How to Be Happy: 26 Strategies Backed by Research
Happiness: “The experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
This is how Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, defines happiness. Considering that definition, it’s no wonder that all of us want to be happy. We may not openly admit it, or we may not call it “being happy”, or we may not even realize it. But ultimately, we all want to experience more joy, contentment, and well-being, combined with a sense that life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
It’s like Aristotle said over 2,000 years ago, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Being happy is the ultimate goal; it’s what we’re all after.
Where we differ is in our approaches to becoming happier. Some of us believe happiness can be found by having a great career and making a boatload of money. Others choose to go down a spiritual path, dedicate their lives to philanthropy, or start a family.
And even though we’re all trying to become happier, most of us just don’t have a clue about how happiness works. Do you need more money? A bigger house? Marriage and kids? Is it even possible to become happier? Should I move to a sunnier climate? Should I quit my job?
Up until a year ago, I had no clue either. Since then, however, I’ve discovered Positive Psychology – the science of well-being and happiness – and have read some 10-20 books on the subject of happiness.
This massive article (25,000+ words!) is my attempt at summarizing the most important concepts and truths that I’ve learned about happiness. I will walk you through some of the benefits of being happy, show you what determines happiness, and most importantly: I will list all the best strategies (26 in total) that have been proven to make people lastingly happier.
I would like this page to be a compilation of everything that works for happiness. My aim is to keep updating it, so if you find any interesting research not mentioned here, please let me know and I’ll include it.
Oh, and I’ve also created a beautiful PDF version of this article along with a handy checklist referencing all 26 strategies that you can download for free by clicking here.
Ok then, let’s get going…
A Visual Overview of This Article (Infographic)
Before we begin with the actual article, here's a quick visual overview of all the 26 strategies.
The strategies as well as the scientific basics of happiness will be discussed in detail below the infographic.
Now let's get into the actual article...
The Amazing Benefits of Happiness
Why should you give a damn about happiness anyway? For starters, it feels good (that’s kind of the defining attribute of happiness, right..). And in addition to that, research has found that happiness actually improves many others aspects of our lives.
Here is a quick overview of some of the beneficial stuff science has linked to happiness:
- Happiness is great for your health: Happy people are less likely to get sick and live longer lives.
- Happiness is great for your relationships: Happy people have more friends and are more likely to get married and have fulfilling marriages.
- Happy people are more productive at work and make more money.
- Happy people are more generous.
- Happy people cope better with trauma and stress.
- Happy people are better able to see the big picture and are more creative.
But don’t just take my word for it. Look at what some of the leading researchers in the field of positive psychology have to say about happiness…
Shawn Achor, a leading happiness researcher and author of several books on happiness including The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness, claims that the state of happiness literally primes your body and mind for peak performance:
“It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive. Yet in today’s world, we ironically sacrifice happiness for success only to lower our brain’s success rates.”
“When we are happy – when our mindset and mood are positive – we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”
“In sum, across all the domains of life, happiness appears to have numerous positive by-products that few of us have taken the time to really understand. In becoming happier, we not only boost experiences of joy, contentment, love, pride, and awe but also improve other aspects of our lives: our energy levels, our immune systems, our engagement with work and with other people, and our physical and mental health. In becoming happier, we bolster as well our feelings of self-confidence and self-esteem; we come to believe that we are worthy human beings, deserving of respect. A final and perhaps least appreciated plus is that if we become happier, we benefit not only ourselves but also our partners, families, communities, and even society at large.”
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and bestselling author, explains that happiness doesn’t just feel good, but that it actually creates success:
“Happiness makes people more sociable and altruistic, it increases how much they like themselves and others, it improves their ability to resolve conflict and it strengthens their immune systems. The cumulative effect means that people have more satisfying and successful relationships, find especially fulfilling careers and live longer, healthier lives. Happiness does not just make you enjoy life more, it actually affects how successful you are in both your personal and professional life.”
Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in the field of gratitude and the author of Thanks!, explains that happiness makes good things happen and that happy people are successful people:
“Happiness makes good things happen. It actually promotes positive outcomes. The benefits of happiness include higher income and superior work outcomes (for example, greater productivity, higher quality of work, greater occupational attainment), larger social rewards (such as more satisfying and longer marriages, more friends, stronger social support, and richer social interactions), more activitiy, energy, and flow, and better physical health (for example, a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain), and even longer life.”
“Happy people, the facts clearly show, are flourishing and successful people.”
I could go on, but you probably get the point by now: Happiness not only feels great, but it’s actually a fundamental key to living a successful, healthy, and meaningful life.
What Determines Happiness? The Happiness Formula…
So, happiness is great and brings lots of benefits. Next question: What determines happiness? Is it money? A thriving social life? A happy family? Marriage? A nice house? A fulfilling career? Alcohol? Drugs? Sunshine?
Happiness researchers know the answer and they have come up with a simple equation showing which factors influence our happiness and by how much. This equation is sometimes called the pie chart theory of happiness or simply the happiness formula. Here’s what it looks like:
Your Enduring Level of Happiness = Genetic Set-Point (50%) + External Circumstances (10%) + Intentional Activity (40%)
Your happiness is determined by your genes, external circumstances, and intentional activities. These three variables aren’t equally important; your genes account for about 50 percent of the variance in your happiness, external circumstances for about 10 percent, and intentional activities for about 40%.
Let’s unfold this equation and look at the different variables in a bit more detail.
Your Enduring Level of Happiness
First of all, we should understand that what we’re talking about here is your enduring level of happiness, not your momentary level. You see, momentary happiness is easily increased by little joys such as chocolate, a fun movie, praise from your boss, sex, a massage, or flowers. Increasing the number of such transient bursts of happiness, however, is not the goal. Instead, we want to raise your enduring level of happiness (which, as you’re about to learn, can’t be accomplished by merely increasing the number of bursts of momentary positive feelings).
Your enduring level of happiness, as the pie chart shows, is determined by your genetic set-point, external circumstances, and intentional activities.
Your Genetic Set-Point (50%)
Your genetic set-point makes up for a whopping 50 percent of your variance in happiness. This means that 50 percent of your happiness is determined by your genes and completely unchangeable. You are either “blessed” with genes that predispose you to naturally high levels of happiness or you are “cursed” with genes that predispose you to naturally low levels of happiness.
This is life. Some people are naturally smarter or dumber, taller or smaller, stronger or weaker, and happier or unhappier. The good news is that your genes only account for 50 percent of your happiness level, so there’s still more than enough room for improvement.
The fact that a large chunk of our happiness is unchangeable and fixed means that each of us gravitate towards a certain happiness set-point that doesn’t change much over the course of our lives. Sometimes we will be a bit happier – we may be in the habit of exercising daily (which boosts happiness), go on holidays, get our book published, or find the love of our life. And sometimes we will be a bit less happy – we may be in the habit of watching too much TV, lose our job, get a divorce, or whatever.
You can think of your set-point like a thermostat. If it gets a little bit warmer in the house (you become a little bit happier) the thermostat will bring your house (your happiness) back down to the set-point. Likewise, if it gets a little bit colder, it’ll bring you back up.
For example, winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic – two absolutely life-altering events – only influence people’s happiness for about year. After that, they are back at their genetically determined set-point. Marci Shimoff explains in Happy for No Reason:
“There was a famous study conducted that tracked people who’d won the lottery—what many people think of as the ticket to the magic kingdom of joy. Within a year, these lucky winners returned to approximately the same level of happiness they’d experienced before their windfall. Surprisingly, the same was true for people who became paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they also returned to their original happiness level.”
The point is, because such a large part of our happiness is fixed, we tend to always fluctuate around our set range of happiness. That is, unless (!) we use the strategies presented in this article – by practicing them regularly, you will be able to consistently float above your genetically determined set range. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Your External Circumstances (10%)
Next up, your external circumstances (money, house, city, education, age, etc.). Most people seem to believe that these hold the key to happiness. That’s why so many people in our society are chasing the almighty dollar. The common narrative is, “If I can get rich, buy a fast car, yacht, and a big mansion, marry a Hollywood star, go to fancy cocktail parties, and move to California… then I will be happy.”
Research is painting a surprisingly different picture, showing that differences in external circumstances only explain 10 percent of the variance in our happiness. Whether you’re rich or poor, beautiful or plain, healthy or unhealthy, married or divorced… as far as your happiness is concerned, these things barely make a difference.
Let’s look at money, for example. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, explains in his book Authentic Happiness that once you can afford the necessities in life, it doesn’t matter whether you earn 100k or 200k or 50millions a year:
“In very poor nations, where poverty threatens life itself, being rich does predict greater well-being. In wealthier nations, however, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. in the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. even the fabulously rich – the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over 125 million dollars – are only slightly happier than the average American.”
Here’s another example illustrating what little influence external circumstances (in this case material possessions) have on our happiness. In 1940, one third of all homes had no indoor toilets, running water, bathtubs or showers and more than fifty percent had no central heat or air. If you were twenty-five years old in 1940, you stood a 40 percent chance of completing the 8th grade, a 25 percent chance of graduating high school, and only a 5 percent chance of having finished college. Yet, when Americans were asked to rate their overall happiness in the 1940s, they scored themselves at 7.5 out of 10.
Today, we not only have everything they’ve had in the 1940s, but our homes on average have 2+ bathrooms, 2 rooms per person, and running water on every floor. Furthermore, we have dishwashers, microwaves, ovens, color TVs, DVD players, iPods, iPads, smart phones, computers, laptops, and more. all the while, real monthly income has more than doubled. So, what’s the average score of Americans happiness today? 7.2.
Clearly, external circumstances are not the path to greater happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky sums it up perfectly in The How of Happiness:
“Although you may find it very hard to believe, whether you drive to work in a Lexus hybrid or a battered truck, whether you’re young, old or have had wrinkle-removing plastic surgery, whether you live in a frigid or balmy climate – your chances of being happy and becoming happier are pretty much the same.”
How is that possible? Why do circumstantial life changes make such a small difference? It’s because of a powerful phenomenon called ‘hedonic adaptation’. At first, people react strongly to changes in circumstances, but, over time, their emotional reactions dampen and lose power. In other words, we adapt. We take good things for granted and overcome obstacles life throws at us.
The lottery winners and paraplegics we mentioned earlier are a great example. They are happier or unhappier for about a year, but then they adapt and return to their set range of happiness.
You’ve probably experienced this many times in your life. The initial thrill of a new house, car or pay rise is wonderful, but then the enjoyment quickly fades away and a few weeks later you’re about as happy as before – you’re back at your happiness set-point.
Many people spend (read: waste!) their entire lives searching for happiness in this never-ending hedonic treadmill. There is always more money to be made, more deals to be closed, more possessions to be bought, more stuff to be chased. This shit never ends. There’s always more, more, more, more, more…
Anyway, I’m getting off track. Here’s the problem when you try to become happier by improving your external circumstances in life: First, changing those circumstances is usually hard, impractical, and expensive. Second, even if your life circumstances were perfectly optimized for happiness, they wouldn’t make much of a difference because they only account for 10 percent of your happiness anyway. Third, most importantly: chasing after better external circumstances keeps you busy and therefore blocks you from trying out strategies that actually work to improve your happiness.
Bottom line: Trying to raise your happiness level by improving your circumstances (money, car, marriage, etc.) doesn’t work. You’re much better off optimizing the last variable in the happiness equation: the intentional activities.
Your Intentional Activities (40%)
Intentional activities – the thoughts you think and the actions you take - contribute a whopping 40 percent to your happiness. If you’re truly interested in becoming happier, this is where the money is.
You see, when researchers compared the happiest with the unhappiest individuals, they found that the main difference (other than genetics) lies in what these people do on a regular basis – their habitual thoughts and behaviors. Happy people simply engage in more happiness-boosting behaviors and thinking patterns than unhappy people. For example, happy people devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, exercise regularly, commit to life-long goals, and practice optimistic and grateful thinking.
Once researchers had found out common activities of happy people, they started conducting studies to systematically test if those activities actually caused (and not just correlated with) increases in happiness.
That research was very fruitful. Scientists have unearthed lots of activities and strategies that have now been proven to increase people’s enduring level of happiness. These strategies make up the largest part of this article and will be discussed in detail later on. As you’re probably aware by now, they are your key to becoming lastingly happier.
Summing up, here’s what you need to take away from this section: The key to happiness lies not in changing your circumstances (i.e. seeking money, fame, or power, which is usually impractical) and not in changing your genetic make-up (which is impossible), but in changing your daily intentional activities.
We will start discussing these happiness-boosting activities one by one in a sec, but first I want to cover one last piece of information…
The “Pursuit” of Happiness: Just So You Know… It Takes Effort.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson famously put the right to pursue happiness in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But did you know that, in 1776, the meaning of the word ‘pursue’ was different than what it is today. Marci Shimoff explains in her book Happy for No Reason:
“Back in Jefferson’s day, he explained, the common usage of the word ‘pursue’ was not ‘to chase after.’ In 1776, to pursue something meant to practice that activity, to do it regularly, to make a habit of it. What a difference a definition makes! Thomas Jefferson, our wise Founding Father, meant that we all had the right to practice happiness, not chase after it—which isn’t very productive anyway. So let’s stop pursuing happiness and start practicing it. We do that by practicing new habits.”
We don’t have the right to “pursue” happiness. We have the right to practice it.
This goes hand in hand with what the research is telling us. To be happy, you don’t need to chase after a fancy car, a new wife, a bigger house, or a more-money-generating career. Instead, you need to practice certain behaviors, actions, thoughts, and habits. Remember, happy people don’t have any special powers, they are human just like the rest of us. They just have different habits. It’s like Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Happiness is something you create for yourself. It’s something to be practiced regularly. In other words, it’s a habit. And as you may know, building a new habit takes time and effort. Likewise, becoming lastingly happier also takes time and effort. It demands making some permanent changes in your life and committing every day of your life.
With that out of the way, let’s now turn our attention to the meat of this article: Here are 26 science-backed strategies to lastingly raise your happiness level…
26 Research-Backed Strategies to Lastingly Raise Your Level of Happiness
Without further ado, here are 26 science-backed ways to lastingly raise your level of happiness…
Oh, and one last thing: As you’re about to see for yourself, I’ve divided every strategy into two parts. First, I give some scientific evidence that proves the strategy actually increases happiness. Second, I give several practical ways to use that strategy in your own life. Onwards…
1. Have a Rich Social Life and Nurture Social Relationships
The Dalai Lama XIV once said that most of our happiness stems from social relationships: “We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
Now, the Dalai Lama is a fountain of wisdom and what he says is usually pretty accurate, but he’s not a scientist. So, what does the research say about social life and being happy?
Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, tried to find out in one his studies. He looked at the social lives of the 22 happiest people in a sample of 222 college students. Here’s what he found, as described in his book Authentic Happiness:
“We took an unselected sample of 222 college students and measured happiness rigorously by using six different scales, then focused on the happiest 10 percent. These ‘very happy’ people differed markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principal way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socializing), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner.”
The happiest people all had a thriving social life. They spent the least time alone, the most time socializing, and 21 of the 22 people reported being in a romantic relationship. Correlation is not causality, but this is a very strong link.
Other research, presented in Finding Flow, found that people who claim to have five close friends are 60 percent more likely to say that they are very happy:
“National surveys find that when someone claims to have five or more friends with whom they can discuss important problems, they are 60 percent more likely to say that they are ‘very happy.’“
Another happiness researcher, Daniel Gilbert, supports the notion that having a healthy social life is a key to happiness. He even believes that a lot of other things we think will make us happy are actually just ways of getting better relationships with friends and family:
“We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
Clearly, a thriving social life and healthy relationships are paramount to happiness.
Bottom line: A rich social life, strong friendships, a romantic partner, and good relationships with family members are crucial for your happiness. The better your social life, the happier you’ll tend to be.
How to Practice
To optimize your social life for happiness, you need to do three basic things. First, get a romantic partner (or multiple romantic partners, whatever floats your boat) or improve your relationship with your existing partner. Second, get some new friends or improve existing friendships. Third, spend a lot of time with your romantic partner(s) and your friends (or just socialize a lot in general). Easier said than done, I know.
Here are some proven ways to optimize your relationships and social life:
1) Practice active and constructive responding. Research tells us that how we celebrate (how we respond when someone tells us of a victory) is a much better predictor of strong relationships than how we fight. Martin Seligman explains in Flourish:
“People we care about often tells us about a victory, a triumph, and less momentous good things that happen to them. How we respond can either build the relationship or undermine it. there are four basic ways of responding, only one of which builds relationships.”
The response that builds relationships is called active-constructive. Look at the image on your right (or below) and you’ll immediately get it:
Next time someone tells you about something good that happened to them, go out of your way and respond actively and constructively. Ask the person to relive the event with you – the more time he or she spends reliving, the better. Spend a lot of time responding.
This technique may not come natural to many of us, so give yourself time. Once you get in the habit of doing it, other people will like you better, spend more time with you, and they’ll share more intimate details of their lives. You’ll feel better about yourself and you’ll automatically want to continue.
2) Ditch the small talk and get personal. One study asked 79 college students to wear an audio recorder for 4 days as they went about their regular daily lives. At random times during the days, a 30-second recording was made of whatever was being said, resulting in 24,000 snippets. The snippets were then coded into small talk (defined as the banal and uninvolved exchange of trivial information) or substantive talk (defined as the involved exchange of meaningful information). In total, 18% of all snippets were small talk, 36% substantive talk, and the remaining conversations could not be coded into either category.
Christopher Peterson explains the results of the study in his book Pursuing The Good Life:
“First, happier participants spent more time talking to others, unsurprising finding given the social basis of happiness. Second, the extent of small talk was negatively associated with happiness. And third, the extent of substantive talk was positively associated with happiness. So, happy people are socially engaged with others, and this engagement entails matters of substance.”
So yeah, get personal, get vulnerable. Talk about stuff that matters. (Take this advice with a grain of salt because the study was only correlation, not causation.)
3) Try hugging more. There’s a saying by Virginia Satir, a famous psychotherapist, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”
She might be on to something. According to the research, the simple act of hugging comes with an avalanche of benefits ranging from improved relationships, to a stronger immune system, balancing of the nervous system, and much more. Concerning happiness, one study split participants into two groups:
- Group 1: Was instructed to give or receive a minimum of five hugs per day over the course of a four-week period
- Group 2: Was instructed to record the number of hours they read each day over the same four weeks (control group)
Sonja Lyubomirsky presents the findings in The How of Happiness:
“The hugging group (who partook in an average of forty-nine hugs over the course of the study) became much happier. And, not surprisingly, the students who merely recorded their reading activity (which averaged a not-too-shabby 1.6 hours per day) showed no changes. So, hugging is an excellent intimacy and friendship booster.”
What else? If you want to improve your marriage, check out the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I haven’t read it personally, but I’ve heard it’s the best book on improving marriages. Another great book I recommend everyone read is How to Win Friends and Influence People (check out my summary here). It’s the #1 book for improving your social skills.
2. Let Go of Materialism
We’ve already established that more money won’t make you happier. Neither will a new car, better clothes, bigger mansion, or any other “stuff”.
Materialists, by definition, place a great deal of importance on the acquisition of aforementioned “stuff”. They view certain possessions as central to their well-being and judge their own success and the success of others on the basis of what they have – aka the amount of money and “stuff”.
Does that overemphasis on materialistic possessions make them unhappy? It seems so. According to Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor and bestselling author, people who score high on materialism questionnaires are a lot less happy than their less materialistic peers. He explains in 59 seconds:
“Researchers have spent a great deal of time looking at the link between people’s scores on these types of questionnaires and happiness. The findings are as consistent as they are worrying – high scores tend to be associated with feeling unhappy and unsatisfied with life.”
Materialists clearly have never heard of the happiness formula before as they are a prime example of people who fall prey to hedonic adaptation. They keep chasing more and more stuff, not realizing that they will always just adapt to it and that it will never bring them lasting happiness.
Materialists are also usually kings of social comparison, another reason why they may be so unhappy.
Eric Hoffer, the great 20th century philosopher, puts it perfectly, “You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy.”
Bottom line: Money and “stuff” doesn’t make people happy. Even worse, being materialistic does make people unhappier and miserable. Plus, materialism keeps people trapped in the so-called hedonic treadmill and it makes them feel insecure about themselves.
How to Practice
Knowing about some of the facts we’ve discussed in this article (e.g. that money and possessions will never make you happy, or that materialism leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life) may already be enough to help you become less materialistic.
Here are three additional strategies you may find useful as well…
1) Start pursuing intrinsic goals. Materialism is a clear sign that someone is pursuing extrinsic goals (money, validation, “stuff”, and so on), which, as we’ll discuss in strategy #11 on pursuing meaningful life goals, is a surefire way to misery and unhappiness.
On the other hand, pursuing intrinsic goals – goals that are meaningful to you, that fulfill your core needs, that feel natural to you, that feel like a passion, that you enjoy going after just for the sake of it – must be one of the best ways to conquer materialism.
In fact, this has even been shown in a recent study. A group of adolescents joined a program designed to lessen the value they place on materialistic goals, while a control group did not receive the intervention. In three sessions lasting three hours each, participants were taught about consumer culture and encouraged to clarify their intrinsic values (such as family, self-growth, closeness with friends, and contribution to the community) and to make financial decisions based on those values.
Lo and behold, participants who were in the course – but not in the control group – became less materialistic and had higher self-esteem over the next several months. Tim Kasser, one of the study’s authors, concluded that:
“Intrinsic goals tend to be ones that promote greater well-being and act as a kind of ‘antidote’ to materialistic values.”
Check out my article on intrinsic goals vs extrinsic goals to learn more about this.
2) Practice mindfulness. We’ll discuss mindfulness at length in this article, so I’ll make this short. (Happiness strategy #14 explains mindfulness and its benefits in detail.)
As far as materialism is concerned, mindfulness helps us fight it in three particular ways as explained by Erika Rosenberg, a scientist and meditation teacher:
“The cultivation of mindfulness is offered as a prescription for reducing the destructive effects of consumerism in our society because it can alert us to how we are manipulated to buy particular products, increase our awareness of the implications of consumerism in the world, and facilitate connection among people.”
Again, you’ll learn all about mindfulness in strategy #14.
3) Become a minimalist. If you’ve never heard of minimalism before or are unsure what it is exactly, here’s a definition by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, two famous minimalists who run the popular website theminimalists.com:
“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”
Minimalism is about getting rid of shit you don’t need. It’s about prioritizing and drastically simplifying your life, focusing only on what really matters to you and neglecting the rest. The principles of simplification and prioritization can be applied to almost all areas of your life: your possessions, your goals, your time commitments, your friends, your screen time, your work, your words, and so on.
If that sounds like something that’s up your alley, the following articles should give you a basic overview:
3. Spend Your Money to Maximize Happiness
At the beginning of this article (in the part called “what determines happiness?”), we have discussed that external circumstances, including money, make little or no contribution to your happiness. In case you’ve missed that, and I wouldn’t blame you, here’s a quick refresher:
Scientific research tells us that money only really matters if you’re very, very poor. In that case, it will affect you and you’ll be less happy. However, once you’re earning enough money to be barely comfortable, added money will make little or no further difference on your happiness. Martin Seligman explains in Authentic Happiness:
“In very poor nations, where poverty threatens life itself, being rich does predict greater well-being. In wealthier nations, however, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. in the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. even the fabulously rich – the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over 125 million dollars – are only slightly happier than the average American.”
In short, once you can afford the basic necessities in life, it doesn’t matter whether you earn 100k, 500k, or 500 million dollars a year.
What does matter, however, is how you spend the money you have. You see, there are ways of spending your money that contribute to your happiness, and there are ways of spending your money that don’t.
For example, spending your money on materialistic possessions – a new car, a bigger house, a fancier TV, a new IPhone, or new clothes – will not add to your happiness. It’s like Sonja Lyubomirsky says in The How of Happiness:
“Whether you drive to work in a Lexus hybrid or a battered truck… your chances of being happy and becoming happier are pretty much the same.”
Fortunately, though, there are science-backed ways of spending your money that will make you happier. Let’s discuss those below.
Bottom line: While more money does not generally make people happier, there are ways of spending the money you already have that will indeed raise your happiness level.
How to Practice
Ready to spend your money in the service of your happiness? Here’s how…
1) Buy experiences not goods. Richard Wiseman presents the following research showing that buying experiences makes you happier than buying goods in 59 Seconds:
“In one study, the duo conducted a national survey in which people were asked to think of an object or experience they had bought with the aim of increasing their happiness, and then asked to rate the degree to which the purchase had cheered them p. In another experiment, the researchers randomly divided people into two groups, asked one group to think about an object they had recently bought and the other to describe an experiential purchase (a holiday, for example) and then rate their current mood on two scales, with one ranging from -4 (bad) to +4 (good), and another ranging from -4 (sad) to +4 (happy). The results from both studies clearly indicated that in terms of short- and long-term happiness, buying experiences made people feel better than buying products.”
Remember, we quickly take material goods for granted which means their happiness boosting effect is very short-lived. This happens less quickly with experiences. Furthermore, experiences can be anticipated and remembered more. We can savor them for longer and squeeze more enjoyment out of them. They also usually involve a social aspect which, as you know, is very beneficial for happiness.
The point is, spend your money on experiences. Go out for a meal. Go to a cinema, theatre, or concert. Go paintballing, bungee jumping, or learn a new language.
2) Use your money to benefit others not yourself. Richard Wiseman is at it again in 59 Seconds:
“Ask people whether they will be happier after spending money on themselves or others, and the vast majority will tick the ‘me’ box. The science shows that exactly the opposite is true – people become much happier about providing for other rather than themselves.”
You don’t need to divert a huge amount of your income to charity, friends, and family. It’s the small and thoughtful gifts that lead to surprisingly large and long-lasting changes in happiness. Get your wife some flowers, bring your co-worker a cup of coffee, or pay your buddy a drink. Be creative.
3) In general, spend your money on happiness boosting strategies. (Duh!) This article gives you lots and lots of opportunities to spend your money in a way that will improve your happiness. You could hire a personal trainer (exercise + social relationship), sign up for a yoga class (meditation + social relationship), get a dog (see section on pets), or plan a trip to Disney World with your buddies (experiences + social relationships + anticipation).
4. Make Happy Choices (Satisficing VS. Maximizing)
Objectively, we live at the pinnacle of human possibility. We live in a world of material abundance. As a society, we have achieved what our ancestors could, at best, only dream about. We have almost everything we want at our fingertips, 24/7.
The conundrum is this: We have more and live better than ever before… yet we often feel worse. What’s the problem? Ironically, one of the reasons we feel miserable or unhappy is our overabundance of choice – oftentimes referred to as the paradox of choice. Turns out having too many choices produces psychological distress, especially when combined with adaptation, social comparison, regret, concern about status, and most importantly: a desire to have the best of everything – to maximize.
This desire to maximize – to always have the best in everything - can be detrimental to your happiness. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener explain how it works in their book Happiness:
“Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, has studied how happy people are with their decisions. Schwartz and his colleagues have identified two decision-making styles: satisficing and maximizing. Satisficers are individuals who have a minimum threshold for what is acceptable to them, and maximizers are people who strive to get the very best out of every decision. Being a maximizer sounds appealing until you learn the results of Schwartz’s studies. Once maximizers have made a choice - whether it is accepting a job offer, signing a recording contract, or marrying their high school sweetheart - they are likely to second-guess themselves, and wonder whether they could have made a better choice. The funny thing is, although maximizers sometimes achieve better outcomes than satisficers - getting a bit more money for that recording contract, for instance - they also tend to be less happy with their achievements. In fact, they turn out to be less happy in general. Maximizers, according to a series of studies by Schwartz, are lower than satisficers in happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and higher in depression and regret!”
In short, satisficers are a lot happier than maximizers.
In fact, the terms can be a bit misleading because maximizing and satisficing orientations are so-called ‘domain specific’. This means that nobody is a maximizer in every decision or in every area of life. What distinguishes maximizers and satisficers is the amount of decisions in which an individual operates as one or the other. This is great news, because it means that you have the capacity to be a satisficer.
The key to happiness lies in applying satisficing strategies in your life whenever you feel overwhelmed by choices. Let go of trying to get “the best” and focus instead of being satisfied with “good enough”.
Bottom line: The paradox of choice – an overabundance of possibilities to choose from – can be detrimental to our happiness, especially if we try to maximize each and every decision we make. A better decision-making style is satisficing, which means being satisfied with ‘good enough’ instead of aiming for ‘the best’.
How to Practice
If you want to learn more about the paradox of choice and maximizing vs satisficing, check out Barry Schwartz’s book, appropriately called The Paradox of Choice. In it you’ll also learn 11 strategies to overcome this dilemma. For now, here are three strategies that you can try out.
1) Practice gratitude. Your mind can only focus on one thing at a time. You can’t be happy and sad simultaneously. Likewise, you can’t be grateful and regretful at the same time. When you focus on what is good about a choice or an experience, you automatically push any regret or disappointment out of your consciousness. Since gratitude is one of the best happiness strategies anyway (it’s coming at #7), this is a no-brainer.
2) Stop comparing yourself to other people. Yet another strategy that is already proven to make you happier (coming at #6). We often evaluate the quality of our experiences by comparing ourselves to others, which often reduces our satisfaction. By comparing ourselves to others less, we will be satisfied more.
3) Make this your new motto: good enough is good enough. If I want to make this article perfect and find every last strategy to boost happiness, I will never finish it and I’ll be miserable along the way. Likewise, if you try to find the perfect hotel to book, the perfect t-shirt to buy, the perfect place to sit on, the perfect outfit to wear, the perfect job to apply for, or the perfect movie to watch, you will be unhappy for sure.
Realize that 99.9% of the time, good enough is good enough. Go through your life eating a good enough breakfast, getting a good enough cup of coffee, and maybe even a good enough life partner. You’ll save a lot of time and you’ll be a lot happier, too.
5. Stop Overthinking
Overthinking, as its name suggests, is thinking too much. It involves endlessly and excessively thinking about your flaws, shortcomings, and problems: “Why am I so insecure?” “What did Mike really mean when he said that?” “Should I really get a new job?” “Will I ever become successful?” “My hair looks weird lately.” “Did I lose weight over the last couple of weeks?” “Why am I so unhappy all the time?” and of course, “What’s wrong with me?”
If you’re prone to overthinking, you probably know how much it sucks. The research is abundantly clear: Happiness and overthinking don’t go well together. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in The How of Happiness:
“The evidence that overthinking is bad for you is now vast and overwhelming. If you are someone who is plagued by ruminations, you are unlikely to become happier before you can break that habit. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if you are an overthinking, one of the secrets to your happiness is the ability to allay obsessive overthinking and to reinterpret and redirect your negative thoughts into more neutral or optimistic ones.”
She goes on to explain that overthinkers are usually the unhappiest people in her studies:
“Those who react strongly to life’s ups and downs and have great difficulty shaking off unfavorable information are the unhappiest people in my studies. Even slightly difficult, unpleasant, or disagreeable events can make such people feel bad about themselves.”
Yeah, that doesn’t sound promising, does it?
Bottom line: If you’re suffering from overthinking, you better learn how to deal with it or you’re destroying your chances for happiness. If you’re an overthinker, overcoming this issue is your #1 priority. Becoming happier means learning how to let go of overthinking every negative aspect in your life.
How to Practice
Obviously, overthinking is a huge topic and one could easily write an entire book about it. I’ll just tell you what helps me most in my own life and then share three further strategies that you can try out.
For me, overthinking is and has always been a big issue – I think I’m just naturally inclined to ruminate a lot. What helps me the most are spiritual teachings (e.g. from Osho, Eckhart Tolle, or David R. Hawkins) and mindfulness meditation. These two things help me create a natural distance to my thoughts and allow me to not take my thoughts too seriously. If anyone asked me how to stop overthinking, I would advise them to start meditating and read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now.
Here are three practical strategies that you can give a go as well:
1) Distract yourself. This is the easiest, most underrated, and most overlooked strategy to deal with overthinking. Instead of getting completely absorbed by the negative ruminations of your mind, simply redirect your full attention somewhere else – watch something that’s fun, call a friend, exercise, or do the laundry. The key is to pick a distraction that fully absorbs your attention so that you don’t have the opportunity to lapse back into ruminating.
Distracting yourself helps give you some much needed space and perspective. Chances are you’ll realize that whatever you were ruminating about wasn’t that bad after all. The mind is a master manipulator that can lull us into some worst case scenario and make us feel as if the whole world is falling apart. If you distract yourself early enough, you can avoid that the mind gets too much momentum.
2) Write it down. Writing down your worries helps you disconnect from them. When you see your thoughts on a piece of paper, you start seeing them for what they are: just thoughts floating in your consciousness. Once on the paper, your mind automatically lets go and you stop taking your worries so seriously.
3) Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a meditation and mindfulness expert, as ‘awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.’
Mindfulness is probably the #1 way to stop overthinking in the long term. It helps us observe our internal dialogue and creates a natural distance between us and our thoughts. Once we get to know our mind, recurring thoughts can be recognized without freaking us out anymore. We realize that thoughts are just like passing clouds in the sky. We can observe them and not give them any control over us.
Mindfulness is in itself a happiness boosting strategy, so we’ll discuss how to practice it at #14 in detail. For now, just know that it’s a key skill in learning how to stop overthinking.
6. Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People
You probably know this intuitively: Comparing yourself to other people is a guaranteed way to feel insecure, miserable, and plain terrible about yourself. Mark Twain said it best 150 years ago, “Comparison is the death of joy.”
Happy people seem to know this. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, they rarely worry about how others are doing. She explains in The How of Happiness:
“The happier the person, the less attention she pays to how others around her are doing.”
“You can’t be envious and happy at the same time. People who pay too much attention to social comparisons find themselves chronically vulnerable, threatened and insecure.”
Becoming happy means learning to judge ourselves on our own internal standards, not on how others are doing. We can take pleasure in other people’s successes and show concern in the face of their failures. But we need to learn to judge ourselves by our own values and our own definition of success.
Bottom line: Comparing ourselves to other people is a straight path to lowering our happiness. According to the research, the happier a person, the less attention he or she pays to what others are up to.
How to Practice
Comparing yourself to other people is a way of overthinking, so the same strategies as discussed above will work. Here’s one additional strategy that you may find useful as well.
1) Follow a new definition of success. Most of us look at success in relation to what others are doing. I’m a success if I have more money, a better family, a hotter wife, a bigger house, a more fulfilling job, and more happiness than others. If you think about it, this really makes no sense. Some people are born more intelligent, some less. Some have more opportunities, some less. Some have great parents, some have shitty parents. It makes no sense to judge our success by comparing ourselves to others.
John Wooden, sometimes called the greatest coach ever, explains it perfectly:
“Some of us are shorter or taller, quicker or slower, smarter or otherwise. Situations vary. Some people have more opportunities, some less. We are not the same in all these things, but we are all the same in having the opportunity to make the most of what we have, whatever our situation. The ultimate challenge for you is to make the attempt to improve fully and be your best in the existing condition.”
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
So, stop worrying about what other people are up to or how much money they earn or what kind of car they drive or how big their house is. Worry about becoming your best under your given circumstances.
From now on, follow a new definition of success: If you are doing the best you can in the existing condition, then you’re a winner. If you do everything to become your greatest version of yourself, then you have succeeded.
7. Practice Gratitude
I’ve written about the benefits of gratitude before. To summarize, the research shows that people who are consistently grateful are relatively happier, more hopeful, and more energetic, and report experiencing more frequent positive emotions.
Grateful people also tend to be more empathic and helpful, more religious and spiritual, more forgiving, and less materialistic than others who are less grateful. Furthermore, the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be anxious, depressed, lonely, envious, or neurotic.
When it comes to happiness specifically, the following study shows just how powerful practicing gratitude can be. For the study, three groups were asked to write in a journal once a week for ten weeks. The groups were instructed to briefly describe in a single sentence:
- (Group 1) Gratitude condition: five things they were grateful for
- (Group 2) Hassles condition: five things they were displeased about
- (Group 3) Events condition: five neutral events
Robert Emmons, the author of the study and a leading gratitude researcher, sums up the results in his book Thanks!:
“What did the first study reveal? At the end of the ten weeks, we examined differences between the three groups on all of the well-being outcomes that we measured at the outset of the study. Participants in the gratitude condition felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions. To put it into numbers, according to the scale we used to calculate well-being, they were a full 25 percent happier than other participants.”
So yeah, these are the powers of gratitude. A 25 percent happiness boost from simply writing down five things you’re grateful for. Once a week (!).
Bottom line: Practicing gratitude is a quick way to feel better about yourself and raise your level of happiness. In fact, gratitude must be one of the best things you can ever do for yourself as it will positively impact almost every area of your life (health, relationships, emotional life, and so on).
How to Practice
Research has discovered lots of different strategies to ignite feelings of gratitude. Here are some specific and science-based activities that you can try out:
1) Keep a gratitude journal. This is exactly what the people in the 25-percent-happiness-boosting-study did. It involves writing down three to five things for which you’re grateful, from the mundane (you got a lot of work done today, your husband cooked for you, or your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your book getting published or your child’s first steps). Be creative, there is so much to be grateful for. You can do this one to three times a week, or even daily if you enjoy it so much.
The key to getting the most out of your gratitude journaling is to keep things fresh. Otherwise you may get bored with the practice and your happiness won’t benefit anymore. Sonja Lyubomirsky recites such an example in The How of Happiness:
“Interestingly, this effect was only observed for those who expressed gratitude every Sunday night. The participants who counted their blessings three times a week didn’t obtain any benefit from it.”
What exactly does that mean for you? Don’t count your blessings every single day in the exact same way. Keep things fresh. Vary it up. Maybe only do it once a week. Maybe write about different things – count your blessings with respect to your work life, or your friendships, or past events or your circumstances or whatever. When the strategy starts to feel like a chore, maybe stop it for a while or mix it up.
2) Do the what-went-well exercise. In our day-to-day lives, we often overlook good things that happen to us – a smile from a stranger, a good conversation with a friend, or even just sticking to our habits. This exercise helps us remember these good events and ignites gratitude in us.
Here’s how it works: Write down three things that went well for you today, and explain why they went well. The items can vary from the mundane (your co-worker made coffee for you) to the extraordinary (you earned a big promotion). The key to making this practice as beneficial as possible is to take your time with it – don’t just rush through it in a few seconds. More detailed instructions can be found here.
3) Write a gratitude letter. Writing a gratitude letter is one of those things that feel a bit odd to me, but that seem to create truly inspiring experiences. Here’s how it works: Think about someone for whom you are extremely grateful or who is just very important to you. It could be a relative, your partner, a close friend, an ex-teacher, or a family member. Imagine that you only have one opportunity to tell this person how grateful you are to them. Now write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and how important they are to you. More instructions here.
The good news is, you don’t need to send or give the letter to the other person if you don’t feel like it. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains it in The How of Happiness:
“There will be times, however, when you will choose to write the letter but not to send it. indeed, in a recent study from my laboratory, we found that simply writing a gratitude letter and not sending or otherwise delivering it was enough to produce substantial boosts in happiness. Participants were asked to identify several individuals who had been especially kind to them over the past several years. Those who spent fifteen minutes once a week (over the course of eight weeks) writing letters of gratitude to these individuals became much happier during and after the study.”
8. Learn to Cope with Negative Events or Chronic Problems
As they say, shit happens. It’s inevitable, no life is without adversity, stress, or hardship (thank God it’s not). The possibilities are just endless – your pet dies, you lose your job, your girlfriend breaks up with you, a bird poops on your head, you break your leg, you wreak your car, or a friend of yours isn’t returning your calls.
The tricky part from a happiness standpoint is that it’s hard to be happy when you feel like your world is falling apart. If a terrible event or chronic problem is absorbing all of your attention and resources, then how can you even begin to think about becoming happier? In such situations, your priority is to cope.
When you’re at a -7 on a scale of well-being, you first need to cope yourself to a -5, to a -2, and to a 0. Once you’re at a zero, you can begin working yourself up to a +2, to a +5, etc.
That’s how coping and happiness are related. Without good coping skills, you may get stuck at a -7 or -4 for a long time, which means your chances of happiness are severely limited. Because every time a negative event happens, your happiness takes a nosedive for God knows how long.
It doesn’t matter whether negative events or problems are big (your spouse wants a divorce) or small (you missed your train). The better you are at coping, the faster you can begin “worrying” about happiness again.
Bottom line: Developing good coping skills is necessary for living a happy life. If you can’t deal properly with negative events, you’ll let them bother you for way too long – and as long as you’re occupied with the negative events, you can’t be happy.
How to Practice
Coping with small or medium-sized adversities is something I’ve become very good at over the last years. I’m at a point where most external events don’t bother me much or at all. Lost 50 bucks because I forgot my wallet somewhere? Who cares. Can’t play regular football because my ankle is injured? Ok, no problem. If I get what I want great. If I don’t get it, no fucks given.
What has helped me tremendously are Stoic philosophy as well as spiritual teachings from people like Eckhart Tolle, Osho, David R. Hawkins, or Anthony De Mello. Stoicism and spirituality may not always get a good rep, but they are fantastic at teaching you skills for coping with life. If you’re someone who gets upset by the small things in life, or if you’re just someone who often struggles with anger, envy, resentment, or other negative emotions, I highly recommend reading some books on Stoicism and spirituality. This What is Stoicism article is a great start. Also Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle are great for getting started.
Furthermore, here are three research-backed strategies that have been proven to work. If you’re in a rush, number two is the most important one.
1) Labeling negative emotions. Imagine you’ve had a rough day and you’re feeling kind of awful. One of the easiest ways to deal with this emotion and reduce its impact is to simply label it. What exactly are you feeling? Are you angry? Sad? Hopeless? Annoyed?
According to the research, this will make a big difference in reducing the emotion. David Rock explains in Your Brain At Work:
“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.”
2) Reframing (or cognitive reappraisal). Reframing or cognitive reappraisal is an essential life skill and probably the #1 way of dealing with negative events and emotions. It involves changing the meaning of a situation by reinterpreting it in a more resourceful way. It’s similar to finding the silver lining in a dark cloud.
It’s best explained with an example: Let’s say you just missed your train. Your first interpretation may be terribly negative and invoke a lot of negative feelings (“Fuck!! Now I’ll be late. That sucks. That train driver should have waited just a minute longer. What a dick!!”) Instead of getting all angry and pissed off, that situation can easily be reframed (“Ok, no problem. The train is gone. I can’t change it. Let me use that time wisely. I can call my mom or read an article I’ve saved on my phone. Chill.”)
You see, we can’t always control what happens in our lives. But we can always control our interpretation of the meaning of a situation, and that’s what reframing is all about.
Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who was held captive in a concentration camp from 1942 to 1945, called it the last freedom of man, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Neuroscience has started to research this technique and has found it highly beneficial. David Rock explains in Your Brain At Work:
“A series of studies shows that reappraisal generally has a stronger emotional braking effect than labeling, this it’s a tool for reducing the impact of bigger emotional hits.”
He continues, declaring reframing as one of the most important skills needed for success in life:
“Gross, with the wonderful understatement of a pure scientist, says, ‘It looks as though reappraisal is a fairly efficient way of cutting down the experience and biological representation of negative emotion.’ He may be too subtle. To me, reappraisal is one of the most important skills needed for success in life, the other being the ability to overserve your mental processes. When I asked Gross what he thought about reappraisal and its role in education and wider society, he was more effusive: ‘I think this knowledge should be taught early, and often. It should be in the water we drink.”
Next time you’re struggling with negative emotions, try labeling them and then reframing the situation, giving it a more empowering and resourceful meaning.
3) Expressive writing. This technique requires a decent amount of time and effort on your part. For the next four days, write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. As you’re writing, really let go and explore your very deepest thoughts, emotions, and how this event has affected you. You may tie your experience to your childhood, your relationships with others, your past, your present, your future, your career, or who you are now. You can write about the same issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, this is a great exercise to have in your happiness arsenal. She explains the benefits in The How of Happiness:
“’Expressive writing’ about past traumatic events has many beneficial consequences. Compared with control groups, people who spend three days exploring their deepest thoughts and feelings about ordeals or traumas in a journal make fewer visits to a doctor in the months following the writing sessions, show enhanced immune function, report less depression and distress, obtain higher grades and are more likely to find a new job after unemployment.”
9. Practice Forgiveness
This one’s closely related to the previous strategy about dealing with adversities. One type of adversity that you may experience in life comes when you are wronged, attacked, or hurt by another person. The resulting injury may be physical, sexual, or emotional and may involve a betrayal, desertion, insult, or offense.
The problem is that being wronged oftentimes leads to a host of negative emotions involving anger, hate, disgust, or resentment. These thoughts and feelings literally block out happiness because you can’t feel positive and negative emotions at the same time. The preoccupation, hostility, and resentment we harbor hurts us, not the person who wronged us. It’s like the Buddha said, “Holding on to angers is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
This is where forgiving comes in. Instead of holding on to the negative emotions, you replace them with positive emotions of understanding and compassion. Emotions of understanding and compassion feel a lot better than envy or resentment, and most importantly: they are compatible with happiness. You see, forgiving is something you do for yourself, not for the person who wronged you.
Research confirms this insight. Martin Seligman presents the following study in Authentic Happiness:
“In the largest and best-done study to date, a consortium of Stanford researchers led by Carl Thoresen randomly assigned 259 adults to either a nine-hour (six 90-minute sessions) forgiveness workshop or to an assessment-only control group. The components of the intervention were carefully scripted and paralleled those above, with emphasis on taking less offense and revising the story of the grievance toward an objective perspective. Less anger, less stress, more optimism, better reported health, and more forgiveness ensured, and the effects were sizable.”
If you’re holding a grudge against someone, do yourself a favor and try to forgive that person. Your happiness will thank you.
Bottom line: Holding on to negative emotions about a person who wronged you stops you from feeling happy and hurts you more than anyone else. Forgiveness helps you let go of your grudges, creates beautiful emotions of compassion and understanding, and helps you become a happier and more peaceful person.
How to Practice
I want to give you two strategies here. One’s from my own life and works really well for day-to-day stuff – someone cuts you off in traffic, forgets your birthday, spills coffee all over your shirt, or just generally acts like a jerk. The other one is a list of more thorough approaches in case someone does or did something really terrible to you – murder or rape of a loved one, for example.
1) Realize that people don’t have a free will. This is my #1 way for quickly forgiving anyone and everyone. It’s something I learned from Sam Harris in his book Free Will. Here’s the gist of it: People, you and me included, are kind of like puppets of their conditioning. They are born as innocent children and then they get conditioned by the environment they grow up in. This conditioning or programming is what makes all of our decisions. We believe we have a free will (it certainly feels that way), but our brain (the conditioning) makes the decisions before we’re even aware of it.
I don’t really have time to explain it well here, so check out the book if this sounds interesting to you. There’s also a talk on Youtube where you get most of the info.
2) For the heavy duty stuff, try one of these strategies. Forgiving someone for forgetting your wedding anniversary or for embarrassing you in front of other people is one thing. Forgiving someone who has done something absolutely terrible to you – e.g. rape or murder of a loved one – is a whole other story. In that situation, I suggest checking out more thorough forgiveness programs such as Everett Worthington’s REACH method, Robert Enright’s Forgiveness Process Model, or Fred Luskin’s Nine Steps to Forgiveness.
10. Cultivate Optimism
Should you see the glass as half empty of half full? If you want more happiness, the answer is clear: half full.
Research has found a long list of benefits to being optimistic. Christine Carter, a sociologist and happiness expert, sums up the benefits nicely in one of her articles. Compared to pessimistic people, optimists are:
- More successfulin school, at work, and in athletics
- Healthierand they live longer
- More satisfiedwith their marriages
- Less likely to sufferfrom depression
- Less anxious
Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg, two neuroscientists and authors of multiple bestselling books, explain in How God Changes Your Brain that optimism is essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health:
“Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that ‘a moderate optimistic illusion’ appears to be neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health.”
I have read a lot of books on happiness/psychology/well-being and optimism is one of those things that just always pop up – it’s that important.
The good news is, optimism is a skill that anyone can learn and get better at. Yes, even if you’re a pessimist right now, you can become an optimist and reap the benefits. Martin Seligman explains in Learned Optimism:
“Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills.”
No need to learn any affirmations if you want to become more optimistic. There are better ways…
Bottom line: The research is abundantly clear: While optimism will raise your level of happiness (and improve almost every area of your life), pessimism is a surefire way to lower it. If you’re serious about your happiness, leave pessimistic attitudes behind and learn ways of becoming more optimistic.
How to Practice
Again, research offers us a bunch of strategies that have been proven to make us more optimistic. Here are a few that you can try out:
1) The Best Possible Selves Exercise. This exercise involves visualizing and writing down the best possible future for yourself in multiple domains of life. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, this writing exercise is the most robust strategy to boost optimism. She explains in The Myths of Happiness:
“Whether our optimism is big or little, many of us waver in our expectations of the future. Fortunately, numerous research-tested activities have been shown to boost positive thinking. The most robust strategy involves keeping a journal regularly for ten to twenty minutes per day, in which we write down our hopes and dreams for the future (e.g., ‘In ten years, I will be married and a home owner”), visualize them coming true, and describe how we might get there and what that would feel like. This exercise—even when engaged in as briefly as two minutes—makes people happier and even healthier.”
To try it out, sit in a quiet place and take fifteen to thirty minutes to think about what you want your life to be one, five, or even ten years from now. Visualize a future in which everything has turned out exactly the way you’ve wanted. You have done your best, worked hard, and achieved all of your life goals. Describe in writing what you imagine. (You can find a more detailed explanation of this exercise here.)
2) Dispute negative thoughts. One easy method for increasing your optimism is recognizing and then disputing negative thoughts. Martin Seligman explains how it works in Authentic Happiness:
“There is a well-documented method for building optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing pessimistic thoughts. Everyone already has the skills of disputing, and we use them wen an external person – a rival for our job, or our lover – accuses us falsely of some dereliction. ‘You don’t deserve to be a vice-president for personnel. You’re inconsiderate, selfish, and the people who work for you cannot stand you,’ your rival accuses. In reply, you trot out all the reasons she is wrong: the high ratings the staff gave you last year, and the skill you showed in turning around the three most difficult employees in the marketing department.”
When we say the same accusing things to ourselves, we usually fail to dispute them, right?
The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by someone else, a rival who wants to make you miserable. If you need further instructions, check out the ABCDE model.
What else? If you’re serious about building your optimism, I suggest checking out Martin Seligman’s book on the topic: Learned Optimism. And this article about explanatory styles is also very much worth a read.
11. Pursue Meaningful Life Goals
I have a friend who’s tall, handsome, intelligent, successful with women, and very self-confident. However, most of the time he seems kind of bored, apathetic, unmotivated. Why? My guess is it’s because he’s devoid of aspirations, dreams, and goals. He doesn’t know what he wants in life. he has no direction, no incentives to act. He’s just kind of plodding along. Is he happy? I doubt it.
Goals give us meaning and a sense of purpose and a feeling of control over our life. They give us a reason to get up in the morning. They get us fired up, enthusiastic, and motivated about the future.
Most importantly: Pursuing goals makes us happy. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains it in The How of Happiness:
“People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers or raising more children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project.”
“Working towards a meaningful life goal is one of the most important strategies for becoming lastingly happier.”
Interestingly, it’s not the achieving of the goal that makes us happy. It’s the process of working towards it, participating in a challenging and valued activity, that is just as important or probably more important than the attainment of the goal.
Bottom line: Goals give us meaning in life, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of control. They get us fired up, motivated, and enthusiastic about the future, which helps us get up and get going in the morning. Most importantly: Pursuing meaningful goals has been shown to be of paramount importance to our happiness and well-being.
How to Practice
Having any kind of goal in life is probably better than having none at all. But we need to understand that not all goals are created equal. And not all goals are going to make you lastingly happier. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and goal expert, explains in her book Succeed:
“Here are the goals that aren’t going to help you achieve lasting well-being: becoming famous, seeking power over others, or polishing your public image. Any goal that is related to obtaining other people’s validation and approval or external signs of self-worth isn’t going to do it for you, either. Accumulating wealth for its own sake also won’t lead to real happiness (this is not to say you should care about money at all, just that being rich isn’t a sure ticket to a happy life).”
So yeah, if you really want to become happier and more fulfilled, you need to choose the right goals.
Over the last couple of years, I have read a fair number of books with advice on goal-setting and I have come to believe that a happiness-boosting goal meets the following three criteria:
Your goal should be intrinsic, not extrinsic. This is the most important part about goals, which is why I’ve written an entire article about it. The short story: intrinsic goals will make you happy and more successful, extrinsic goals won’t. Intrinsic goals are the ones that satisfy your core needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy. These are goals that are about making, supporting, and improving relationships. They are also goals that focus on personal growth, physical health, and self-acceptance – in other words, addressing your shortcomings or simply coming to terms with them. Intrinsic goals also have to do with contributing to your community or helping others fulfill these needs. For more detail, check out this article.
Your goal should be specific. Specificity is important because it removes the possibility of settling for less – of telling yourself that what you’ve done is good enough. If your goal is vague, it’s too easy and too tempting to just take the easy way out when you’re getting tired, bored, or otherwise discouraged. But there’s just no fooling yourself if you’re going after a specific goal. You’ve either achieved it or you haven’t.
Your goal should be difficult. Here’s a simple human truth: People do what’s asked of them, and rarely more. Ask for a great performance and you’re likely to get it (as long as you’re specific about what great is!). By setting yourself a difficult goal, you’re likely to rise to the challenge. It’ll help you feel motivated and chances are you’ll find yourself putting in a lot of effort, focus, and commitment.
Of course, there’s a lot more we could discuss here. But if you follow these three principles when pursuing your life goals, you’ll be well on your way to a happier and more fulfilling life.
12. Experience More “Flow”
I’m sure you’ve heard of flow states before. Flow, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chicks-sent-me-high"), is a state of intense involvement and absorption in the present moment. It means being totally immersed in whatever you’re doing, fully concentrating and being completely unaware of yourself.
When you’re experiencing flow, time stops for you. You lose self-consciousness. You’re deeply fulfilled. You feel strong. Flow produces a kind of natural high, which is why some flow state activities (rock climbing, mountain biking, bungee jumping) can be so addictive.
Experiencing flow not only feels great, but it’s also a surefire way to increase your enduring happiness level. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes the benefits in The How of Happiness:
“The experience of flow leads us to be involved in life (rather than be alienated from it), to enjoy activities (rather than to find them dreary), to have a sense of control (rather than helplessness) and to feel a strong sense of self (rather than unworthiness). All of these factors imbue life with meaning and lend it a richness and intensity. And happiness.”
Flow is a very healthy experience that makes people not only happier, but also more successful in other areas of life. Interestingly, though, most people aren’t aware of the benefits they’re deriving from flow. Most of us would rather watch TV all day. Martin Seligman describes this phenomenon in Authentic Happiness:
“In one of Mike’s studies, he tracked 250 high-flow and 250 low-flow teenagers. The low-flow teenagers are ‘mall’ kids; they hang out at malls and they watch television a lot. The high-flow kids have hobbies, they engage in sports, and they spend a lot of time on homework. On every measure of psychological well-being (including self-esteem and engagement) save one, the high-glow teenagers did better. The exception is important: the high-flow kids think their low-flow peers are having more fun, and say they would rather be at the mall doing all those ‘fun’ things or watching television. But while all the engagement they have is not perceived as enjoyable, it pays off later in life. the high-flow kids are the ones who make it to college, who have deeper social ties, and whose later lives are more successful. This all fits Mike’s theory that flow is the state that builds psychological capital that can be drawn on in the years to come.”
“The best understood aspect of happiness during the workday is having flow – feeling completely at home within yourself when you work.”
The point is, flow is awesome. It feels great, builds our happiness, and even makes us more successful in all areas of life.
Bottom line: Our happiness heavily depends on our ability to experience flow on a regular basis. The more flow we experience in life, the happier we tend to be.
How to Practice
Experiencing flow on a regular basis can be quite a challenge (for me at least). It’s something that requires a lot of effort because we need to sort of structure our lives around it. Therefore, compared to some of the other strategies, fully practicing this one will probably take a bit longer.
Nevertheless, here are three proven strategies to make use of…
1) Don’t be a couch potato. In other words, don’t be a ‘mall’ kid. Go out there and do something, engage in sports, find a hobby, do something you enjoy doing just for the sake of it. Ask yourself, when does time stop for you? When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to come to an end? What do you enjoy doing?
Flow requires that you’re being active, not passive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in Finding Flow:
“Flow is generally reported when a person is doing his or her favorite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking a good meal. It also occurs when driving, when talking to friends and surprisingly often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing.”
Find what produces flow for you, and then do it as often as you can. Which brings us to the next tip…
2) Give yourself a ‘flow test’. This is a strategy I learned about from Dan Pink. He explains in his book Drive:
“Set a reminder on your computer or mobile phone to go off at forty random times in a week. Each time your device beeps, write down what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and whether you’re in ‘flow.’”
He advises us to record our observations, look at the patterns, and then to also consider the following questions:
- Which moments produced feelings of ‘flow’? Where were you? What were you working on? Who were you with?
- Are certain times of day more flow-friendly than others? How could you restructure your day based on your findings?
- How might you increase the number of optimal experiences and reduce the moments when you felt disengaged or distracted?
- If you’re having doubts about your job or career, what does this exercise tell you about your true source of intrinsic motivation?”
This tip works well because many of us don’t even recognize when we experience flow. (Remember, the flow kids thought that they’d rather watch TV or go to the mall.) Once you know exactly at what times and during which activities you find yourself in flow, it’s time to start multiplying them.
3) Follow this recipe. Martin Seligman shares his recipe for more flow in Authentic Happiness:
“My recipe for more flow is as follows:1) Identify your signature strengths
2) Choose work that lets you use them every day
3) Recraft your present work to use your signature strengths more
Experiencing flow, according to Seligman, is all about using our signature strengths, which is a happiness strategy all by itself (it’s at #19). We will discuss it later on in this article.
13. Savor the Good Things in Your Life
Savoring is the practice of generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. It’s stopping to smell the roses instead of walking by obliviously. It’s basking and taking pride in accomplishments, yours or your friends’. It’s being fully aware of your surroundings, actively and consciously enjoying whatever the present moment holds.
You can savor about the past by reminiscing about the good old times – your college years, your wedding, your first love, your latest road trip with your buddies. You can savor about the future by fantasizing and anticipating about positive future events. And you can savor about the present by being fully here now, mindfully eating a piece of cake, listening to your grandpa’s story, or immersing yourself in a great book.
Savoring is all about extracting the pleasure juice out of life, in the present moment.
Research shows it’s a great way to enhance your happiness. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in The How of Happiness:
“The habit of savouring has been shown in empirical research to be related to intense and frequent happiness. moreover, savouring is associated with many other positive characteristics. For example, in several studies, people who are inclined to savour were found to be more self-confident, extroverted and gratified, and less hopeless and neurotic.”
The beauty of savoring is that it can be done anywhere and anytime. You don’t need equipment. You don’t need other people. You don’t need money. You don’t need anything. All you have to do is bring your attention to the present moment and start enjoying. (Easier said than done, I know)
Bottom line: Savoring – generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment – is all about extracting the happiness juice out of life. In scientific research, it’s been shown to make people a lot happier, so make sure you slow down and smell those roses from time to time.
How to Practice
There are endless opportunities and ways of savoring life’s joys. Don’t get overwhelmed by the number of different strategies here. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize it all works the same way.
1) Enjoy ordinary experiences. This is kind of savoring 101 – slowing down and truly relishing an experience you usually hurry through such as taking a shower, shaving, eating a meal, walking, or getting dressed.
According to the research, this leads to significant increases in happiness as explained in The How of Happiness:
“In another study, healthy students and community members were instructed to savour two pleasurable experiences per day, by reflecting on each for two to three minutes and trying to make the pleasure last as long and as intensely as possible. In all these studies, those participants promoted to regularly practice savouring showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”
Think about your own daily routine. Do you ever stop, notice, and savor the little things in life? Or do you just dash though them? If the latter, maybe try to catch yourself one or two times a day and deliberately slow down. Take a deep breath, feel the air moving in and out of your nostrils. Take a fully conscious sip from your cup of coffee. Truly feel the water on your skin when taking a shower.
Leo Buscaglia puts it best, “I still get wildly enthusiastic about little things... I play with leaves. I skip down the street and run against the wind.”
2) Share positive experiences and memories with others. Sometimes I talk with my old high school friends about the great times we’ve had back then. We remember how we annoyed our teachers, fucked up tests, and got completely wasted on the weekends. Sharing such memories is always a lot of fun and it makes me feel fantastic.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Research confirms the benefits of sharing experiences with your friends and family. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in The How of Happiness:
“The advantages of savouring and reminiscing with others have empirical support. Researchers have found that mutual reminiscence – sharing memories with other people – is accompanied by abundant positive emotions such as joy, accomplishment, amusement, contentment and pride.”
3) Replay past successes. Replaying happy life events and past successes is another simple way to increase your happiness. Think about one of your happiest days – the day you met your spouse, graduation day, your wedding, the day your got your pet, or whatever. Now replay that day in your mind as if you were rewinding a videotape and playing it back. What exactly happened? What did you say or do? What was so special? What made the day so great? Not analyzing, just replaying what happened and indulging in those positive memories.
Here’s one study proving this strategy’s effects in The How of Happiness:
“Participants were first asked to make a list of happy memories and personal mementos (such as photographs, gifts, and souvenirs) and then instructed to engage in positive reminiscing twice daily for a week. As the researchers predicted, those participants who reminisced on a regular basis showed considerable increases in happiness, and the more vivid the memories conjured, the greater gain in happy feelings.”
4) Make memories physical. Another way of practicing positive reminiscence is by creating a savoring album with images of your kids, spouse, nephews, nieces, beautiful places you’ve visited etc. Or bring a physical souvenir of an event, and reminisce about it later. Or maybe even keep your acceptance letter to college, your niece’s drawing, or anything else meaningful and keep it in a positive memory box. This way of making memories physical ensures that you always have some positive memories at your fingertips.
5) Go on a savoring walk. This practice simply involves taking a fifteen- to thirty-minute walk outside with the goal of noticing as many pleasant things – sunshine, rain, silence, flowers, smiling strangers, light, birds tweeting, a cat walking across the street, wind stroking your arms, friends laughing together, two lovers holding hand, and so on - as possible in order to create an upbeat state of mind.
This savoring walk has been proven to increase people’s happiness in scientific research. In one study, for instance, people were asked to take a twenty-minute walk once a day for a week. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups:
- Savoring group: they were instructed to consciously acknowledge as many pleasant things as possible – sunshine, flowers, smiling strangers, and so on.
- The anti-savoring group: they were told to notice as many unpleasant things as possible – traffic noise, trash, grumpy strangers, and so on.
- The control group: they were simply told to go for a walk without any specific instructions.
Kristin Neff presents the results in Self-Compassion:
“The people who were asked to savor their positive experiences were significantly happier after the walk compared with the other groups. In follow-up interviews, they also said that they felt a greater sense of appreciation for the world around them.”
14. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness and savoring are closely related, but they are not the same. The distinction is that savoring means deliberately enhancing the positive - to prolong and intensify a good experience. Mindfulness, on the other hand, doesn’t try to make anything more prolonged or intense. Instead, mindfulness is all about non-judgmental awareness of whatever is present in the moment – good, bad, or neutral.
It takes mindfulness to notice the good in the first place, but then savoring tries to keep the positive while mindfulness just non-judgmentally observes everything (not just the good) that is happening.
Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff explain the difference in their book Savoring: A new model of positive experience:
“When people savor, they too are mindful of their experience, but their attention does not remain totally open to incoming or internal stimuli. Instead, the savoring process involves a more restrictive focus on internal and external stimuli associated with positive affect. In that sense, savoring is a narrower concept than mindfulness.”
We don’t need to get hung up on this difference. When it comes to happiness, both strategies have been proven to be very effective. So who cares whether you’re savoring or being mindful.
Anyway, I owe you the proof that mindfulness improves happiness. So here’s, once again, Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness:
“A series of studies conducted at the University of Rochester focused on people ‘high in mindfulness’, that is, those who are prone to be mindfully attentive to the here and now and keenly aware of their surroundings. It turns out that such individuals are models of flourishing mental health. Relative to the average person, they are more likely to be happy, optimistic, self-confident and satisfied with their lives, and less likely to be depressed, angry, anxious, hostile, self-conscious, impulsive or neurotic. Furthermore, people who are habitually mindful of their current experiences are more likely to experience frequent and intense positive emotions, to feel self-sufficient, competent and to have positive social relationships, while those who are not usually mindful report more illness and physical symptoms.”
The benefits of mindfulness are endless and I believe it is one of the most important life-enhancing and happiness-boosting strategies you can ever learn. I highly suggest you try it out and make time for regular practice.
Bottom line: Practicing mindfulness is a no-brainer if you ask me. Not only is it proven to raise your level of happiness, but it’s also been shown to improve immune function, reduce stress, increase focus and concentration, reduce rumination, and much more.
How to Practice
Formal practice is what we normally call meditation. It involves deliberately making time to practice, e.g. sitting down every morning to mindfully watch your breathing for twenty minutes. Informal practice doesn’t require you to take extra time out of your day. It simply means practicing mindfulness during daily life activities, e.g. being mindful when you’re eating, cooking, or taking a shower.
If you’re serious about growing your mindfulness, practicing both forms on a daily basis makes a lot of sense. This is a strategy that requires a lot of time and effort, but will yield incredible results if you stick with it.
Let’s look at ways of practicing both formally and informally in a bit more detail.
1) Formal practice. Most experts suggest doing at least 10-20 minutes of formal mindfulness practice every single day, so that’s what I recommend and do myself. Usually I’ll do a guided sitting meditation in the morning. If you’re just getting started, I suggest using the Headspace app. It will guide you through the instructions and it makes building a daily practice a lot easier.
I’ve also heard great stuff about Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week meditation program for beginners. Giovanni blogs about all things meditation over at liveanddare.com and has over 7,000 hours of meditation experience. If you want a little more guidance, access to an experienced meditator, and the help of a supportive community, I suggest checking out his course.
Furthermore, here are some of my favorite guided meditations:
- Body Scan Meditation – Jon Kabat-Zinn – 45 minutes.
- Body Scan Meditation – Greg De Vries – 10 minutes.
- Guided Vipassana Meditation – Tara Brach – 25 minutes.
- Guided Loving-Kindness Meditation – Kristin Neff – 20 minutes
- Guided Mindfulness Meditation – Sam Harris – 27 minutes
- Guided Mindfulness Meditation – Sam Harris – 9 minutes
2) Informal practice. You can do informal practice all day long, and that’s actually what I’m trying to do (it’s very, very hard though). In any activity, you’re either present and mindful or you’re lost in thought – those are kind of the two states we’re in most often. The key in practicing informal mindfulness is to be in the mindful state as often as possible. If you’re a beginner, you’ll soon realize that most of the time you’re just lost in thought. That’s normal, and that will change as your mindfulness gets stronger. The key is to simply catch yourself when lost in thought and then bring your attention back to the present moment, back to non-judgmentally observing whatever’s happening right now.
Some examples of how this might play out: When brushing your teeth, pay attention to the taste of the toothpaste or the physical motions involved. When you shower, focus on the intense sensual experience of thousands of water droplets striking your body and the feeling of rubbing soap all over. When you dry yourself, see if you can actually feel the towel on your skin. When walking to your car, the bus stop, or anywhere else, try to pay attention to the sensation of your feet touching the ground or your legs moving through space.
Again, the idea is to bring your attention back to the moment-to-moment sensory experience over and over and over and over again.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that meditation is the #1 path to happiness. Think about it. Think about the Buddha for a second. He was a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, son of a king in Nepal. He spent his first 29 years in a palace, in complete luxury. He had beautiful young girls available in his kingdom, had the best food, beautiful clothes, great gardens. His palace was full of dance and music and fun.
Day in, day out, he was living in luxury, surrounded by everything that he ever wanted. He was living a life many of us would dream of. But did this near-perfect life bring him happiness? Not really. At age 29, he decided to leave the palace in a quest to relieve suffering and find true happiness.
Where did he ultimately find happiness? In meditation. So, this is a guy who had everything that life could offer. He spent pretty much his entire life in the pursuit of happiness. And he tells us that meditation is the way to achieve that goal.
Most importantly: Science agrees. Study after study is coming out on the benefits of meditation, showing that the benefits include better mental health, stronger focus and concentration, less depression, stronger immune system, less anxiety, higher stress resilience, more grey matter in the brain, lowered feelings of pain, improved learning, better memory, and so on.
Shawn Achor explains meditation’s effects on happiness in The Happiness Advantage:
“Neuroscientists have found that monks who spent years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy. “
“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.”
Meditation literally changes your brain and hardwires it for happiness.
Most research is done on mindfulness meditation, but it’s safe to say that most meditation practices will make you lastingly happier. Just try out a few different practices and see which one works for you.
Bottom line: The benefits of meditation are just too awesome to be ignored. Regularly meditating will not only make you happier, but will also lower anxiety and stress, improve focus and concentration, boost your immune system, relieve depression, enhance your learning ability and your memory, etc.
How to Practice
According to the experts, meditation is best practiced on a daily basis. I personally do twenty minutes every morning and switch it between three main types of meditation: 1) mindfulness meditation 2) loving kindness meditation 3) body scan meditation (technically also mindfulness).
What type of meditation you practice probably doesn’t matter because they are all highly beneficial. If you’re new to meditation and are just getting started, I suggest using the Headspace app or signing up for Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week meditation program for beginners (as discussed in the previous strategy on mindfulness at #14). That way, you’ll have a solid foundation and are well on your way to becoming
enlightened a lot happier.
Here’s an overview of the three types of meditation I do regularly and some resources that I personally use and that you may find useful.
1) Mindfulness meditation: We’ve already discussed mindfulness at length in this article. It’s basically all about learning to pay non-judgmental attention to whatever’s happening in the present moment. The practice usually involves focusing on an object of concentration (such as the breath), and then every time you get distracted (which is bound to happen a lot), you bring your attention back to the object of concentration. Very simple, yet at the same time very challenging. Here are some of my favorite guided mindfulness meditations:
2) Loving-kindness meditation: One happiness strategy we’ll discuss in a little bit is called ‘acts of kindness’ (coming at #18), where we’ll discuss the happiness boosting powers of being kind to our fellow human beings. Loving-kindness meditation is a great way to cultivate our propensity for kindness (while improving other aspects of meditation such as concentration and awareness). The practice involves mentally sending kindness, warmth, and goodwill towards others by silently repeating a series of mantras. Here are some of my favorite guided loving-kindness meditations:
- Guided Loving-Kindness Meditation – Kristin Neff – 20 minutes
- Guided Loving-Kindness Meditation – Barbara Fredrickson – 15 minutes
3) Body scan meditation: The body scan meditation is a very beginner-friendly form of mindfulness. This exercise asks you to systematically focus your attention on different parts of your body, from your feet all the way up to the muscles of your face. It’s designed to help you develop a mindful awareness of bodily sensations, and to relieve tension wherever it is found. Here are some of my favorite guided body scans:
16. Exercise Regularly
I hate to tell people that they need to exercise more, but there’s no way around it: The benefits are just too good to be ignored. Exercise is one of THE best ways to optimize your physical health, your mental health, and of course your happiness.
Sonja Lyubomirsky says it’s the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities. Here she is in The How of Happiness:
“Surveys show – and large-scale randomized interventions confirm – that exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.”
John Ratey, a leading researcher on the effects of exercise on the brain, claims that physical exercise is like taking a little bit of Ritalin (an attention booster) and a little bit of Prozac (an antidepressant).
In his book Spark, he describes a great study illustrating that exercise is more effective in battling depression than medication:
“We’ve known for a while that exercise influences the same chemicals as antidepressants do, but nobody had done a scientifically sound head-to-head comparison until researchers at Duke University took up the task in 1999. In a landmark study affectionately called SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal and his colleagues pitted exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial. They randomly divided 156 patients into three groups: Zoloft, exercise, or a combination of the two. The exercise group was assigned to supervised walking or jogging, at 70 to 85 percent of their aerobic capacity, for thirty minutes (not including a ten-minute warm-up and a five-minute cool-down) three times a week. The results? All three groups showed a significant drop in depression, and about half of each group was completely out of the woods — in remission. Another 13 percent experienced fewer symptoms but didn’t fully recover. Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as effective as medication.”
Even more impressive, 6 months later, people in the exercise group were doing better than people in the other groups: 30 percent of the exercise group remained depressed versus 52 percent of those on medication and 55 percent for those in the combined treatment group.
Furthermore, of the patients who were in remission after the initial study, just 8 percent of the exercise group had a relapse compared to 38 percent in the medication group.
Bottom line: Physical exercise of any kind (weight lifting, jogging, tennis, ping-pong, swimming, or hula hooping) is one of the fastest and most reliable ways to lastingly improve your happiness.
How to Practice
I am not an expert in physical exercise, so I don’t know how often or how long you should exercise. I personally lift weights once a week (I do Doug McGuff’s Body by Science workout), I do the 7-minute scientific workout or some other bodyweight stuff somewhere between 2-5 times a week, and I play a little bit of European-style-aka-with-the-foot football outside (preferably in the sun) 2-3 times a week. I also go for short walks and do some yoga every day (not sure if that counts).
What I do know for sure is that you get extra benefits for exercising in nature and/or exercising with other people. I’m also pretty certain that it doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do, so you might as well choose something that’s fun and that you actually enjoy. Let’s discuss those tips in a bit more detail…
1) For the long haul, choose a type of exercise you enjoy. Here’s some great news: You don’t need to go running or hit the weights for an hour to get the happiness boosting benefits of exercise. In fact, according to a great book called No Sweat by Michelle Segar, you’re much more likely to stay motivated and stick with it if you’re actually enjoying it rather than just doing it because you feel like you have to. You’ll even derive greater benefit from it. So, do something that’s fun - whether that’s volleyball, hula hooping, swimming, rock climbing, dancing, or badminton for you. The key is that it should feel like a gift, not a chore.
2) For extra benefits, work out in nature. Spending time in nature is so beneficial that it is a happiness strategy in and of itself (it comes later on at #22). Exercising in nature – sometimes called ‘green’ exercise - is almost like exercise squared. For example, while regular exercise is well known for its positive effects and mood and self-esteem, exercising outdoors increases this effect, producing improvements in mood and increases in self-esteem above and beyond that of exercise alone.
Even better, because exercising outdoors feels so good, you are more likely to keep it up in the future, and more likely to adhere to a program in general. This creates a nice feedback loop, and chances are you’ll find yourself exercising more often while enjoying it more at the same time.
3) For even more extra benefits, work out with other people. Social relationships are another key to happiness as we’ve discussed thoroughly in happiness strategy #1. As far as exercising with other people is concerned, Mark Sisson, an exercise and nutrition expert, writes of four distinct, research-backed benefits:
- Working out in a group boosts the stress reduction effects we get from exercise.
- Working out in the presence of another person reduces the perceived effort of the exercise.
- Training with someone who’s stronger/faster/fitter than you, will make you work harder.
- Exercising with a member of the opposite sex has also been shown to reduce perceived exertion.
- Plus, you get all the other benefits of socializing (see happiness strategy #1)
So yeah, get a workout buddy, go on a run with a friend or two, or simply gather some friends to play football, volleyball, or whatever.
17. Act Like a Happy Person
“Remarkably, pretending that you’re happy – smiling, engaged, mimicking energy and enthusiasm – can not only earn you some of the benefits of happiness (returned smiles, strengthened friendships, successes at work and school) but can actually make you happier.”
Research and ancient philosophy tell us that our minds and bodies are closely connected. (Some people go as far as saying that the body is the mind, and vice-versa.) The body influences the mind and the mind influences the body. This explains why acting like a happy person actually makes us happier. Our emotions simply take commands from our body.
People smile when they are happy. And they are happier when they smile. People breathe deeply when relaxed. And they start relaxing when they breathe deeply.
Leonardo DiCaprio offers another great example. When he played Howard Hughes, a guy who suffered from severe OCD, in the movie Aviator, DiCaprio took on the role so well that he himself began to experience OCD. In other words, he acted like someone with OCD and therefore started to experience OCD himself.
Bottom line: You become what you pretend to be. If you want to boost your happiness, start behaving like a happy person.
How to Practice
You’re not sure how to act like a happy person? Here are three strategies that have been proven to work…
1) Smile more. If you want to feel happier and find the world around you funnier, just force yourself to smile. Richard Wiseman explains in 59 Seconds:
“In the 1980s Fritz Strack and his colleagues asked two groups of people to judge how funny they found Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, and rate how happy they felt under one of two rather bizarre circumstances. One group were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth, but to ensure that it did not touch their lips. The other group supported the end of the pencil with their lips but not their teeth. Without realizing it, those in the ‘teeth only’ condition had forced the lower part of their faces into a smile, while those in the ‘lips only’ condition had made themselves frown. The results revealed that the participants tended to experience the emotion associated with their expressions. Those who had their faces forced into a smile felt happier, and found the Far Side cartoons much funnier, than those who were forced to frown.”
Other research found that people whose ability to frown is compromised by cosmetic Botox injections are happier and feel less anxious than people who can frown. So, go ahead and smile more.
2) Assume good posture. People who sit upright are happier than people who slouch. They even obtain higher scores on tests. Richard Wiseman explains in 59 Seconds:
“In a study conducted by Tomi-Ann Roberts at Colorado College, participants were randomly split into two groups and asked to spend 3 minutes either sitting up straight or slumping down in their chair. Everyone was then given a maths test and asked to assess their mood. Those who had sat upright were much happier than those who had slouched down, and even obtained higher scores on the maths test. Interestingly, this result didn’t apply for many of the female participants, causing Roberts to speculate that the act of sitting upright and pushing their chests forward may have made them feel self-conscious.”
Body language is hyper important. Another study asked participants to generate both positive and negative thoughts in slouched and upright positions. They reported that generating positive thoughts is much easier when body posture is upright. Generating negative thoughts, on the other hand, is much easier in the slumped position.
So, whenever possible, assume good posture. It will make you happier, more energetic, and even smarter.
3) Copy these behaviors of happy people. Richard Wiseman shares a bunch of different behaviors of happy people that you can easily copy. He writes in 59 seconds:
“Research by Peter Borkenau from Bielefeld University and others has revealed that happy people move in a very different way to unhappy people. You can use this information to increase your sense of happiness by acting like a happy person. Try walking in a more relaxed way, swinging your arms slightly more, putting more of a spring in your step. Also, try making more expressive hand gestures during conversations, nod your head more when others are speaking, wear more colorful clothing, use a greater frequency of positively charged emotional words (especially ‘love’, ‘like’ and ‘fond’), show a lower frequency of self-references (‘me’, ‘myself’, and ‘I’), have a larger variation in the pitch of your voice, speak slightly faster and have a significantly firmer handshake. Incorporating these behaviors into your everyday actions will help enhance your happiness.”
Here's a list of all the little things happy people do differently. Just choose some of these strategies and enjoy your boost in happiness:
- Walk in a more relaxed way
- Swing your arms slightly more
- Put more of a spring in your step
- Make more expressive hand gestures
- Nod your head more often when others are speaking
- Wear more colorful clothing
- Show a lower frequency of self-references (‘me’, ‘myself’, and ‘I’)
- Have a larger variation in the pitch of your voice
- Speak slightly faster
- Have a significantly firmer handshake
- Use a greater frequency of positively charged emotional words (especially ‘love’, ‘like’ and ‘fond’)
18. Practice Acts of Kindness
“True happiness consists of making others happy”, says a Hindu proverb, and science couldn’t agree more. Being generous and willing to share is one of the best and quickest ways to feel true happiness.
Richard Wiseman shares a great study illustrating this point in 59 Seconds:
“A few years ago, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues arranged for a group of participants to perform five non-financial acts of kindness each week for six weeks. These were simple things, such as writing a thank-you note, giving blood or helping out a friend. Some of the participants performed one of the acts each day, while others carried out all five on the same day. those who performed their kind acts each day showed a small increase in happiness. however, those who carried out all their acts of kindness on just one day each week increased their happiness by an incredible 40 per cent.”
Helping others is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Not only do we improve another person’s life, but we simultaneously improve our own. We feel better about ourselves, boost our happiness, enhance feelings of self-worth, and even increase our chances of success in all areas of life.
Bottom line: Randomly doing a good deed for one of your fellow human beings is one of THE quickest ways to feel better about yourself and lastingly raise your level of happiness. Heck, it even makes you more successful in other areas of life.
How to Practice
To get the best bang for your kindness buck, I suggest following the advice from the study we just learned about: Pick one day per week (your kindness day, if you will) and on that day either commit one new and large act of kindness or three to five little ones. The key is to make these acts of kindness something special, something extra, something remarkable. In other words, something that pulls you out of your normal routine. Otherwise you may end up like the people in that study who did one small act of kindness every day: you won’t get a lot benefits from it.
Here are some ideas for your acts of kindness…
1) Give the gift of time: Offer to make your parents a needed repair, tutor a school child, visit your grandparents, weed your sick neighbor’s garden, look after a child for an afternoon or evening, or help your friend with his or her taxes.
2) Volunteer: Volunteering is broadly defined by Wikipedia as ‘an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial gain "to benefit another person, group or organization"’. Whether it’s a cultural event, a sporting event, charity work, or mentoring of some sort, there’s no shortage on opportunities to volunteer.
It may seem like an odd thing to do (“don’t you have anything else to do?”), but the happiness boosting benefits seem well worth the time and effort. Adam Grant sums it up nicely in Give and Take:
“One study of more than 2,800 Americans over age twenty-four showed that volunteering predicted increases in happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem – and decreases in depression – a year later. And for adults over sixty-five, those who volunteered saw a drop in depression over an eight-year period. Other studies show that elderly adults who volunteer or give support to others actually life longer.”
3) Bring a gift: Here’s an interesting idea to practice kindness from Deepak Chopra. He suggests in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success:
“One of the things I was taught as a child, and which I taught my children also, is never to go to anyone’s house without bringing something – never visit anyone without bringing them a gift. You may say, ‘How can I give to others when at the moment I don’t have enough myself?’ You can bring a flower. One flower. You can bring a note or a card which says something about your feelings for the person you’re visiting. You can bring a compliment. You can bring a prayer.”
19. Use Your Signature Strengths
I really don’t know how to explain signature strengths, so I’ll let Shawn Achor do it in The Happiness Advantage:
“Everyone is good at something – perhaps you give excellent advice, or you’re great with little kids, or you whip up a mean batch of blueberry pancakes. Each time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity. If you find yourself in need of a happiness booster, revisit a talent you haven’t used in a while.”
Quick takeaway here: doing what we’re good at – in other words, using our strengths – feels good and makes us happy. We continue…
“Even more fulfilling than using a skill, though, is exercising a strength of character, a trait that is deeply embedded in who we are. A team of psychologists recently catalogued the 24 cross-cultural character strengths that most contribute to human flourishing. They then developed a comprehensive survey that identifies an individual’s top five, or “signature,” strengths. When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full six months later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.”
So research has established 24 character strengths. Figuring out which of these 24 character strengths are your top strengths – your signature strengths – and using them regularly in your everyday life will significantly improve your happiness and well-being.
Note that all of us have aspects of these strengths in our personality. You, me, and everyone else possesses all 24 character strengths. The difference is in which strengths are our strongest and which our weakest. You may be particularly strong at the strength “Honesty”, but not so strong in the strength “Perseverance”. Me, on the other hand, I may be strong at “Perseverance” but weak at “Honesty”.
The point is, you must find out what your signature strengths are and then use them as often as possible. The more you use your signature strengths, the happier you become.
The good news: finding out your signature strengths is easy and simple. Just head over to the official website and fill out a 15-minute survey. If you need some extra motivation, research shows that the simple act of finding out your strengths can give you a high. Barbara Fredrickson explains in Positivity:
“Research has shown that learning about your strengths can give you a high.”
This high, however, is only temporary. If you want the full benefits of lasting increases in happiness, you must find out ways to use your signature strengths on a regular basis. (Which takes effort.)
If you’re curious, my top strengths are: Honesty, Love of learning, Judgment, Perspective, Self-Regulation, Forgiveness, and Social intelligence.
Bottom line: Using your signature character strengths is deeply fulfilling and will make a lasting difference in your happiness level. The more you use your signature strengths, the happier you become.
How to Practice
First of all, find out what your strengths are by taking the signature strengths test here. As you complete the survey, pay close attention to the rank order of your own strengths. Are there any surprises? Next, look at your five highest strengths one at a time and ask yourself, “Is it a signature strength?” A signature strength should feel authentic, like it’s the real you. It gives you a feeling of excitement while displaying it and a sense of yearning to find new ways to use it. It should also invigorate rather than exhaust you.
Once you know your signature strengths, try out the following exercises.
1) Use your signature strengths in new ways. This is the exercise Shawn Achor has described earlier, and it’s really simple: Exercise one or more of your signature strengths in a new way either at work, at home, or in leisure. Some examples:
- If you identify self-control as a strength, you may choose to go to the gym rather than watch TV one evening.
- If one of your signature strengths is love of learning, keep reading this article and read every other article on this website.
- If you claim bravery as a strength, consider one of your personal fears and take one small step toward facing it.
- If perseverance is a strength for you, complete a project you’ve been putting off.
- If one of your strengths is love, surprise someone with a small gift that shows you care about them (e.g. flowers or a cup of coffee)
Check out this page with lots more suggestions for using your strengths.
2) Recraft your job. We don’t all have the luxury of landing our perfect jobs – the job where we only do activities that bring us flow, only work with people we like, and where the atmosphere perfectly suits our temperament and our values. Nevertheless we do have a choice as to how we experience our daily work. Whether you experience your work as boring or deeply fulfilling depends strongly on your attitude and mindset.
Martin Seligman shares a great example in Authentic Happiness:
“They studied twenty-eight hospital cleaners, each having the same official job description. The cleaners who see their job as a calling craft their work to make it meaningful. These see themselves as critical in healing patients, they time their work to be maximally efficient, they anticipate the needs of the doctors and the nurses in order to allow them to spend more of their time healing, and they add tasks to their assignments (such as brightening patients’ days, just as the Coatesville orderly did). The cleaners in the job group see their work as simply cleaning up rooms.”
People who see their work as so-called ‘callings’ – they see their work as contributing to the greater good, to something larger than they are – experience a lot more flow and are a lot happier than people who just view their work as a job.
The good news: and job can become a calling, and any calling can become a job. A physician who views his work as just a normal job and is simply interested in making money does not have a calling, yet a garbage collector who sees his work as making the world a cleaner and healthier place could very well have a calling.
Another example: There’s a story about a person that walked past a construction site and asked the builders what they were doing. The first one said that he was laying bricks. The second one said that he was building a wall. The third one said that he was erecting a cathedral for the glory of God.
So, how do you view your job? If you want to raise your lasting happiness level, you better look at it as a calling. If that’s not yet the case, you need to recraft your job by doing two things: First, reframe the meaning of your work – are you laying a brick or erecting a cathedral? It’s all in how you look at it. Second, you need to find ways to use your signature strengths as often as possible. For example, if kindness & generosity is a strength of yours, ask yourself how you can use it during your workday. Maybe you can help out your co-workers more often, get lunch with them, or organize a get-together.
You probably spend most of your time at work, so make sure you view it as meaningful and important. You’ll experience more flow, happiness, and fulfillment by doing that.
20. Find Something to Look Forward to
This is an interesting one. According to research, happiness is highest in the anticipation of an event, not necessarily in the event itself.
Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage:
“One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent. Often, the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar – even it it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it. anticipating future rewards can actually light up the pleasure centers in your brain much as the actual reward will.”
Another study looked at happiness levels among 1,530 Dutch adults, 974 of who took a vacation during the 32-week study period. The researchers found that the largest boost in happiness came from the act of planning a vacation: the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.
So yeah, as Shawn Achor advises: Put something on the calendar.
Bottom line: Anticipating a future event has a surprisingly large impact on your happiness. If you want to feel happier, make sure you put something exciting on your calendar that you can look forward to.
How to Practice
We’re not going to overcomplicate this, so here are just a few ideas to make sure you always have something to look forward to.
1) Create plans for the weekend. Just plan any kind of activity on the weekend that you can look forward to. Go hiking, visit a theatre, arrange a tennis match, go out for dinner with your spouse, plan a party, or whatever.
2) Plan a vacation for in a few months or next year. Mimic what the people did in the study from earlier: plan a vacation so that you’ll anticipate it and enjoy a happiness boost for approximately eight weeks.
3) Make a plan to do something fun at the end of a hard day’s work. If you know at the beginning of your day that you’ll have a lot of work to do, give yourself a little happiness boost by planning some fun activity at the end of the day. Maybe plan to watch a movie, go out for a drink, or enjoy some quality time with your girl- or boyfriend.
4) Get a weekly massage or spa appointment. Having a regular weekly or bi-weekly appointment that you can look forward to is also great. If massages or spas are not your thing, find something else. Maybe join a weekly yoga or improv class or organize a weekly movie night.
21. Stop Watching the News
Newsflash (pun intended): News media don’t care about your health or happiness. They care about other stuff: money, influence, power. They have found out a long time ago that “if it bleeds, it leads.” If a story involves a brutal injury, death, disasters, rapes, serial killers, school violence, bank robberies, animal maulings, or any other negative crap, it is more likely to get high ratings and generate more casholas.
The media is full of fear-based news stories designed to glue us to the television, smartphone, or newspaper, all the while triggering our limbic system and releasing a cascade of stress hormones.
Not surprisingly, consuming the news is a surefire way to feel miserable and unhappy. One study, for example, found out:
“Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.”
Other research shows that the less negative TV we watch, the happier we are. Shawn Achor talks about this in The Happiness Advantage:
“Studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.”
It’s simple, if you want more happiness, you must eliminate or at least limit your consumption of mainstream media news.
Bottom line: If you want to feel happier, then you must eliminate (or drastically limit) your consumption of mainstream media news. The less negative TV you watch, the happier you will be.
How to Practice
If you’re not convinced yet that consuming the news is a terrible idea, maybe this article will convince you. In general, I really recommend getting rid of the news completely. If that’s not an option for you, maybe the following 2 suggestions will help.
1) Turn off news alerts. I don’t see any reason for having any alerts turned on, period. If the alerts happen to be news alerts, even worse. Just turn them off. They distract you. They kill your mood. They don’t have anything going for them…
2) Delete news apps on your smartphone and other devices. Instead of reading news on your phone or tablet, why not read something useful instead? Download the app Pocket and save interesting and helpful articles that you can read instead. Or even better: replace reading the news with mindfulness or any other happiness boosting strategy.
22. Spend Time in Nature
I’m certainly not your typical “nature kid”, but I’m very impressed with all the science-backed benefits nature has to offer. In a previous article, I explained how Mother Nature helps us improve our productivity by boosting our mood and replenishing our attention.
I’ve also presented research showing that spending time in nature improves our immune function, reduces stress, improves our mental (and physical) health, lowers blood pressure, enhances sleep, reduces blood sugar levels, and increases the benefits we get from working out.
As far as happiness is concerned, one study compared two groups of people – one took a 90-minute walk in the city and the other did the same in nature. The results showed that walking in nature improves mood and lowers the amount of negative thoughts people experience. No such change was seen in people who walked in the city. Even more interesting, in the nature walkers, fMRI brain scans revealed less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region affiliated with mood regulation, anxiety, and depression. The city walkers showed no such benefits.
Small caveat: You may only get the mood-enhancing benefits when the weather is good. Barbara Fredrickson explains in Positivity:
“Everyone who spent time outside when the weather was good showed a boost in positivity and more expansive thinking. later studies, done year-round, revealed that these were season effects, evident in the spring and early summer only.”
This matches well with Shawn Achor’s recommendations in The Happiness Advantage:
“Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory. The smartest bosses encourage employees to get a breath of fresh air at least once a day, and they reap the benefits in heightened team performance.”
When it comes to happiness, you are your own boss. So when the weather is nice, be smart and go outside for a while.
Bottom line: Spending time in nature is incredibly beneficial for your happiness, as well as your physical, mental, and emotional health. When the weather is good and the sun is out, be sure to spend at least a few minutes outside.
How to Practice
This is easy.
1) When the weather is good, get outside – even if it’s just for a few minutes. I love how Barbara Fredrickson puts it in Positivity:
“When the weather is good, you need to be ready. Locate a dozen places you can get to in a matter of minutes that will connect you to green or blue, to trees, water, or sky. These have been shown to boost positivity. Perhaps a few natural spots bloom just steps from your door. If so, explore them thoroughly. Make them your own.”
When the weather is good, you better be ready… I practice this in my own life. When the weather is good, I either make time to go play some football outside. Or when nobody’s available, I go for a walk at the nearby lake.
23. Write / Journal Your Way to Happiness
If you enjoy journaling, this strategy is for you. Research has unearthed lots of different writing exercises that are all scientifically proven to make you lastingly happier.
Here’s one exercise, called the what-went-well exercise, explained by Martin Seligman in his book Flourish:
“Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well… The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (‘My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today’), but they can be important (‘My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy’)… Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”
Again, science has created many more writing exercises that will make you happier. I’ll present some of them below. I won’t recite the science backing them up, just know that they are all proven to be highly beneficial.
Bottom line: Try out some “happiness journaling”. Science has created lots of simple writing exercises that are proven to make you lastingly happier. You can do some of them daily or even just once a week to reap the benefits.
How to Practice
If you enjoy these kinds of journaling exercises, I recommend checking out the Greater Good in Action website. There you will find lots of research-backed practices to live a happier and more meaningful life. For now, here are five writing exercises for you to try. (Some of them you’ve already encountered somewhere else in this article.)
1) Write yourself a self-compassionate letter. Identify something about yourself that makes you feel insecure, ashamed, or not good enough. Maybe it’s related to your personality, behavior, relationships, abilities, or any other part of your life. Write it down and describe how it makes you feel (inferior, sad, angry, embarrassed, etc.). Next, write yourself a letter expressing compassion, acceptance, and understanding for the part of yourself that you dislike. Further instructions can be found here.
2) Gratitude journaling. Write down three to five things for which you’re grateful for. The things you list can be relatively small in importance (you got a lot of work done today, your husband cooked for you, or your flowers are finally in bloom) or relatively large (your book getting published or your child’s first steps). As you write, try to be as specific as possible – specificity helps in fostering gratitude. Furthermore, really try to feel the emotion of gratitude – don’t just make a superficial list. More detailed instructions can be found here.
3) What-went-well exercise. Write down three things that went well for you today, and explain why they went well. The items can vary from the mundane (your co-worker made coffee for you) to the extraordinary (you earned a big promotion). The key to making this practice as beneficial as possible is to take your time – don’t just rush through it in a few seconds. More detailed instructions can be found here.
4) Your best possible self. For this exercise, imagine your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. Be realistic, but imagine that you have worked hard and everything has gone to plan. You have achieved your goals and your personal and professional life feel like a dream come true. Imagine that you have become the person you really want to be. For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. More instructions here.
5) Write a gratitude letter. Think about someone for whom you are extremely grateful or who is just very important to you. It could be a relative, your partner, a close friend, an ex-teacher, or a family member. Imagine that you only have one opportunity to tell this person how grateful you are to them. Now write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and how important they are to you. More instructions here.
24. Get a Pet
Animal lovers, listen up. Research has found that pets can make us both happier and healthier. Allen R McConnell, a leading researcher in the psychology of pet ownership, explains in an article on Psychology Today:
“In three different studies, we found consistent evidence that pets represent important social relationships, conferring significant benefits to their owners (McConnell et al., in press). In one study involving 217 community members, pet owners exhibited greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, were less lonely, were more conscientious, were more socially outgoing, and had healthier relationship styles (i.e., they were less fearful and less preoccupied) than nonowners.”
Most relevant to our topic, he concludes that:
“Pet owners were happier and healthier than nonowners.”
This adds to previous research showing that pets help us relieve stress, encourage physical activity and being outdoors, boost heart health, fight allergies, promote social interactions, improve emotional health, keep us stay in the present moment, and even help us live longer.
This may not be surprising to pet owners, but it’s true: Pets (even fish) make us healthier and happier.
Bottom line: If you’ve always wanted to get a pet, here’s another reason to do so. Pets make us significantly happier and they improve our health on multiple levels.
How to Practice
I can personally attest to the happiness-boosting effects of pets, specifically dogs. I’ve never been a big dog fan, but when I was about 16 years old, my parents decided to get one (and then another one). I quickly realized that dogs can make people quite a bit happier. They literally shower you with love and affection and they never fail to cheer you up.
With that being said, I’m really not an expert when it comes to dogs or other pets. I couldn’t even recommend you a book or anything, so you’ll have to figure this out on your own.
25. Make Sure You Read this Article
Here comes one of my favorite studies. Marci Shimoff explains it in Happy For No Reason:
“In 1977, Dr. Michael Fordyce, a psychologist and author of ‘The Psychology of Happiness,’ published the groundbreaking results of his experiment showing that students asked to study the habits of happy people actually increased their happiness and life satisfaction by just learning about the subject.”
I don’t know how strong of a study this was, but the results match with what I’m experiencing in my own life. Whenever I learn about a certain topic, I seem to automatically get better at it. When I learn more about happiness, I become happier. When I learn about motivation, my motivation increases. When I read about ways to increase willpower, I seem to have more of it.
Bottom line: Simply learning more about the subject of happiness could be enough to become happier. One study showed that students who were asked to study the habits of happy people actually increased their own happiness during the process.
How to Practice
First of all, make sure you actually read this article. I put a lot of time and effort into it, and I believe you will get a lot out of it. Remember, you can get the PDF version for free so that you can either print it out, save for later, or read on your e-reader.
Other than that, just keep learning more about the science of what makes people happy or unhappy. To help you with that, here are my favorite books on the topic of happiness:
1) Check out my three favorite books on happiness.
26. Just… Try!
There’s an old saying that goes something like this, “You find what you’re looking for.” Sophocles, an ancient Greek philosopher, said something similar, “Look and you will find it – what is unsought will go undetected.” And Henry David Thoreau, the great American philosopher and poet, hinted at the same idea, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."
If we were to believe this idea, happiness would be as simple as trying (“look for happiness and you will find it”).
According to two recent studies, this might actually work. In the first one, two sets of participants listened to ‘happy’ music. Those who actively tried to feel happier reported the highest level of positive emotion afterwards. In the second study, participants were instructed to listen to a range of ‘positive’ music over a two-week period. Again, those who were told to focus on increasing their happiness experienced a far greater happiness boost than those who were told to just focus on the music.
Merely trying to become happier actually worked.
These findings go hand in hand with the research about savoring walks we talked about earlier. A quick refresher: Three groups of people were asked to take a twenty-minute walk once a day for a week. The results showed that people who were asked to consciously acknowledge and savor as many pleasant things – sunshine, flowers, kids playing, and so on – as possible were a lot happier compared with people in the other groups.
Bottom line: Ancient wisdom and modern science agree: you find what you’re looking for. Start looking for more happiness in your life, and you’ll find it. Put differently, start trying to become happier and you’ll become happier.
How to Practice
There are two things I think we can take away from the above research. Let’s discuss them in detail below…
1) Try to extract some happiness from everyday activities. This is nothing else but savoring, which we talked about earlier. We defined it as generating, intensifying and prolonging enjoyment. Throughout your day, simply try to slow down a couple of times to take in the little joys of life. See if you can extract some happiness from taking a shower, eating a meal, talking to friends, or taking a sip of coffee.
If you’re experiencing a positive emotion (e.g. joy, accomplishment, pride, or gratitude), see if you can make it more intense and make it last as long as possible.
2) Put in the necessary effort. The researchers concluded the ‘happy’ music study as follows: What made one group so much happier than the other in these studies was, according to the researchers, a combination of actively trying to become happier and using the right methods – in this case, listening to upbeat music. The researchers add:
"[Our] results suggest that without trying, individuals may not experience higher positive changes in their well-being. Thus, practitioners and individuals interested in happiness interventions might consider the motivational mindset as an important facet of improving well-being."
You get the most happiness if you combine a happiness strategy with the effort of really trying to make it work. Merely going through the motions of writing a gratitude letter or writing down three things that went well at the end of every day may not be enough. You must give the strategies presented in this article a real fighting chance and you must really try to become happier.
Phew, What Now?
Surprise: We’re not done yet.
Now that you know the happiness boosting strategies (or, at least some of them, I hope), we need to discuss two more things to ensure you will lastingly raise your happiness level:
1) How to get the most out of the strategies
2) How to go about playing the strategies in everyday life
Let’s start off with the first one. I’ll make it quick…
How to Get the Most Out of the Happiness Strategies
OK, so how to get the most out of all these strategies? It’s simple. Choose activities that fit you well. Let me explain…
Even though the activities we looked at in this article are all proven to increase people’s happiness, it remains a fact that happiness is ultimately a subjective phenomenon. What works for me may not work for you. You may get tremendous satisfaction from playing volleyball, talking to strangers, writing gratitude letters, playing with your dog (or Panda), or even cleaning your bathroom. I may not.
Happiness is about finding out what works for you, doubling down on that, and neglecting the rest. Researchers confirm this insight and refer to it as ‘person-activity fit’. Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in The How of Happiness:
“The results of a recent study by one of my graduate students confirm these benefits of person-activity fit… As we anticipated, those participants who were lucky to be assigned the activity that fitted them were more likely 1) to report finding its practice ‘natural’ and ‘enjoyable’ after the fact, 2) to continue engaging in the activity even after the study was over, and 3) to derive greater happiness as a result of practicing it.”
In short, if a strategy feels natural to you and you are highly motivated to pursue it, then you’ll gain much greater happiness benefits from it.
So, when you pick strategies to try out in your own life, make sure you do it because you want to do it, because it fulfills your genuine interests, because you value doing it, because you find it enjoyable and not because you feel pressured or forced into doing it, either out of guilt or a desire to please. (Check out my article on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation for more on this.)
If an activity fits you well, you will try harder, persevere longer, and become a lot happier in the process.
How to Build a Happy Life
Last but not least… let’s get practical. What should you do with all of these strategies? Where should you start? How should you go about implementing them in your life?
First of all, I believe happiness requires the right mindset. Naval Ravikant, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, puts it well:
“The most important trick to be happy is to realize that happiness is a choice that you make and a skill that you develop. You choose to be happy, and then you work at it. It’s just like building muscles.”
So, happiness is a choice you make. And a skill you develop.
Depending on how high you value the skill of happiness, you will put in either more or less effort into cultivating it (into becoming happier). Put differently, the more you value your happiness, the harder you’ll work at it. Keep in mind, though, that it may not feel like work at all.
Think about it like this: Professional athletes value their sports, and so they do a few things to make sure they get better at it: they dedicate a large amount of time and effort into it, they practice every single day, they build their everyday lives around their sport, and they create rituals and plans to make sure they don’t just wing it and minimize luck.
If you value your happiness, you need to go about it in a similar way. You, too, need to dedicate a certain amount of time and effort into it, practice regularly, build your everyday live around it, and create rituals and plans.
How do you go about doing that? Simple. You pick a few happiness strategies and start adding them into your day-to-day life. Create rituals around your favorite strategies. Maybe exercise every morning, go on dates with your spouse on Wednesdays, and go kite-surfing every second weekend.
The idea is to fill your life with actions that are proven to enhance your happiness.
Here’s a quick step-by-step plan to help you with that:
Step 1: Write down all the things you could do to improve your happiness. Just think of the different strategies and let your mind come up with lots of different ideas. For example:
- Meditate for 20 minutes every morning (see happiness strategy #14 and #15)
- Write in a gratitude journal every Sunday (see strategy #7)
- Visit your grandparents more often (see strategy #1)
- Read The Paradox of Choice to learn more about how to become a satisficer (see strategy #4)
- Take the signature strengths test (see strategy #12 and #19)
- Read Nils’ article on intrinsic vs extrinsic goals (see strategy #2 and #11 and #12)
- Read Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson to learn even more about goals (see strategy #11)
- Book a city trip to Las Vegas with your buddies (see strategy #1 and #3 and #20)
- Join a weekly Yoga class (see strategy #14 and #1 and #20)
- Go for a morning run in the woods every Tuesday morning (see strategy #16 and #22)
- Do some happy journaling every night from Monday to Friday (see strategy #23)
Your options are endless.
Step 2: Ask yourself, which strategies excite you the most? Which feel natural to you and are overall a great fit? Pick as many of them as possible and add them into your life. The key is to create a plan, not just wing it.
It’s best if you put it right into your calendar, so you don’t forget it. Here’s what a happiness-boosting calendar might look like:
A typical happiness day may start off with 10 minutes of meditation followed by a 20-minute morning workout. Then you may have some breakfast, trying to eat mindfully and savoring the taste of your food. Under the shower, you may keep going with mindfulness, trying to feel every drop of water as it’s hitting your skin. On your way to work you may listen to an audiobook or read an actual book that explains more about the concepts of mindfulness, Positive Psychology, or the science of optimism.
At work, you may try to get fully absorbed in whatever you’re doing, such as to get into flow. You may also decide to go for a quick walk to get your blood flowing and catch some sunshine during one of your breaks. At lunch, you may try to have a genuine conversation with one of your co-workers, talking about stuff that really matters to both of you.
After work, you may spend quality time with your family and/or your pet. You may have dinner together and go for a walk with the dog. You may decide to have some friends over to play some Poker or have a beer and a good chat together. Before bed, you may do your 10 minutes of happy journaling before getting it on with your spouse.
The point is, you need to build your life around happiness strategies. You need to fill your life with more activities that contribute to happiness and less activities that lower it. Yes, it will take time and effort, but that’s the prize you’ve got to be willing to pay for being happy.
It’s your choice: Do you want a life of comfort or a life of happiness? If you choose the latter, know that it takes effort. But know also, that the effort will be richly rewarded with abundant health, fulfillment, and positive vibes.
Over to You
I want to finish this article by saying this:
Happiness matters. It matters for the individual and it matters for our planet as a whole. It holds the key to a world of peace and equality among human beings and all other creatures on this planet.
Why is that? It’s because war, discrimination, rage, envy, and destruction require miserable people. Misery is destructive. Happiness is creative. It’s a simple truth: You will never see two happy people destroy each other. What would be the point? Why would they bother? You can’t drag a happy person into war… it’s not possible.
So, happiness matters. More precisely, your happiness matters. That’s where it starts. For if you are happy, you can lift up the people around you, who will lift up the people around them, who will lift up the people around them, and so on.
The point is, this world needs you to be happy. Not only will you reap huge personal rewards - abundant health, financial success, better relationships, more friends, etc. - but you will save the world in the process.
Anyway, that seems to be all.
Thanks a lot for reading.
If you liked or disliked this article, or if you think of something I can add to it, or if you have any questions… please leave a comment below. I appreciate your feedback.
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