New Year's Resolution: Get Happy

The best advice on how to get happy.

Posted Jan 05, 2009

While reporting on happiness for the January cover story, I surveyed some of PT's bloggers (and a few favorite past interviewees) to get their very best happiness advice.

I asked them two questions:
1. What is the best piece of advice you have for readers hoping to be happier this year?
2. What one change in the way we live as a culture could help us all to be happier?

I referred to a few of their thought-provoking responses in my article, but most didn't make it in, which is why I'd like to share them with you now:

Daisy Grewal, social psychologist and researcher at Stanford University

1. In the past few years there has been a growing movement that integrates Eastern philosophy and modern psychology. The Dalai Lama has been collaborating with psychologists and neuroscientists in America on the quest to understand what makes people happy. What I've found interesting about this movement is that modern psychologists are proving what Buddhism has been saying for over 2000 years. First, it is possible to become happier over time, but it takes concentrated focus and practice. People easily understand that they need to regularly exercise their bodies, but for some reason we think happiness is something that just happens to people. We don't see it as something that you have to work at. Just as your body needs constant maintenance so does your mind in order to work properly. Happiness (like health) might be seen as the end result of effectively taking care of and exercising your mind on a daily basis. The mind has a natural tendency to cling to unpleasant and negative events, but with concentrated effort people can cultivate positive attitudes.

2. As far as culture, it has struck me as strange how we obsessed we are with happiness itself. The sheer number of books on the topic attests to this. There is some cultural research (I'd have to look up the reference) showing that Americans expect happiness to keep on increasing as their life progresses while people from Asia expect their happiness levels to fluctuate. The latter is a more realistic perspective. So it could be that our obsession with happiness, ironically, is making many of us feel more miserable. I think it would be amazing if there was a cultural shift that embraced the positive value in negative emotions. Of course negative emotions can get out of hand and turn into mental illnesses. However, for the vast majority of people, negative emotions bring a richer dimension to their lives. Negative emotions (like physical pain) can alert people to the areas of their lives that aren't working and help them make positive changes. They also help you appreciate the more positive aspects of life. Furthermore, they can also help us detect the societal issues that may be contributing to widespread unhappiness. Research shows that most people who have experienced some kind of trauma or tragedy (which is the vast majority of people) report that the experience resulted in significant positive self-growth. A great example is Daniel Gilbert's work on why quadriplegics sometimes end up happier than lotto winners...

Sonja Lyubomirsky, social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside

1. The critical thing to remember is that becoming happier takes a great deal of effort, motivation, and commitment. When you undertake a diet or exercise program to lose weight, you can't just do it for 2 weeks and consider yourself "done" (even when the desired outcome is obtained). It's the same with happiness. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know what to do to make yourself a happier person. The best strategy will depend on the person (on so-called person-strategy "fit"), but it may be expressing your gratitude in a letter or weekly journal, visualizing the best possible future for yourself once a week, practicing spirituality or forgiveness, and doing acts of kindness on a regular basis, among many others. Becoming happier takes "work," but it may be the most rewarding and fun work you'll ever do.

2. My and my colleagues' work shows that, as a culture, we need to focus less on changing our life circumstances (and on attaining material things) in order to be happier and, instead, to focus more on our activities. Many people think that they will be happy only when X happens or only when they attain Y - for example, when they get that job they've always wanted, have a baby, move to that great city, or lose that weight. The problem is that human beings have a terrific ability to adapt (or get used to) any positive changes in their lives. So, after you've attained those changes in your life circumstances, you'll simply adapt to them, start taking them for granted, and will begin desiring even more. However, people adapt much more slowly to activities, because activities they are dynamic, often surprising, and generally attention-catching. So research suggests that we should all spend more time nurturing our relationships, going out and "doing" things, pursuing different goals, and focusing on enhancing our experiences instead of our possessions.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. student at Yale University

1. People ought to become more aware of the many options available to them in life. Those who feel powerless to control their environment tend to become more depressed. I believe everyone can increase their sense of control, and consequently their subjective state of happiness, by representing reality in new ways, and coming up with non-obvious, creative, and practical ways to make their lives more rewarding.

2. I believe that we'd all be happier if we stopped worrying about where we stand in relation to one another, and started caring for one another.

Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University

1. The research on gratitude and blessings seems impressive. Sit down with somebody you love once or twice a month and make a list of several good things that have happened to each of you recently.

2. We should bring up our children with more emphasis on self-control and less on self-esteem.

Chris Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan

1. Other people matter. So, good relationships should be a priority.

2. Follow the Golden Rule. There is a reason that a version of it exists in every religion.

Sam Sommers, social psychologist at Tufts University

One of the counterintuitive pieces of advice that comes from behavioral research is that sometimes the best bet for being happier is just not to worry so much about being happy. First of all, our intuitions about what will make us happy are often not as good as we think they are. Second, the active pursuit of happiness can have unexpected negative consequences. When we're too focused on feeling good about ourselves, we ignore negative feedback that may actually be constructive, we don't persevere on difficult tasks, and we seek out familiar experiences instead of new challenges. In short, we caught up in playing it safe to avoid failure instead of putting ourselves out there and taking risks to achieve new successes. In many respects, happiness may be best viewed as a pleasant side effect of engaging in meaningful relationships and pursuing personal or professional success as opposed to an ultimate objective in and of itself.

Emo Philips, comedian

1. Wake up and smell the coffin!
2. Cell phones are like a dog's nipples: you don't have to SHOUT into them.

Maxine Swann, fiction writer

1. I've been collecting strategies of happiness for a few years now. Curiosity is a key one. Others are action (versus brooding) and meditation, known to stimulate brain centers related to happiness.

2. We need to abandon the idea that another person makes us happy or unhappy. We alone are responsible for our happiness.

And finally, here's a fleshed out answer from Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at London School of Economics.

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