others or even just smile as you pass people on the street (both forms of social interaction, another key happiness booster), you’ll get a double shot of happiness. I often make a game of smiling and saying hi to everyone on my runs – their mirror neurons make it hard for them not to respond in kind. And it always gives me a boost to see others smiling – especially when I helped cause it.

Exercise doesn’t have to be a grind at the gym either. Any activity that gets your heart rate up gives you the benefit. Is there a sport you loved to play when you were younger? Find a team and make the time to do it. Do you like gardening or taking a walk? Make the time in your busy schedule. Consider walking during your lunch hour – you can even bring a coworker along if you need some time brainstorming or checking in on a project. Get in the habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator or park your car at the back of the lot and walk a little more.

In our exercise-obsessed culture, it’s hard not to see exercise as one more “should.” We already spend so much time beating ourselves up over going to the gym so we can lose weight or “be healthier.” Instead see if you can put exercise in the same category as other things that make you happy – listening to good music, savoring a glass of wine, catching up with a friend. Take on the perspective that exercise is simply another tool to help improve your mood and generate more happiness.

Struggling with how you can regularly fit exercise into your life? In a couple weeks, I’ll talk about how happiness habits are formed. For now, play with this theory. How do you feel on days you get some exercise compared to the days you don’t?


Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach


If you’d like to receive my weekly “Happiness Infusion” emails directly to your inbox, just fill in your name and email address at the top right of this page.  Then look every Thursday morning for you weekly dose!


Also, I’m also looking for more ways to give the gift of happiness.  I LOVE to give a 30-60 minute talk that summarizes the BEST of the science of happiness.  If you have a group/club/company or association of 10 or more people in San Diego County that would appreciate a dynamic and passionate speaker, send me a note at karpo3(at)Gmail(dot)com and I will make it happen!

A Positivity Ratio to Tip You to Flourishing?

Or “The Happiness Tipping Point”

NOTE:  The idea of Positivity Ratio of 3:1 as a magic gateway to flourishing was challenged in a 2013 American Psychologist article by Brown, Sokal and Friedman.  Losada, who managed the non-linear mathematical equations, was not able to mount a mathematical rebuttal to this critical review.   A response by Fredrickson in the same American Psychologist issue stepped away from the 3:1 ratio as a defining turning point.  However when looking at the raw data (and not the complex mathematics), Losada’s qualitative conclusions still show that higher numbers of positive interactions are associated with higher performing business teams.  And Fredrickson’s data (and many others) show that more experiences of positive emotions are associated with personal flourishing.  – Eric Karpinski, December, 2013

One thing that science has shown — and all of us have experienced — is that when we feel a positive emotion, it often leads to other positive emotions.  When we’re happy, we naturally focus on the good things in our lives and feel grateful for what we have, which further increases our happiness.  When happy, we approach other people with a smile and a sense of trust which makes them want to help us, and again our happiness increases.  This upward spiral of positive emotions can help us live the life we want.

Negative emotions follow a similar pattern.  We’ve all had experiences where a frustration at work causes self-doubt which leads to not doing our best.  Sometimes, we can bring this frustration home and overreact angrily to a family member or friend.  This can lead to guilt which further compounds our negative feelings.  Because negative emotions have a strong physiological component, these negativity spirals can knock us down for hours or even days.

Researchers have studied this interplay of positive and negative emotions and have recently discovered a tipping point in our emotional life.  A tipping point is a place where a small change can have a disproportionately large effect.  A good example of a tipping point is ice and water.  At -1ºC H20 is solid ice but raise the temperature just two degrees and it turns into flowing water.  In psychology this magic number is expressed as a positivity ratio — the number of positive emotions you feel over a given time divided by the number of negative emotions you feel in that same time period. This graph illustrates this idea:

Below 3:1 the effect of increases in positivity on our overall sense of well-being are relatively small.  Our positive emotions here are more fleeting and susceptible to being squashed by negative emotion.  But above 3:1, we’re in a world of many upward spirals that feed on each other and keep our overall happiness high.  Above this ratio, setbacks are easily dealt with or seen as longer-term challenges rather than insurmountable blocks to what we want.  In short, above 3:1, we enter what scientists call flourishing; a state of optimal human functioning that is marked by creativity, growth, productivity and resilience.

This 3:1 ratio was first discovered by Marcial Losada through an in-depth study of 60 business teams.  He and his assistants carefully observed and recorded each team in an hour-long business meeting and coded every single statement as positive or negative (among other dimensions).    Later he evaluated each team on profitability, customer satisfaction and evaluations by superiors/peers/subordinates.   Those teams that were independently shown to be high performing – highly profitable and well regarded by those with whom they did business — had positivity ratios around 6:1 (the number of positive to negative interactions in this case).  By contrast, low performing teams had positivity ratios well below 1:1 and mixed performance teams had ratios around 2:1.  Losada developed equations that modeled this nonlinear dynamic system and found that the tipping point that transformed a business team from middling to flourishing was 2.9013 : 1, which for simplicity we round to 3:1.

Losada joined with Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology, to evaluate this positivity ratio in individuals.  They conducted a series of analyses and found that this same 3:1 ratio is a tipping point that pushes individuals into flourishing.  They showed that people with ratios higher than 3:1 feel more alive, creative and resilient.  They have a palpable sense of personal growth and of making a positive difference.  Below 3:1, the people in these experiments are in a state of languishing where their life is rather ordinary. They get by, but are hardly growing and not moving toward what they want most in life.

The great news here is that most people have positivity ratios around 2:1, not far from the magical 3:1 number.  Using tested positive psychology tools and habits for increasing our share of positive emotions and decreasing gratuitous negativity, getting to a 3:1 ratio is feasible.  If you can increase your ratio, it will open you up to a flourishing, more engaged and happier existence. Stay tuned next week as I share one of the simplest and most powerful tool for increasing your happiness.

So, are you curious about your own positivity ratio?  You can test it on Fredrickson’s website, click on “Take the Test”.  Try it out for a few days and see where you are.   I tracked my own positivity ratio for several months earlier this year.  I found it to be a powerful way to bring more awareness to my day-to-day emotional state.

I also highly recommend Fredrickson’s book, Positivity.  It is full of the most recent and powerful science in positive psychology and it is presented in a warm and accessible way that non-scientists can understand.

Eric Karpinski

The Happiness Coach
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Do you know what determines your happiness?

In my talks and workshops, inevitably there is a point when I have to pause while people absorb a particularly surprising fact from the research on happiness. What do people find so shocking?  It’s what determines our happiness. [Hint: it’s not buying new shoes…]

Researchers have shown that:

  • 50% of our happiness is based on our genes.  The random set of genes you received from your biological parents defines your overall range of happiness.  Some of us won the genetic lottery, are blessed with sunny dispositions and naturally see the good in life.  Others of us have a tendency towards pessimism and glass-is-half-empty thinking. Some scientists describe this as a basic happiness “set point.”
  • (Here’s the shocker) Only 10% of our happiness comes from external circumstances.  Your financial resources, your career, the climate where you live, your health, whether you have a life partner, how hot you look – all these things determine just 10% of your ongoing level of happiness.  (Think about how upset this fact makes marketers trying to get us to buy our way into happiness!)  Why?  It’s due to adaptation.  No matter what good things or bad things happen to you – a promotion at work, a new car, getting married to the love of your life — you adapt and after a time (often not very long) it no longer carries much emotional benefit.  Think about the last time you worked hard to accomplish something or bought something you really wanted.  How long did the buzz last? How long before those positive emotions were replaced with the desire for the next thing?  In one well-documented study, researchers found that both lottery winners and people who had become paraplegic returned to their original baseline level of happiness within one year of their life-changing event.  Striving to achieve and acquire, while a fine way to spend your time, is not a path to sustainable increases in happiness.
  • So guess what?  That remaining 40% of our happiness comes from our intentional activity: what we do and how we think.  Forty percent of our happiness is therefore IN OUR CONTROL.  Researchers have been actively testing what activities and thought patterns add to our happiness and which ones reduce it.  Study after study has shown that as people integrate these activities into their lives and make new habits, they sustainably increase their happiness.

This is what excites me most about this work.  This is why I write this newsletter, speak publicly and coach my clients about this material.  Change IS possible.  We can sustainably increase our own happiness and many of these new habits and activities take just a few minutes a day.

In future newsletters, I’ll introduce you to many of these tips and techniques for you to try out in your own life.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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Is there a SCIENCE of Happiness?

“There’s a SCIENCE of Happiness?” is a question I get all the time from people who have always thought of happiness as something based on luck or life circumstance or even Prozac.

For the last century, psychological science has been focused primarily on fixing what was broken — helping depressed or anxious people get to a functional place.  But in 1998, the American Psychological Association expanded the mission of psychological science to also include what makes life worth living.  As a result top psychologists and neuroscientists started rigorous studies in people who are happy, well-balanced and making a positive difference in the world.  They uncovered what habits and ways of looking at life were core to these people's emotional success then systematically tested them in more typical populations.

These scientists have discovered how each of us can increase our level of happiness in an enduring way.  More importantly, the studies have shown that increasing our happiness isn’t just a “frivolous” pursuit that is about “feeling better,” but that living our lives in a more positive emotional state makes us more creative, more resilient, healthier and more successful at everything we do.  Increasing our positive emotions can transform us from a languishing state of “getting by” to truly thriving in our health, careers and relationships.

Through weekly “Happiness Infusion” emails, I share key ideas and tips from this exciting new science with you.  I share powerful conclusions backed by controlled studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  My goal is to make these fully accessible to those with little scientific training and succinct enough that a two-minute read will get you something thought-provoking or useful in YOUR life.

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