Building happiness

Simple actions can have exceptional outcomes on one’s outlook on life

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Jennifer Moss.

Happiness can be built, tied inextricably to gratitude and practice, says a researcher who has made her career around encouraging people to build attitudes and structures that make them happier.

“Gratitude is the gateway drug to happiness. It’s an easy habit to form,” Jennifer Moss told attendees at the Grain Farmers of Ontario’s annual March Classic.

Why it matters: Research by Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph found in a mental health survey of farmers that farmers have lower mental health resiliency than others in society, based on numerous factors including living where they work, the solitary nature of farming, and the financial risks farmers take to be in business.

“When people are rolling their eyes that I’m talking here talking about happiness, I’m really talking about resiliency,” she said.

Resilience means you can adapt to stress or adversity and see challenges as opportunities, she said.

Moss runs Plasticity Labs with her husband Jim. The Waterloo-based company focuses on helping organizations and companies improve culture and employee well-being.

She was set on her route to encouraging happiness in 2009 after Jim, a former professional hockey player, then playing professional lacrosse in California, was hospitalized with Guillain Barré syndrome, an autoimmune condition in which reaction to a virus causes gradual paralysis. He was told that if he walked again, it would not be for a long time.

The family was exposed to books and thinking about gratitude while dealing with the situation, and that changed their approach to life. Jim walked out of hospital six weeks later, and they attribute that to influences on his attitude during the recovery process.

Gratitude and happiness can be made into habit but it can take time, like creating any habit.

A study of 23 students that encouraged gratitude showed that they were significantly more proud of school, themselves and their interaction with school improved.

“Hope is now wishful thinking,” she said.

It can be as simple as how one starts their day. Accomplish something, even if it is small, early in the morning. Making one’s bed can be enough. That feeling of accomplishment, even if small, can set the tone for a day.

Language choice is also important. Instead of saying you “have” to do something find a rationale for why you “get” to do something. That simple change in language takes something from a negative to a positive.

“People around you will start to notice,” she said.

She talked about some of the simple exercises she has people do, or which have been researched in order to move one’s attitude closer to gratitude or happiness.

At the Moss house, every day at dinner, they go around the table and each person has to tell about something that made them smile. It took a while for their children to get onto it, but eventually, they started to identify things that made them smile when they happened, creating more recognition of those moments.

“They will come up with epic things,” she said.

She also says that spending 21 days writing down three things you are thankful for before bed has an effect. Even if you stop at 21 days, the effect will continue on for months. Moss calls such activities simple actions with complex (and positive) benefits.

One of the chief contributors to unhappiness is loneliness and Moss identified that as one of the areas that affects farmers, who often work alone. Finding communities can help. Get off the farm sometimes. Research shows that when people find something they can be very connected to, they are happier and live longer.

Surround yourself with people who can share positive outlooks. That includes on social media. Moss said that social networks will feed you more of the type of content you consume. Reading and ranting about negative information will mean it will feed you more negative content. If you look more for positive content in life and online, “your algorithms in life and online will change.”

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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