5 fabulous, fool-proof ways to feel happier- based on science- part 4

In the last three articles, I explored how vital happiness is for your health and success, accounting for an average difference of an extra 10 years of longevity between those with high and low levels of happiness (Diener E. & Chan M.Y., 2011)

We looked at the first 3 tips:

Tip 1 increase your sense of gratitude by using the ‘3 good things’ strategy. (see here for details)

Tip 2 explored how incredibly important exercise is for happiness as well as health. (see here for details)

Tip 3 focused on the importance of fulfilling relationships on your happiness and health. (see here for details)

Tip 4 considers the importance of how we respond to events and the science of threat and challenge.

I’ve often been asked this intriguing question:

‘If long periods of stress are bad for you (and they are), producing loads of adrenaline (which they do), then how come when I ride rollercoasters and get that rush of adrenaline all day at the amusement park, I feel fine and don’t’ get ill?’

In the 60s Lazarus and Folkman developed their Transactional Theory of Stress and Coping (TTCS)(Lazarus, 1966) in a

n attempt to explain how stress works, and especially to answer the question central to our rollercoaster inquiry, ‘why do different people respond to the same events in very different ways?’

They suggested that stress is the result of the interaction between the person and their environment and broke the process of perceiving something as stressful into 3 stages.

1: Primary appraisal

The stage involves a judgement about the event/situation- is it seen as

  1. a) positive
  2. b) irrelevant
  3. c) potentially dangerous.

Judging it to be a) and b) allows us to feel that everything is ok, but if we think it c)- potentially dangerous we head towards a stress response.

2: Secondary assessment

This stage assesses if we have the appropriate resources to deal with the situation. If new feel we don’t then a stress reaction is triggered by our brain.

3: Reassessment

This stage considers the success of the coping strategy we have taken on to deal with the situation. This allows us to learn from the experience, fine-tune our response or sometimes become even more stressed if we feel that things haven’t improved or have worsened

Threat and challenge

Linked to these assessments is the concept of threat and challenge.

If an experience or situation is identified in stage 1 as requiring some response from us and we feel we have the resources we need to deal with it (see stage 2), then it is seen as a challenge. If we feel we don’t have the appropriate skills or resources to deal with the situation, then the body responds as if it is a threat. And there are some interesting studies that identify our bodies physiological response is quite different to these two ways of interpreting the event.

With ‘Challenge’ our heart rate increases but our blood vessels dilate, opening up and allowing more blood to flow to the brain and muscles. There’s a small burst of cortisol and adrenaline that drop back to normal quickly. This results in improved focus, energy and coordination.

With ‘Threat’ our heart rate increases too, but our blood vessels constrict reducing blood flow and increasing blood pressure. We produce cortisol and adrenaline for prolonged periods and have a reduced ability to stay focused and make choices or decisions.

The solution

So obviously it’s helpful to find ways to respond to events as if they are challenges and opportunities rather than threats and there are a number of ways to do this.

  1. Self-distancing: The first is to recognise that you have a choice in your response. A simple and effective way to do this is to get a sense of distance between you and the issue by ‘stepping back’ in your mind’s eye. Achieve this by breathing calmly and deeply any using of the following self-distancing approaches (Kross & Ayduk, 2011; Kross & Grossmann, 2012):

Seeing yourself on a video on your mobile phone dealing with the situation

Seeing the situation 100 m further away

Shrinking the issue down in size to the size of a peanut

Placing the issue on the floor, leaving it there and taking 5 steps away from it

  1. Bite-sized pieces: Secondly, start to break it down into small enough pieces that are manageable for you. This helps that ‘stage two’ of feeling you have the resources to deal with this ‘chunk’ of it. Then move on to the next ‘chunk’. This is a great way to avoid feeling overwhelmed (which in turn produces an additional stress spike)(Keinan et al., 1991)
  1. Savouring: Remind yourself of times when you were:

Relaxed and calm

Be compassionate and kind towards yourself

Able to be resourceful challenging situations

By re-accessing these qualities, you stimulate the neurology associated with those resources, increasing your capacity to move into the challenge, rather than threat response (Speer & Delgado, 2017)

Try these tips out and see how much it changes how you shift from a threat to a much more useful challenge response.


Diener E. & Chan M.Y. (2011). Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity. Appl. Psychol: Health Well-Being Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3(1), 1–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01045.x

Keinan, G., Friedland, N., & Arad, L. (1991). Chunking and integration: Effects of stress on the structuring of information. Cognition & Emotion, 5(2), 133–145. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699939108411030

Kross, E., & Ayduk, O. (2011). Making meaning out of negative experiences by self-distancing. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3), 187–191. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411408883

Kross, E., & Grossmann, I. (2012). Boosting wisdom: Distance from the self enhances wise reasoning, attitudes, and behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(1), 43–48. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024158

Lazarus, R. S. (1966). Psychological Stress and the Coping Process. McGraw-Hill.

Speer, M. E., & Delgado, M. R. (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(5), s41562-017-0093–017. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0093

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