Many factors influence happiness
, including some that are outside of our control
—research suggests that around 50% of individual variation in happiness is based on genetics
, and 10-20% is based on life circumstances such as health
status and income level. Happiness, in other words, does come more easily to some people than to others.
But there is hope: Research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues has found that up to 40% of individual variation in happiness is shaped by intentional behaviors—the things we do every day, moment to moment. These behaviors have the potential to diminish or enhance our happiness.
What kinds of intentional behaviors are more likely to enhance happiness? Here are a few:
- Do something active.
Research suggests that physical activity is one of the more effective ways to increase happiness—so effective that some studies have found that it works just as well as antidepressant medications in alleviating depression—and may have more lasting effects. The problem is, feeling down doesn’t generally inspire one to get up and run. To make exercise seem less daunting, keep in mind that you don’t need to join a gym or run a marathon to reap its benefits. Even walking around the block can make a difference, as can dancing around your living room, stretching in your office, or even cleaning.
- Do something new.
One of the biggest obstacles to improving happiness levels is hedonic adaptation—our tendency to get used to things when we’re exposed to them over and over. When it comes to positive things, this means we enjoy them less. So even if you already have a go-to mood-booster (like watching your favorite Saturday Night Live sketches on YouTube), you may find that it’s less effective the more often you use it. Interspersing new activities with the tried-and-true can add more variety and spontaneity to your routine, reducing the effects of hedonic adaptation.
- Do something for someone else.
One of the surest routes to increasing personal happiness is to look out for someone else’s. Research suggests, for example, that spending money on others leads to greater happiness than spending money on yourself. To get a happiness boost, you could donate to a cause or order a gift for a friend's birthday. But you don’t need to spend money to reap the benefits—simply sending well-wishes to others can increase well-being. Loving-kindness meditation, which involves directing caring feelings and intentions toward close and distant others, has been shown to increase positive emotions, purpose in life, and life satisfaction. The sustained practice of loving-kindness meditation is more likely to have lasting effects on happiness, but even brief exposure has benefits. Also helpful are gestures that express love, gratitude, or support—for example, you could check in with someone who is going through a hard time, or write a letter of gratitude to someone who has positively affected your life.
- Do something enjoyable—and savor it.
Research suggests that the ability to savor positive experiences is a key ingredient in happiness. Savoring involves actively paying attention to the pleasure or beauty of an experience as it is occurring, rather than letting your mind wander to other thoughts until you realize it’s already passed you by. Sometimes the best way to learn to savor is to find something small and seemingly insignificant that you might ordinarily not pay much attention to, and try to appreciate it in a new way. You could, for example, try the Raisin Meditation, a classic practice used in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program—you will never look at raisins the same again.
- Do nothing at all.
On the hedonic treadmill, we’re always looking for the next thing that we believe will bring us greater happiness. But while there’s nothing wrong with aiming to improve our lot in life, it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of endless striving that never feels truly satisfying. Research on affective forecasting suggests that our big wins tend to make us less happy than we expect they will, which can lead to disappointment and regret—and more striving. Sometimes the greatest happiness can be found in those moments when we’re not striving for anything or not wishing that things were any way other than how they are.
Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.