An Acts Matter essay

An Acts Matter essay

Do you ever wonder why some events create life-changing moments and others go by unnoticed? We set out to answer this riddle more than two decades ago.

The story below illustrates the spontaneous transformation of a fifth-grader who lacked confidence and led a cautious life avoiding potentially embarrassing moments. A singular event changed how she felt about herself. She became confident. Her happiness quotient no doubt increased considerably.

"As a fifth-grader, I still had not learned to tell the time. This was a huge embarrassment to me and wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and confidence. I can remember thinking that I just wasn't very smart. That thought was proven wrong in my mind when one day my teacher called out names of students who would be placed in an advanced reading group. My name was called. I thought she had made a mistake, so I asked her. She told me that I was one of the top readers in the class. I honestly had no idea. This doesn't sound so monumental to me now, but as a 10-year-old, it was life-changing."

Our research shows that intensely emotional events often activate a mental state of extreme suggestibility. Over the years, we collected several hundred anecdotes of these life-changing moments. Analysis clearly shows what conditions are present when these powerful moments occur, and the element of surprise seems to be a frequent catalyst.

The worst way to achieve some goals is by directly pursuing them. Most famously, we have heard that not thinking of white bears is nearly impossible under certain conditions — namely, when we are prompted to so do. The phenomenon of a task becoming more difficult as it is pursued more rigorously is known as a paradoxical process, or an ironic process of mental control.

Is the pursuit of happiness paradoxical? Do people become less happy the more they try to make themselves happy? Some influential thinkers such as Aristotle and Viktor Frankl have thought so.

Happiness researchers have identified barriers to increasing happiness. These barriers include evidence of a strong genetic component of happiness and the connection between happiness and unchangeable personality characteristics. Happiness researchers sometimes talk about a happiness set-point and the happiness treadmill, continually bringing us back to our set-point regardless of effort.

Despite these possible ironic effects and barriers, there appear to be specific interventions that have been shown to increase happiness in real-life settings. For example, happiness can be willfully increased by expressing gratitude, setting goals, positive self-visualization, kind acts, and many other interventions.

Michael Rousell is an assistant professor of education and Cody Christopherson is an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Oregon University.