â€œThe foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.â€
– 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 theyâ€™ve discovered that about 50% of happiness is determined by a personâ€™s genes, and another 8 to 10% by lifeâ€™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 â€œeudaimoniaâ€ is a key term in ancient Greek moral philosophy which means striving toward excellence based on oneâ€™s unique talents and potential. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of â€œPositive Psychologyâ€â€”a new branch of psychology that studies what makes people feel fulfilled, engaged, and happyâ€”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 â€œPositive Psychologyâ€ 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
â€œFlowâ€ is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state that is reached when youâ€™re so completely absorbed in what youâ€™re doing that you donâ€™t notice the passage of time. That is, nothing else seems to matter: the person is totally unaware of their surroundings, and theyâ€™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 youâ€™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 youâ€™re doing.
4. Cultivate a State of Mind Conducive to Happiness
Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches a course at Harvard University on â€œPositive Psychologyâ€ which, at its height, was the universityâ€™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 â€œHow We Choose to Be Happyâ€, 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 â€œwhat can I learn from this?â€ when something goes wrong, and noticing whatâ€™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 â€œThe How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Wantâ€, explains that being kind to othersâ€”whether friends or strangersâ€”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 allocationsâ€”even as little as $5.00â€”may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day.
6. Stop thinking â€œif only . . .â€
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 â€œhedonistic adaptation.â€
Dan Gilbert, author of â€œStumbling on Happinessâ€, explains that people are very poor at predicting how happy theyâ€™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, â€œhedonic adaptationâ€ is the brainâ€™s natural dimming effect. A new car wonâ€™t generate the same amount of pleasure a month after youâ€™ve bought it than it did when it was brand new. You can become very happy when something novel occursâ€”such as starting a new relationshipâ€”but this feeling of happiness ebbs as you get used to the new situation. Instead of focusing on what you donâ€™t have, try counting your blessings.
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 whatâ€™s good in a given situation, your life will become progressively happier.
Photo by *Zara