Three Exercises to Flex Your Happiness Muscles

February 21, 2019 •

5 min reading

Happiness 24/7: Three Exercises to Flex Your Happiness Muscles

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We’ve all heard about the ‘happiness course’ offered at Yale University in 2018. The course was called ‘Psychology and the Good Life’, and with 1,182 undergraduates enrolled, it stands as the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year history. In reality, the course focused on positive psychology or the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, with happiness being one of the emotions that could potentially have the most positive effect.

But this course is nothing new: In 2006, at Harvard, about 900 students enrolled in a lecture entitled Positive Psychology. The difference between the two courses was the emphasis in the Yale course to make real behavioral changes that continue well after the course is finished.

So when we were asked to offer a happiness workshop here at EHL for all faculty and staff, we were intrigued. Our first reaction: Why us? Are we particularly happy people? Nonetheless, with backgrounds in psychology and communications, we thought: why not? But this was quickly followed by: Who will come? What could we possibly offer that people don’t already know?

Thus, like all good teachers, we began by looking for theory to justify our presentation. In no time, Sébastien had two exercises ready to go: 168 hours and WOOP.

The 168 hours exercise is a classic, which can be found in every good time management textbook

In short, 168 hours is the time, the same time, we all have in a week. Oftentimes, people stress because they don’t have enough time. They don’t know where the day went and, more importantly, what they did with it. In this exercise, participants were asked to estimate how much time they spend on specific tasks. Then, they were asked to calculate the result and compare it with the 168 hours available each week. When all is said and done, participants found that they actually have more time free than originally imagined. This was the first result to smile about.


The WOOP exercise is based on four elements: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan

This exercise focuses on linking the wish (or ideal) to a do-able outcome. It forces the participant to consider any potential obstacles to achieving the outcome and put a proactive plan into place. In our session, each participant was asked to choose a specific wish and outcome and complete the four steps of WOOP. This exercise is based on the work of the psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen, who is a professor of psychology at the New York University and the University of Hamburg.


Improve your 'Happiness Advantage'

For Laura’s contribution to the workshop, she had to start much earlier. In looking for theory on happiness she stumbled across a TEDx presentation entitled ‘The happy secret to better work’ given by a guru in happiness research (and yes, that exists) named Shawn Achor. His claim to fame is the ‘happiness advantage’, that is, in simple terms, you will be more productive and do better work when you are happier. And the greatest thing is you can actually improve your happiness advantage. Achor offers five strategies to improve the happiness advantage. In simple terms:

  1. Write down three things you are grateful for that day;
  2. Write in a journal each day for 2 minutes, focusing on the most positive experience you had that day;
  3. Exercise for 10 minutes;
  4. Meditate for 2 minutes per day;
  5. Do random acts of kindness such as sending an e-mail to a friend or colleague to thank them for helping you or to offer recognition for a job well done. In workshops Shawn delivers in companies, he suggests implementing one of these five strategies over a period of 21 days straight.

But, being a bit overzealous and with three weeks before the workshop, Laura decided to try all five strategies that Shawn suggested. She found a clean notebook to record her ‘gratitudes’ and journal entries and the journey to extra happiness began. She began this quest with much enthusiasm and found, to her surprise, that there is some advantage to concentrating on positive elements in your daily life. It is so much easier to obsess about the ‘wrong’ things that happened that day and to bring them home to ruminate further around the dinner table or before going to bed. In writing down what she was grateful for and journaling about the best element of each day, she realized that some days are really, really good. The random acts of kindness were also easy to do. There were many reasons to thank colleagues and friends; some days, she sent more than one message.

So what did we learn from this experience? Happiness can be cultivated. We didn’t need to take a course at Harvard or Yale to learn this; rather, by implementing a few strategies, we found that we could shift our daily focus to happier thoughts. You, too, could try one of the exercises or strategies mentioned above, or, better yet, you could participate in our next session of Happiness 24/7; we guarantee to put a smile on your face.

Dr Laura Zizka and Dr Sébastien Fernandez hosted the Happiness 24/7: Developing Personal Effectiveness and Satisfaction on November 27, 2018 at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne. The aim of this workshop was to help attendees discover strategies to boost their satisfaction and effectiveness at work and in their private life. Through evidence-based exercises and research, the facilitators also debunked common myths about happiness.

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PhD, faculty member at EHL Lausanne