Most people around the world agree that “being happy” is an important goal. So you would think that the smarter and more successful you are, the happier you would be, right?
As it turns out, the smart and successful aren’t that much happier than their not-so-smart or successful counterparts. For example, by most accounts, wealth doesn’t contribute to happiness, beyond a point. Fame, too, doesn’t bring lasting happiness. And if you thought becoming better educated will make you happier, think again.
In summarizing these results, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, concludes that it’s a myth to believe that happiness can be changed by changing your life circumstances—how well-educated you are, your net worth, etc. Life circumstances contribute to only about 10 percent of happiness.
So back to the conundrum: Why is it that the smart-and-successful aren’t as happy as they could—or should—be?
The answer, it turns out, is that the smart and successful commit some of the very “happiness sins” that everyone else does. Indeed, the smarter and more successful you are, the greater the chance that you will commit these sins.
One sin is devaluing happiness—not giving happiness much priority. Here’s a quick demonstration: Imagine that a genie appears before you and grants you three wishes. What wishes would you make? If happiness is one of your top goals, it should figure on your list. But chances are, it wouldn't. In studies I have conducted, only about 6 percent of participants would ask for happiness. This suggests that people forget about happiness as they go about their daily lives, which is in fact what we have found.
Another sin is chasing superiority—wanting to be better than others at something. This desire results in social comparisons, or the tendency to judge yourself relative to others, typically on wealth, power, attractiveness and fame. Findings show that such a tendency is one of the biggest happiness killers.
And then there is wanting to be the center of attention—the desperation for love and adulation. Again, findings show that this desire deflates your happiness level because it leads to either neediness or avoidance in relationships.
A fourth sin—and perhaps the most important—is the desire to control others or outcomes. Although such a desire can be a good thing up to a point, being overly controlling of others and outcomes is bound to lower happiness.
How can one overcome these so-called "happiness sins"?
Clearly, if happiness is important to you, you need to give it priority. You can do this by figuring out the answer to two important questions:
- What does happiness mean to me?
- What activities reliably make me happy?
For most of us, happiness is a feeling of joy or love, and we feel these emotions when we are among friends and family. Merely giving happiness a higher priority, findings show, will improve your happiness levels. Here are a few more things you could do:
1. Maintain a gratitude journal.
Simply taking note of three good things that happened to you each day for a mere 15 days ("A stranger smiled at me"; “I found a dollar bill on the way from the garage to the office”) can boost your happiness. It can even lift you out of depression. Why does expressing gratitude have this effect? A major reason is that it mitigates the desire for superiority. It makes you realize that other people—and luck—play an important role in your successes, thereby making you less prone to social comparisons.
2. Do random acts of kindness.
Being nice to others, it turns out, is a surprisingly reliable happiness-booster. You shouldn’t feel obligated—don’t volunteer for the soup kitchen if waking up at 5 a.m. to work in a hot kitchen isn’t your cup of tea. But if you can figure out a way to have fun (paying the toll for the car behind you, leaving a box of chocolate outside your neighbor’s house) while making others happy—again, it doesn’t have to be anything big—you’ll almost certainly enjoy an increase in happiness. How? By making you develop stronger, more intimate, and meaningful bonds with others, thereby enabling you to experience the sense of connection with others that you seek.
3. Gain “internal control.”
Make it your goal to keep the keys to your happiness in your own two hands. This means never blaming others, or circumstances, for your unhappiness. There are several ways to gain internal control, but one of the most powerful—and seemingly non-obvious—ways is to lead a healthier lifestyle. This involves three things—eating right, moving more, and sleeping better. Leading a healthier lifestyle makes you feel good from the inside out, making it easier to exercise internal control.
As it turns out, even minor adjustments to your lifestyle—starting your meals with the healthiest items, installing a pedometer app on your smartphone, or not checking email after 9 p.m.—can significantly increase the amount of internal control you have. And the greater the internal control you have, the less external control you will seek.
If you can put even just one or two of these practices in place, you’ll experience a significant boost in happiness levels.
Check out my website for “all things happiness."
This article has been adapted from TIME, where it originally appeared on April 26th, 2016.
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