Dohr is a practicing psychologist in my community. He’s also a teacher and consultant who has offered workshops and training to businesses, nonprofits and other groups. Interested in positive psychology for decades, Dohr is now entrenched in the new research about how to cultivate a full, rich and happy life.
I first saw his name when a schedule of university classes landed in my email and I skimmed it for courses I wanted to take. The name of his class: “The Science and Practice of Happiness and Emotional Well-Being.”
Of course, I was intrigued. So were many others: His class filled up in days and had to be enlarged and moved to a bigger room. This class was aimed at the 50-plus crowd. But Dohr, who earned his Ph.D. in Texas, has offered similar ones to undergraduates, an experience he counts as one of the most enjoyable of his career. How wonderful that 19-to-21-year-olds – just starting their journey into adulthood – are eager to understand the role and power of happiness in their life.
A treat for me was sitting down with Dohr for an hour-long chat and sneak preview of what I would hear in his class. These are a few high points from our talk.
- You don’t find happiness. You search for it and nurture it.
Yes, some people do have a genetic predisposition to be positive and generally happy. But anyone can sharpen his or her ability to think more optimistically and notice more positives in life, according to Dohr.
“We know from research that if people spend a few moments at the end of the day and write down three things they are grateful for, over a short period of time they will actually boost their emotional well-being,” he notes.
“What I suggest is that the practice of writing it down begins to train you throughout the day to notice things that you appreciate. You begin to move your attention toward the positive.”
- Pleasure is not the same as happiness.
When people think about happiness they often think about “temporary states of pleasure” – those emotional highs that have a giddy, spikey quality.
But, “when I think about happiness, I’m thinking about a way to be in the world – a way to feel contentment,” Dohr explains. “Momentary spikes of euphoria – overeating, a new car, gambling, drinking – may be nice for a time, but they are not the same as sustained happiness. What brings about sustained happiness is having a sense of purpose and being deeply engaged in your life.”
- Joy can grow from sorrow.
Many people deal with setbacks, challenges and losses by ignoring them or denying them. It’s healthier to face them, advises Dohr.
“People who take an avoidance approach to negatives report much higher levels of anxiety and depression,” he explains. “What we know about people who are really thriving is that they’ve learned to ‘lean into’ negative experiences, just as they embrace positive experiences.”
The truth is, “We’re all going to have setbacks and failures and things that don’t go our way,” he notes. Learning how to work through adversity constructively – looking for silver linings, lessons, hope, growth – helps us become more emotionally strong and resilient.
- Working muscles works moods too.
Dohr told me he’s intrigued by research done by Matt Killingsworth, inventor of an app that allows people to track happiness. What Killingsworth found is that exercise of any kind really does boost people’s sense of well-being – and the mood-lift is still there, hours later.
“So much of what makes us happy gives us a quick bump, but then we return to a baseline rather quickly,” Dohr explains. “What Killingsworth’s research shows is that exercise gives a bump right away and people don’t return to baseline for nine hours. That’s amazing. In other words, if you exercise in the morning, you’ll feel the benefit of that for most of the rest of your day.”
- Spreading kindness can boost happiness.
Killingsworth hasn’t tracked how acts of kindness can boost happiness but if he did, “I suspect he’d find that the boost from acts of kindness might be even more sustainable than the boost you get from exercise,” according to Dohr.
In fact, research by others does confirm that people experience long-lasting lifts in their mood after they engage in acts of kindness.
One of Dohr’s theories: Kindness may be powerful enough to change the world.
“Think about it: An act of kindness gives you an emotional bump right away and it gives someone else a bump too. Maybe they pay it forward the next day. And so it goes on, spreading through the community.”
- Relationships are the real deal.
Humans are highly social beings and a lot of our biology is about being connected to others, according to Dohr.
“When you look at all the factors in happiness and life satisfaction, cultivating and nourishing relationships with others is always one of the most important things to pursue,” he says.
“In general, the more you focus on others, the happier you will be,” according to Dohr. “The more you focus on yourself, the less happy you will be.”
Final words of wisdom
“I think one of the biggest misperceptions about happiness is that it is equated with the pursuit of pleasure,” says Dohr. “If you just pursue pleasure, you are going to be disappointed at the end of your day.”
“But,” he continues, “if you ground yourself in a deeper sense of purpose, in living a good life and finding meaningful relationships, that’s really the recipe for a state of emotional happiness.”
Mea Andrews is a journalist and writer interested in psychology, medicine, aging, art and dogs. She lives in Montana.