In the past few years, we've seen an explosion of books and courses about happiness
science has progressed more in the past decade than the previous 100 years, allowing us to better understand the biological bases of human emotion. Research in positive psychology
has made great strides in clarifying the things that make us happy. Through social media, we have more access to this information than ever before. And yet, we don’t seem to be any happier than we were a generation ago. In fact, statistics show that more of us are suffering from clinical depression and anxiety—and that teens are becoming stressed and depressed at younger ages.
How do we explain this paradox and what are some simple things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives?
The causes of our moods are complex, and not entirely under our control. About 40% of happiness derives from our genes. You are born with a certain temperament that makes you more likely to see the sunshine—or the clouds. Researchers call this our biological set-point. Some of us are naturally more optimistic or extroverted, which helps us connect with others and get out in the world, leading to more opportunities for happiness, and a stronger support system. When good things happen, they make us happier for a while, but then we adjust our expectations and begin to take them for granted. Researchers call this hedonic adaptation and estimate that it takes, on average, about two years to adapt back to our regular happiness level after a major positive life event. In that time, we can go from being giddy in love to complaining that our partner won’t do the dishes, or from celebrating our new home to complaining about the utility bill.
Despite these limitations, there are things you can do that have been proven to increase your enjoyment of life. Some involve a change of mental focus. Others involve building certain types of relationships, and still others involve learning and practicing new habits and ways of behaving. To be happy in the long-term, we may have to stretch ourselves in the short-term. A willingness to try new things, or to see old things in new ways, may be a prerequisite for lasting happiness.
Below are some rules you can follow for a happier life:
- Focus on Lasting Meaning, Not Momentary Feelings
Things that make us feel good in the moment may actually end up being unhealthy for us, creating guilt, remorse and negative consequences down the road. All types of addictions fall into this category, as does mindless materialism, and grabbing things for ourselves without considering others or giving back. We may feel good or have a rush of excitement in the moment, but in the long run, we worsen our mood with debt, health problems, shame and guilt, or ruined relationships. Feeling good in the moment, and the next, and the next, is not much in our control; life has its inevitable mundane moments and ups and downs. On the other hand, if we focus on building a meaningful life in which we act authentically and are guided by our core values and the things that intrinsically inspire us, we can achieve more lasting happiness. The feeling may not be as intense as a momentary high, but it is deeper and more enduring. When we build authentic relationships and contribute to our family and community, we feel good about ourselves, even when we face financial or health problems.
- Build and Nurture a Support Network
Research has long shown that loving relationships with partners, friends, and family make us happier and healthier. Having loved ones we trust, who will support and comfort us through the hard times, makes us feel good about ourselves and more hopeful about the future. The good news is that you don’t need a village—just a few people who genuinely care about you can be enough. When it comes to social support, quality trumps quantity. So focus on deepening your relationships by supporting others and being more willing to be vulnerable with friends, if they are open to it. And spend less time with superficial friends unless you are doing meaningful things with them, such as volunteering or supporting each others’ careers. Remember also that building relationships takes time and you may have to face setbacks in the quest to find true friends or partners.
- Deliberately Savor the Good Times
Our brains have a natural negative bias. Survival is more important to our brains than happiness, leading to a natural threat focus. Good and peaceful moments are quickly forgotten or missed because we are worrying about some impending deadline or relationship problem. We need to practice every day to rewire our brains for happiness. This means deliberately focusing attention on the positive parts of our day, such as a morning hug from our spouse, a goal we accomplished, or the cute bird in the tree outside our window. Research also shows that we can extend our enjoyment of special times by deliberately thinking about them, taking photos and displaying them on our desks or in our homes, and talking about them to others. (Facebook and blogs are useful tools for this type of sharing.) Reading about others’ meaningful experiences can also give us a piece of the happiness pie, especially if they are people we care about.
- Find a Way to Feel In Control
A key piece of the happiness puzzle is autonomy. We all have a natural need to feel in control of our lives and decisions. If the circumstances of our lives are largely out of our control, we have a harder time feeling happy. The exception is if we are religious or spiritual. Feeling that a powerful and benevolent higher power has our best interests at heart and that everything happens for a good reason can allow the fear-focused parts of our brains to let go and relax. If we are not religious or spiritual, we can still feel a sense of control by trusting in our our support network, or in our own ability to adapt and learn new skills, or by seeing ourselves as competent. Focusing on past successes can help. It can also help to create new experiences of challenge and competency. This is the idea behind wilderness camps or empowerment weekends that end with a fire walk. But you don’t have to go to extremes to feel competent and in control—simply setting some specific, manageable goals and tracking your progress in accomplishing them can have the same effect.
- Indulge Your Curiosity
When we have a fixed idea of how things need to be in order for us to be happy, we actually limit our happiness. Similarly, if we keep doing the same things and never challenge ourselves, hedonic adaptation will kick in and we will find ourselves stuck in a rut. Our brains naturally seeks novelty and challenge. Happiness creeps up on us in unexpected moments when we find something new and interesting, or when we follow our interests and let things unfold. When I moved to Marin County, some of my happiest times were when I explored a new trail and found a grove of wildflowers or a mountain stream. Another way to create happy experiences is to look at familiar things in new ways—like the day I decided to take photos of the rustic mailboxes in my old neighborhood, or when I found interesting pictures of rusty and refurbished objects on Pinterest. Research by Todd Kashdan shows that curious people are happier and rate their lives as more meaningful.
- Hanson, R. (2013) Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science Of Contentment, Calm, And Confidence by Rick Hanson Crown Publishing Group
- Kashdan, T. (2009). Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-166118-1.
- Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The Myths of Happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. New York: Penguin Press.
- Greenberg, Melanie (2013). Is Money The Secret to Happiness? Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201209/is-money-the-secret-happiness
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