How to Find True Happiness

How to Find True Happiness

“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.”

- James Openheim

Advice on how to be happy used to be the purview of self-help gurus. However, over the past few years scientists and psychologists have begun to give serious study to the subject of happiness. Although they’ve discovered that about 50% of happiness is determined by a person’s genes, and another 8 to 10% by life’s circumstances–such as income, health, and marital status–, the remaining 40% is up for grabs. In addition, scientists have found several ways to create true happiness, six of which are explained below.

1. Find Meaning

The concept eudaimonia” is a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy which means striving toward excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of “Positive Psychology”—a new branch of psychology that studies what makes people feel fulfilled, engaged, and happy—argues that in order to create lasting happiness we should figure out our strengths and find ways to direct them toward achieving meaningful goals. In addition, Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that the positive emotions that accompany thoughts of having purpose in our lives is one of the most enduring components of well-being.

2. Increase Daily Pleasures

Adopt the belief that your happiness is something that you can design and have control over. One of the tools being used by proponents of “Positive Psychology” to measure happiness is the Day-Reconstruction Method. This method instructs participants to fill out a long diary and questionnaire detailing everything they do on a particular day. The next day, consulting the diary, they relive each activity and rate how they felt at the time.

By analyzing your life in this way you can make changes to tip joy in your favor. David Schkade, a psychologist and professor of management at the University of California San Diego, explains that if you transfer even an hour of your day from an activity you dislike, such as commuting or doing housework, to an activity that you enjoy, such as taking a walk, spending time with friends, and so on, you should see a significant improvement in your overall level of happiness.

3. Seek Flow Experiences

“Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state that is reached when you’re so completely absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time. That is, nothing else seems to matter: the person is totally unaware of their surroundings, and they’re enjoying the task and having fun engaging in it.

This complete immersion in an experience can occur under many different scenarios, such as when you’re singing in the church choir, dancing, playing bridge, reading a good book, writing, or while closing an important business deal. The flow state can be achieved by knowing what your strengths are, re-crafting your life to use these strengths as much as you possibly can, and becoming fully engaged in what you’re doing.

4. Cultivate a State of Mind Conducive to Happiness

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches a course at Harvard University on “Positive Psychology” which, at its height, was the university’s most popular offering. One of the tips he offers is to keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind. That is, barring extreme circumstances, our level of well-being is determined on what we focus on and on how we choose to interpret events.

In addition, Rick Foster and Greg Hicks, co-authors of the book “How We Choose to Be Happy”, found that happiness is not the result of economic or social circumstances, but, rather, how each one of us chooses to react to those circumstances. Practices such as focusing on the bright-side, asking yourself “what can I learn from this?” when something goes wrong, and noticing what’s right, can all help in creating the frame of mind that is conducive to happiness.

5. Practice Acts of Kindness

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want”, explains that being kind to others—whether friends or strangers—triggers a cascade of positive feelings: it makes you feel compassionate and capable and gives you a greater sense of connection with others, both of which are happiness boosters.

Furthermore, an experiment on more than 630 Americans carried out by a team at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School found that the test subjects were measurably happier when they spent money on others. In fact, participants who were assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves. The study also suggests that minor alterations in spending allocations—even as little as $5.00—may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day.

6. Stop thinking “if only . . .”

Thinking that your life would improve dramatically if you got the promotion, won the lottery, got married, and so on, creates dissatisfaction with the present moment and is erroneous thinking on two accounts: first, we tend to overestimate the impact of events in our lives, and second, happiness levels tend to level off due to “hedonistic adaptation.”

Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, explains that people are very poor at predicting how happy they’ll be under different circumstances. For example, most people think that if they made more money they would be a lot happier. However, while there is a big difference in the level of happiness between having no money and having your basic needs met, studies show that the increase in happiness between making $50,000.00 and $500,000.00 is not incredibly significant. At some point, you just stop getting happier from money.

In addition, “hedonic adaptation” is the brain’s natural dimming effect. A new car won’t generate the same amount of pleasure a month after you’ve bought it than it did when it was brand new. You can become very happy when something novel occurs—such as starting a new relationship—but this feeling of happiness ebbs as you get used to the new situation. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, try counting your blessings.

Conclusion

Pleasure is an important component of life, and decreasing the number of displeasing activities that you undertake, as well as increasing the activities that give you pleasure, will increase your happiness level. However, pleasure does not in and of itself provide happiness. By making your life more meaningful, becoming more engaged in what you do, giving and doing for others, counting your blessings, and focusing on what’s good in a given situation, your life will become progressively happier.

Photo by *Zara

Latest posts by Marelisa Fabrega (see all)

42 Comments

  1. Peter,

    I’m a fan of Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness,” as well, especially because he does not make the attempt of telling people “how to be happy” like so many other mindless books and blogs do today.

    I rarely attach blog posts to comments but I wrote on his idea of “experience stretching,” which is the scientific explaination for the proverbial carrot that we chase but never seem to catch…

    http://financialphilosopher.typepad.com/thefinancialphilosopher/2008/07/the-experience-stretching-hypothesis.html

    We quickly consume “happiness” and we continuously “stretch” our perception of it; therefore, we never really “reach” an end. For example, your two young boys may find perfect contentment in playing with a set of keys. Eventually, they will move on to toys, gadgets, cars and houses.

    Learning contentment is extremely important. We need to recognize and stop the process of “stretching our happiness.”

    Great post…

    Kent (The Financial Philosopher)

    The Financial Philosophers last blog post..The ‘Diminishing Marginal Utility’ of Wealth

    Reply
    • Marelisa:

      Great post! I did not stop to notice your credit as the author and assumed it was Peter. This is good work…

      Cheers…

      Kent

      Reply
      • Hi Kent:

        Have you seen Dan Gilbert’s presentation at TED.com? It’s entitled “Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?” If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a look.

        I read your post and I completely agree that we keep adding steps to what it’s going to take to make us happy, so as soon as it looks like we’re finally going to reach what will allow us to feel content, we simply add something else. That’s why I love James Openheim’s quote: grow happiness under your feet.

        I’m glad you enjoyed this post :-)

        Marelisas last blog post..The Elasticity of Time (Part 3)

        Reply
    • Hi Flora: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I did a lot of research on happiness to write this post and two other happiness posts I published on my blog, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a fascinating subject.

      Marelisas last blog post..The Elasticity of Time (Part 3)

      Reply
  2. It seems that many of the conclusions above indicate the happiness is basically a choice we make. We have to chose activities that are meaningful and absorbing in order to feel a sense of significance that leads to happiness.

    In addition, I find that comparing myself to others is probably the biggest drain on my happiness. This is a part of the “if only…” thinking that you describe above. Taking these thoughts captive and practicing gratitude help me enjoy life and be happy!

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff: Every day we’re faced with the choice whether to be happy or not. Like you mention in your comment, you can raise your level of happiness by focusing on what’s good, becoming more engaged in what you do, and finding ways to make your life feel more meaningful. You can also work on getting more pleasure out of life. I agree that comparing yourself to others is a huge energy drain, and it’s unnecessary since part of the concept of “eudaimonia” is that we are each unique and we were each put on earth to accomplish something different.

      Marelisas last blog post..Six Scientific Ways to Create True Happiness

      Reply
  3. I like the idea of increasing daily pleasures (and decreasing daily annoyances), because in many cases this is very much under a person’s control. These are small changes that we can make and yet they can make a significant change to how we feel.

    Vereds last blog post..I Am Watching You

    Reply
    • @Vered: And I think it’s also part of living an examined life: know what you like and what you don’t like, and be aware of how you’re spending your time. It’s also proactive: instead of waiting for happiness to happen, go out there and grab it by the horns :-)

      Reply
    • @Cath: I think helping strangers really makes you feel connected to the rest of humanity, which is a key element of happiness. A few months ago I was riding my bicycle and I fell and got pretty banged up. I can’t tell you how many people ran to help me, and offer me their cellphones so I could call someone, and ask what they go do for me. I agree that helping others has a butterfly effect.

      Reply
  4. I think you summed it up beautifully in your conclusion Marelisa. It is about doing something meaningful. And meaningful does not have to be elaborate. Meaningful can be as simple as helping someone with their groceries, or visiting with someone who does not have friends or family nearby. It’s making a difference in the world, one small step at a time, that brings the kind of happiness we desire. And yet, we sometime think, “if only…”, and that’s too bad, because the real “if only…” is so much closer sometimes than we realize, it’s just not the “if only…” we’re thinking it is.

    Lances last blog post..5K Race Report – Hills Edition

    Reply
    • @Lance: I agree that meaning can be found in things that might appear to be small but are actually making a difference in someone else’s life. I love this sentence: “It’s making a difference in the world, one small step at a time, that brings the kind of happiness we desire. ”

      Marelisas last blog post..Six Scientific Ways to Create True Happiness

      Reply
  5. Excellent post!! I enjoyed it! I particularly like the idea of “seeking flow experiences”. It’s so true that when I am in the flow, I am totally absorbed; in the Now and oblivious to anything that happens around. I view the word “flow” as a stream of steady and effortless consciousness when time seems to stand still.

    Reply
    • You’re very welcome Peter. I love TED.com, I always find something interesting there!

      Reply
  6. Hi Marelisa

    Happiness is getting progressively more understood and its significance is growing.
    When happy less accidents can happen as you are more present for example.
    So, with this post you indeed did something very meaningful :)

    Wilmas last blog post..The Universe and I have manifested, we are on the move!

    Reply
    • @Wilma: Thank you. And I’m also glad that so many studies are being done on how to be happier and so many great books are being written on the subject. We all deserve to be happy.

      Marelisas last blog post..Six Scientific Ways to Create True Happiness

      Reply
  7. I’m waiting for Stumbling on Happiness to arrive in the mail. I first heard about that book – and about purposefully striving towards happiness from Gretchen Rubin’s blog “The Happiness Project” – I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to create a happier life.

    Cheers,
    Alex

    http://www.happiness-project.com

    Alex Fayles last blog post..Commitment to Growth: Tina Su Interview

    Reply
    • @Alex: I’ll second your recommendation of “The Happiness Project ” :-)

      Reply
  8. I can’t believe scientists say 50% of our happiness is genetically determined! I ahte to think of that much of my emotions being outside of my control. How did they determine that?

    As for the rest of your points, well Marelisa, your articles are always meticulously researched and extremely well written, so another fine job as always.

    Number 6 is the biggie I have to work on in my life. I am very stuck at the moment on how many responsibilities I have and how my life has changed post motherhood. I’m constantly thinking “if only I could just take off and bum around on a tropical beach writing and finessing my Spanish and teaching Bunny how to surf”.

    This thinking might seem like a nice dream but it’s not increasing my happiness levels in the life I have, so I really need an attitude adjustment. Now I just have to actually make that happen.

    Cheers
    Kelly

    Reply
    • @Kelly: They studied an extensive number of fraternal and identical twins.

      #6 is a balancing point since it’s great to have dreams for the future, just don’t think: “that’s what I’m missing to be happy”. I think it’s important to have goals to move toward to so you’re not just sort of meandering through life and walking around in circles, but you have to enjoy your life now.

      Marelisas last blog post..Six Scientific Ways to Create True Happiness

      Reply
  9. I really like this post, because it backs up its claims with results from scientifically peer-reviewed research.

    Making ourselves happy by making others happy seems like common sense, but not enough people realize this point. Sometimes we need actual scientifically researched results to remind us of this point!

    Al at 7Ps last blog post..The Hero with a Thousand Jobs

    Reply
    • @Al: It’s very true that when scientific studies back up our hunches and our common sense it makes us feel more certain of what we felt all along.

      Reply
  10. I think you forget the most import fact of showing happiness. You need a great smile on your face. :-)

    I truly believe that smile is contagious. If you smile at people around you, they will smile back at you. It will not just help yourself to release some stress, you are also helping other to release their stress and think positive.

    Take the girl’s photo for example. Would she looks happier without smile? I guess not!

    I saw some friends here, who are actually part of the happiest blog.

    The happiest blog on earths last blog post..Cute Smile – Lovely sister smiles that make me very happy

    Reply
  11. @Happiest blog on earth: I’m a great believer in the power of smiles and laughter to relieve stress and raise your mood. In fact, I have a squidoo lens on laughter yoga at http://www.squidoo.com/laughter-meets-yoga . It was just not part of this particular post. But yes, it’s always good to smile :-)

    Reply
  12. Hi Marelisa,

    Over the past decade and a half I’ve read quite widely in the self-help field. I came across “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman back in 2001 and have since read widely in the Positive Psychology field. I’ve personally found my readings and research into Positive Psychology to vastly superior to most of the self-help material that I had read previously. Some approaches I had worked out for myself over the years – because they are good common sense – and other approaches have been quite helpful in the past few years.

    I’ve think that you have done a really good job in introducing Positive Psychology to other readers who may not have come across it before.

    The slight problem I have with the perception about Positive Psychology is that it’s only about happiness. I’ve found that it’s more about enjoying life, having the emotional resilience to deal with the ebbs and flows of life, having a sense of grounded optimism and having a meaningful life. Focusing just on happiness makes it appear a bit frivolous to some people.

    My thoughts on point 2 is that some disliked activities are unavoidable and can’t be transferred easily to more favored activities. My approach is to create some sense of pleasure/satisfaction from doing these activities. I also have a positive mindset to completing these activities – I then find that they end up not being painful. For example I find that having a positive approach to my morning and afternoon commutes makes them go quicker – both in the perception of how long it takes and how long it physically takes – than if dragged myself to the car and headed off. I guess it’s how one mentally frames activities that one has to endure as part of living.

    I’m planning on checking out your blog.

    Cheers,

    Ben

    Reply
  13. Hi Peter,

    Great article and I particularly like points 3 and 5. Flow is an awesome book. One of my personal favorites.

    Even the elation of an achievement is very short lived. The greatest pleasure experience always comes from the doing rather than the reaching.

    The one addition I might personally add to that list is the act of gratitude. I might go as far to say replace point 2 with focussing on the what we’re grateful for as that in itself can be a very powerful process.

    Amit

    Reply
  14. Hi Marelisa,

    Such a wonderful blog here, so much to explore!

    I wanted to comment that the nation of Bhutan has happiness as its measure of GDP (gross domestic product.) They believe that happiness is the most important thing to produce ~ and to measure. So it is a very high value.

    Their culture is based predominantly on Buddhism, which also values happiness (as opposed to the pursuit of transient pleasures). Of course Buddhism teaches many ways to achieve happiness ~ and although the Tibetan people have been about as oppressed as any group of people you can name (except perhaps for some of the African peoples who have also suffered genocidal wars), they remain steadfastly cheerful as a result of their practices.

    There must be something to that!

    And what a different world we would be living in, if every nation were to value happiness of their people above all else. And what if we were to bring this about in our lifetimes?

    Just a thought. . .

    Many blessings,

    Nancy

    Reply
  15. Hi Marelisa!

    I am very surprised no one mentioned God. Every single point you made out in your post (witch was very well written by the way) is so important to make our life better. Happier! But i really don’t think that giving things to poor people, doing stuff that you like and so on will make your life forever happy. These things just.. go away. They are essential but not solutions.
    They need to make some research on people that believe in God. I’m quite wondering what will the percent be.

    Reply
  16. “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” – James Openheim
    i just love this quote…. it just stops you there and then.

    Reply
  17. This is by far one of the best blog posts I have read yet… Thank You!

    Reply
  18. thank you marelisa. i am speechless, truly, that you would take the time to write such an amazing blog. i honestly have no words to show thanks enough.

    Reply
  19. Marelisa –

    I am excited after reading this article to research and look further into some of the things you’ve mentioned such as “positive psychology” and “flow”. These specific things are newer to me and I can’t wait to dive into them. The article in its entirety is exceptional as well!

    Thank you!

    Chris

    Reply
  20. thanks guy for sharing your idea about true happiness,now i have a self confidence now to stand up and find my own happiness with in my self…i been to a relationship with my boyfriend for almost 2 years,and i know he cheated on me but i prefer to stay because i love him and he help me financially due to my obligation with my family etc etc,i sent my 2 brother in college,i pay bills at home,,,i do these for many many years so its on me that give me happiness and satisfaction helping my family,but im not happy being in the relationship with these man who treated me like a toy…i want to leave him but i dont have enough courage to leave him just a thought that i dont know where to go what to do how i can help my family,how to start my life,though i know is hard to start coz i dont have education,,,but reading these portal,,,help me and elighten myself to find out whats the true meaning of hapiness,,,and how to find it!

    Reply
  21. I believe very much in focussing on the positives in life, and I think that makes me a happier person. But this article has given me much food for thought on other things I could be doing. Thank you Marelisa!

    Reply
  22. Really nice and happy post.
    regularly reading positive posts like this one will also boost the feeling of happiness and create yet another positive moments of the day!

    Reply
  23. Great article Marelisa. Happiness is a choice, just as unhappiness is a choice.

    Reply
  24. Hi Marelisa,

    That’s a beautifully written article. Thank you.

    Seeking flow experiences is key to me. I find that it’s a lot easier to have these experiences doing what I love as opposed to doing what I don’t. Since I have moved away from a career in finance (which I didn’t enjoy at all) towards a career in writing I’ve found it so easy to focus for long periods of time. It seems so effortless.

    As an extension to practising kindness I have found applying the principles of genuine appreciation (as discussed in the book “how to win friends and influence people”) to create a certain mental spaciousness which is very pleasant.

    A mindfulness practise centered on the breath in each moment is also extremely powerful in gaining insights through daily activities.

    Thanks again for sharing

    :-)

    Ash

    Reply

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