What would make you happier, now and enduringly?
- Winning the lottery?
- Buying that house or car you've had your eye on?
- Getting that job or promotion?
- Winning the tournament?
- Achieving the 'perfect' body?
Unless you're spending your lottery winnings on experiences, like vacations with friends or family, then none of the above will make you lastingly happier. Don't feel badly if you thought they would — you're not alone. I catch myself projecting my happiness onto things I've already learned don't bring me happiness, like that extra cookie, and research shows that most of us are wrong when attempting to determine what will bring us lasting happiness.
We think, and are repeatedly told by advertisers, that money and objects will make us happy. Yes, money will make you happier if you don't currently have enough to meet your basic needs, but beyond that it doesn't have the impact we think it will. Sure, when we get one of the 'things' on our list we do indeed experience a brief boost in happiness, but it doesn't last and doesn't change our baseline.
So we tend to chase after something we think will do the trick, catch it, enjoy a brief burst — and then we're back where we started, chasing the next thing. Or we don't catch it and pine or judge — and still don't feel happy. Neither is a satisfying and fulfilling way to live. So what to do?
Luckily for us, research in Positive Psychology shows there are actions that make us happier and ways to increase our happiness set point. They're less expensive than a house, car or even a latte, and more attainable than an 'ideal' body.
First, let's consider what happiness is for us humans: a combination of how satisfied we are with our lives (for example, finding meaning in our work and having positive relationships) and how good we feel on a day to day basis. Happiness also, it turns out, motivates us to take practical steps towards our dreams and goals.
So pursue work that is meaningful and invest in your relationships (with yourself and others). I find it interesting that those two fundamental pillars are somewhat, if not radically, counter-cultural, which then makes it no surprise that we Americans are suffering increasing rates of depression at younger and younger ages.
While we may not be able to do a 180 degree change in our employment tomorrow, or overhaul our economic system by next week, we can incorporate the following 3 simple, energizing and effective boosters into our day to day lives to enhance core happiness:
1. Giving back.
Perhaps you've heard that giving is better than receiving, and it turns out it's way better when it comes to boosting happiness. In one famous study, Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky asked students to commit five random acts of kindness each week for six weeks. While the control group experienced a reduction in well-being, those who performed the acts of kindness showed a 42% increase in happiness. 42%. Really! And you can get that boost yourself and have fun getting it, just give a little of yourself. Turns out we're happier when we spend money on others rather than ourselves. Even simply reflecting on nice things we've done for others boosts our mood, according to a 2006 study.
2. Have gratitude.
Writing in a gratitude journal for a few hours over three weeks creates a happiness boost that lasts six months, if not more, according to the research of Bob Emmons, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. A gratitude practice, like listing five things you're grateful for at the end of the day, boosts happiness levels by around 25%, is easy to do, and brings other health benefits like longer and better quality sleep.
So we're up to a 67% increase in happiness just by giving and focusing on gratitude. That's actually not scientifically accurate, to just add the percentage increases from two separate studies like that, but even so, it could be true, and you won't know until you try!
3. Practice mindfulness.
But wait, there's more: Dr. Ellen Langer, experimental social psychologist and professor at Harvard is considered the "mother of mindfulness" since she's invested 35 years in its research. She defines mindfulness as the simple process of noticing new things. As we notice new things, we become aware that we didn't see or know the object/person/situation as well as we first thought, which naturally draws us into the moment. We get more situated in the present, which allows us to be more aware of the importance of context and perspective.
I know from personal experience that when we let our minds run wild, we tend to become myopic and lose all sense of scale and perspective, which limits creativity and drains energy. This is a powerful and accessible solution, which I find profoundly inspiring. You know how when you go on vacation everything is new, which is energizing? That is why Dr. Langer encourages us to travel and see new things. And they are there to be discovered, right now!
Incorporating these 3 practices into daily life will increase baseline happiness. Our brains are malleable and we can create the pathways for speedier and sustained happiness by giving, reflecting on giving, being grateful, being curious and looking for new things. It makes me happy to know, engage in and share these practices with you. Now write them down, add them to your calendar, write them on sticky notes and set your intention to incorporate them into your day to increase your happiness. That's what I wish for you—and you deserve it.
More How To Be Happy advice on YourTango: