10 Principles to Maximize Happiness

Want happiness in your life? Attend to these 10 important strategies.

Posted Mar 14, 2016

used with permission by pixabay.com
Source: used with permission by pixabay.com

Here at Santa Clara University, I was recently asked to give a lunch time talk to the university community about happiness. Not surprisingly the room was packed with people wanting to be happier. While we have a pretty happy campus with a high degree of job satisfaction as well as very high rates of faculty, staff, and student retention, everyone wants to find ways to be happier in life, right?  

We all strive for happiness. But unfortunately we too often look in the wrong direction. Money, possessions, and status are often the paths that people take to take in search of happiness. We all likely know in our hearts that these pursuits may seem on the surface to supply happiness but they really are not ultimately satisfying at all. Quality empirical research on happiness has consistently found that these popular strategies to secure happiness simply do not work in the long run. In fact, once basic needs such as food, housing, clothing, and so forth are met, more resources are not associated with proportionally higher levels of happiness. Additionally, wealthy countries (such as the USA) do not have, on average, happier people than many less wealthy countries as long as basic needs are met. There has been much written on this topic and there are some terrific and thoughtful books and articles to read to learn more. I also have blogged about this issue on this Psychology Today site in the past as well. 

After reviewing the research literature as well as reflecting on my own work with psychotherapy patients and teaching college students for over 30 years, I’d like to suggest being mindful of the following 10 important principles to support your efforts to be happier. If you keep these 10 concepts in mind and try to use them in your life, your chances of being happier are greatly enhanced.

1. Gratitude: Gratitude is the attitude you want to nurture. Research has found that just keeping a list of the things that you are grateful for can improve your mood, well-being, and happiness. While it is often easy to complain about things or take so many things for granted, focus on what you are grateful for on a daily basis and see how your mood and spirits change for the better over time (For more on gratitude see here. Also, check out the work of Professor Bob Emmons at UC Davis). 

2. Optimism: Optimism, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty, also has a great deal of research support as a predictor of well-being, happiness, and even both mental and physical health outcomes. An optimistic style has been found to be associated with a wide range of mental and physical health benefits and even with longevity. Without trying to be in denial about problems, try to see the upside of things and circumstances to improve your happiness (For more on this topic check out the research of Professor Marty Seligman at U. Penn). 

3. Social Comparisons: We can’t help ourselves. We constantly compare ourselves with others. We engage in both upward and downward comparisons watching those who seem to have much more than we do as well as observing those who have much less than we do. Based on these observations, we tend to make critical judgments about our own happiness, well-being, security, intelligence, attractiveness, success, and so forth. If we want to be happier we need to be hyper-vigilant about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others and to work hard to avoid doing so.  For more thoughts on social comparisons, see here. Also, see here

4. Mindfulness: Being present and in the moment is also an important and research based approach to improving happiness. We tend to be constantly thinking about things in our past or worrying about the future. It is our nature to do so. Working on a more mindful and present approach to life enhances our well-being and improves our happiness (For more reflections on mindfulness see here. There is lots of research in this area and you might review the work of Professor Jon Kabit-Zinn at U.Mass). 

5. Forgiveness: Letting go of anger and resentment towards others is critical if we want to be happier. Sure, we likely have plenty of people who have harmed us in ways that are hard to accept. We have likely been wronged by many people in life and perhaps we have also wronged others as well. Working on forgiveness of both self and others is needed to improve our well-being and happiness. Easy to say and hard to do but if we can move in this direction we’ll likely notice a marked improvement in our happiness levels (See more reflections on forgiveness here. Also check out the work of Professor Everett Worthington at Virginia Commonwealth). 

6. Compassion: Compassion toward self and others is also an important ingredient for happiness. Being attentive to the needs and feelings of others, trying to put yourself in their shoes, and acting accordingly has been found to increase personal happiness and well-being. This is often surprising since our efforts to be happy often are driven by selfish motives and yet when we are more selfless we tend to be happier (See more reflections on compassion and happiness here. For more on compassion checkout out my newly released edited book on this topic here). 

7. Stress Management: Managing stress is important for everyone. While we can’t always control stressful life events such as a life threatening illness or the loss of an important relationship, we can respond to the stressors of life with good management tools. These include our attitudes, securing social support, managing our time better, declining requests and invitations that we don’t want to accept, and other self-care strategies that can all help us to be less stressed out and thus happier.

8. Social Support: Our individualistic culture can often make securing social support difficult. We often don’t want to burden others or rely on others for help. Having an important social support network of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family is critical to happiness and well–being. This is especially true for men who tend not to nurture satisfying social networks in ways that women do.

9. Reasonable Expectations: So often we expect too much from not only ourselves but from others. People disappoint us and we disappoint ourselves. We must work to maintain reasonable expectations of everyone as well as our life circumstances in order to maximize our happiness and life satisfaction. If you expect perfection from yourself, others, and from life in general you will guarantee a lifetime of unhappiness and disappointment (For more on happiness expectations see here).

10. Care for Body and Soul: We often neglect our physical and spiritual well-being just trying to get through our day. Exercise, spiritual practices, and social support are typically the first to go when we get busy and stressed. It is understandable but we need to attend to these matters especially when we are busy, stressed, or challenged in life. Being thoughtful about our physical and spiritual needs also result in a higher sense of well-being and happiness (For more on the psychology of exercise see here. Also, see here too). 

Attending to these 10 important principles will improve happiness and well-being. Easier said than done of course, but if we really want to be happy then we need to avoid the trap of working hard for money, status, and possessions and direct our attention to these 10 important principles. Try it for a while and see how you do.

So, what do you think?

Copyright 2016 by Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

Check out my webpage at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

For more reading, check out the following new books and my previous blog post too: 

The Myth of Happiness  by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The How of Happiness   by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Happiness Project   by Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Track     by Emma Seppala