The keys to happiness
Do you, like many people, have a mental list of things you think you need in order to be truly happy? There are many externals our society teaches us to chase: success, wealth, fame, power, good looks, romantic love. But are they really the keys to happiness?
The research says no, at least when it comes to long-term happiness. A prestigious award, a big raise, an exciting new relationship, a fancy new car, losing weight, these things can make us feel great at first, but the thrill doesn’t last very long. Human beings are quick to adapt to new circumstances—a quality that has helped us survive and thrive. But it also means that the positive things that initially make us happier soon become our new normal and we return to our old happiness baseline.
However, researchers in the field of positive psychology have found that you can genuinely increase your happiness and overall satisfaction with life—and it doesn’t require a winning lottery ticket or some other drastic change of circumstances. What it takes is an inner change of perspective and attitude. And that’s truly good news, because it’s something anyone can do.
Tip 1: Train your brain to be more positive
Our brains are wired to notice and remember the things that are wrong. It’s a survival mechanism that helped keep our cave-dwelling ancestors safe in a world where there were many physical threats. But in today’s comparatively safe world, this biological predisposition to focus on the negative contributes to stress and unhappiness.
While we can’t change our nature, we can train our brains to be more positive. This doesn’t mean putting on a smiley face and whistling a happy tune no matter what’s going on. You don’t have to ignore reality or pretend things are wonderful even when they’re not. But just as dwelling on negative things fuels unhappiness (and plays a big role in depression and anxiety), choosing to notice, appreciate, and anticipate goodness is a powerful happiness booster.
Teaching yourself to become more grateful can make a huge difference in your overall happiness. The research shows that gratitude helps you experience more positive emotions, decrease depression, feel better about yourself, improve your relationships, and strengthen your immune system. A recent study revealed that gratitude even makes you smarter about how you spend your money.
There are a number of simple exercises you can practice to increase and cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Give sincere thanks to others. When someone goes above and beyond or does something to make your day easier, be quick to verbalize your thanks and appreciation. Not only will it make the person feel good, it will give you a happiness lift, too. It’s an instant reward to see how expressing gratitude makes a positive difference in someone else’s day. It makes you realize that we’re all connected and that what you do matters.
Keep a gratitude journal. It may sound cheesy, but writing down the good things that happened to you during the day really works. Research shows that keeping a gratitude journal is a powerful technique that instantly makes you feel happier, more connected to others, and genuinely appreciative.
Count your blessings. Make it a habit to regularly reflect on the things you have to be thankful for. Bring to mind all the good people, experiences, and things in your life, both now and in the past. Focus on the blessings both big and small, from the people who love you, to the roof over your head and the food on your table. You will soon see it’s a pretty long list.
Write a letter of gratitude. Think of someone who did something that changed your life for the better who you never properly thanked. Write a thoughtful letter of gratitude expressing what the person did, how it affected you, and what it still means to you. Then deliver the letter. Positive psychology expert Martin Seligman recommends reading the letter in person for the most dramatic increase in happiness.
Find the positive in a negative event from your past. Even the most painful circumstances can teach us positive lessons. Reevaluate a negative event from your past with an eye for what you learned or how you became stronger, wiser, or more compassionate. When you can find meaning in even the bad things you’ve experienced, you will be happier and more grateful.
Tip 2: Nurture and enjoy your relationships
Relationships are one of the biggest sources of happiness in our lives. Studies that look at happy people bear this out. The happier the person, the more likely that he or she has a large, supportive circle of family and friends, a fulfilling marriage, and a thriving social life.
That’s why nurturing your relationships is one of the best emotional investments you can make. If you make an effort to cultivate and build your connections with others, you will soon reap the rewards of more positive emotions. And as you become happier, you will attract more people and higher-quality relationships, leading to even greater positivity and enjoyment. It’s the happiness gift that keeps on giving.
Make a conscious effort to stay connected. In our busy society, it’s easy to get caught up in our responsibilities and neglect our relationships. But losing touch with friends is one of the most common end-of-life regrets. Don’t let it happen to you. Make an effort to stay connected to the people who make your life brighter. Take the time to call, write, or see each other in person. You’ll be happier for it.
Invest in quality time with the people you care about. It’s not just the time spent with friends and family that matters; it’s how you spend it. Mindlessly vegging out together in front of the TV isn’t going to make you closer. People who are in happy relationships talk a lot. They share what’s going on in their lives and how they feel. Follow their example and carve out time to talk and enjoy each other’s company.
Offer sincere compliments. Think of the things you admire and appreciate about the other person and then tell them. This will not only make the other person happier, it will encourage him or her to be an even better friend or partner. As a practice of gratitude, it will also make you value the relationship more and feel happier.
Seek out happy people. Research shows that happiness is contagious. You can literally catch a good mood (you can also catch a bad mood, but thankfully, sadness is less contagious than happiness). So, make an effort to seek out and spend time with happy people. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling the happiness, too.
Take delight in the good fortune of others. One of the things that truly separate healthy, fulfilling relationships from the rest are how the partners respond to each other’s good fortune and success. Do you show genuine enthusiasm and interest when your friend or family member experiences something good? Or do you ignore, criticize, or downplay the achievement, feel envious or threatened, or say a quick, “That’s great,” and then move on? If you’d like closer relationships, pay attention when the other person is excited. Ask questions, relive the experience with the other person, and express your excitement for him or her. Remember, happiness is contagious, so as you share the experience, their joy will become yours.
Tip 3: Live in the moment and savor life’s pleasures
Think about a time when you were depressed or anxious. Chances are, you were either dwelling on something negative from the past or worrying about something in the future. In contrast, when you focus on the present moment, you are much more likely to feel centered, happy, and at peace. You’re also much more likely to notice the good things that are happening, rather than letting them pass by unappreciated or unobserved. So how do you start to live more in the moment and savor the good things life has to offer?
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful technique for learning to live in and enjoy the moment. And you don’t have to be religious or even spiritual to reap its benefits. No pan flutes, chanting, or yoga pants required.
Simply speaking, meditation is exercise for your brain. When practiced regularly, meditation appears to decrease activity in the areas of the brain associated with negative thoughts, anxiety, and depression. At the same time, it increases activity in the areas associated with joy, contentment, and peace. It also strengthens areas of the brain in charge of managing emotions and controlling attention.
Notice and savor small pleasures
If you adopt a mindfulness meditation practice, you will automatically begin to notice and savor life’s pleasures more. But there are other things you can do to increase your awareness and enjoyment.
Adopt enjoyable daily rituals. Build moments of enjoyment into your day with pleasurable rituals. These can be very simple things like lingering over a cup of coffee in the morning, taking a short stroll in the sunshine during your lunch hour, or playing with your dog when you get home. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you enjoy and appreciate it.
Minimize multi-tasking. Savoring requires your full attention, which is impossible when you’re trying to do multiple things. For example, if you’re eating a delicious meal while distractedly surfing the Internet, you’re not going to get as much pleasure out of the food as you could have. Focus on one thing at a time in order to truly maximize your enjoyment.
Stop to smell the roses. It may be an old cliché, but it’s good advice. You’ll appreciate good things more if you stop whatever you’re doing for a moment to appreciate and luxuriate in them. It will enhance your pleasure, even if you can only spare a few seconds. And if you can share the moment with others, that’s even better. Shared pleasure is powerful.
Replay happy memories. You don’t have to limit your savoring to things that are happening now. Remembering and reminiscing about happy memories and experiences from your past leads to more positive emotions in the present.
Tip 4: Focus on helping others and living with meaning
There is something truly fulfilling in helping others and feeling like your actions are making a difference for the better in the world. That’s why people who assist those in need and give back to others and their communities tend to be happier. In addition, they also tend to have higher self-esteem and general psychological well-being.
Here are some ways to live a more altruistic, meaningful life:
Volunteer. Happiness is just one of the many benefits of volunteering. You’ll get the most out of the experience by volunteering for an organization that you believe in and that allows you to contribute in a meaningful way.
Practice kindness. Look for ways to be more kind, compassionate, and giving in your daily life. This can be something as small as brightening a stranger’s day with a smile or going out of your way to do a favor for a friend.