Everyone wants to be happy—and for good reason. Happy people earn more money and are more likely to get married and stay married. They also attract more friends, are more productive at work, and even outlive their gloomier counterparts by about nine years.
So how do you become one of the happy people? It may be easier than you think. Experts agree that small acts can make a big difference when it comes to life satisfaction. Here are ten suggestions to get you started on the road to a more joyful life.
1. Choose to Be Happy (Nature vs. Nurture)
It turns out you can blame your parents for your unhappiness—genetically speaking, at least. Just as depression runs in families, some people are genetically predisposed to be happier than others.
In 1996, University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken published a landmark study examining the influence of genes on one’s happiness. He gathered information about 4,000 sets of twins (both identical and fraternal) born between 1936 and 1955, and concluded that genes determined a person’s happiness more than any other factor, including income, education, or social status. In fact, researchers agree that about 50 percent of your happiness baseline is genetic. (Life circumstances only account for about 10 percent.)
But what if jocularity doesn’t run in your blood? Despite nature’s role, there is still plenty you can do to nurture your own happiness, starting with consciously choosing to be happy and adopting a positive attitude.
John Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, uses the analogy of a man riding an elephant to describe the way we can control our attitude. The elephant represents the thoughts and feelings that drive our behavior; even though the man is not nearly as strong, he can still control the elephant—just as we can control our thoughts. What we see depends on what we look for. If we seek out the good, we’ll find it; if we search for the negative, we’ll find plenty of that, too.
Psychologists suggest that we change our thinking about happiness, viewing it as a state of being, not a thing to be obtained. Simply put, instead of pursuing happiness, you need to consciously choose it.
2. Spend Time with Friends and Family
Most researchers believe the largest single contributor to happiness (aside from genetics) is meaningful relationships with other people. The stronger the social network of friends and family, the happier a person is.
It turns out stepping outside your comfort zone to make new friends is definitely worth your while. In fact, studies show that a person with more than ten close friends is twice as likely to be very happy as someone with no close friends; those with five or more close friends are 50 percent more likely to rate themselves as such. And though people with more friends are happier, don’t forget why that may be: happier people attract friends much more easily than people who dwell on life’s disappointments.
In addition to friendship, marriage has also been proven to be an essential part of lasting happiness. In 2004, 42 percent of married Americans described themselves as “very happy,” compared to 23 percent of never-married people. Twenty percent of those who were widowed gave themselves the same rating, as did just 17 percent of divorced people. Married people were also six times more likely to say they were “very happy” than they were to describe themselves as “not too happy.”
“There is significant increase in happiness after people get married, but happiness also brings marriage,” says Arthur C. Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness and president of American
Enterprise Institute. “Happy people are more likely than unhappy people to get married in the first place.”
While marriage increases happiness, having children has been shown to actually lower a person’s happiness—at least for a short while.
“Kids are hard,” says Brooks. “But that’s part of our mission in life—to do hard things, to perfect ourselves. The Mormons are very clear on this. The fact that children give you hard times is part of the deal.”
Brooks goes on to say that while happiness may be lowered initially, parents find great meaning in providing unconditional love for children, and meaning is the highest form of happiness. “Unconditional love itself is a source of happiness,” he says. “Paradoxically, your happiness is raised by the fact that you are willing to have your happiness lowered through years of dirty diapers and tantrums. Kids are an important part of a happy lifestyle.”
A 2004 poll conducted by Time magazine supports this theory. When people were asked “What one thing in life has brought you the greatest happiness?”, the number-one answer was children, grandchildren, or both.
Volunteering also leads to happiness. “When you give something away that you value [like time or talents], you become the primary beneficiary,” Brooks says. In fact, volunteering once a week can raise your odds of being very happy by 50 percent. Similarly, blood donors are 50 percent more likely to be very happy than those who don’t give blood.
In one study, volunteer work produced more joy than anything except dancing. In another, volunteers were 42 percent more likely to be very happy than people who did not volunteer.
Likewise, a 2002 survey of 2,000 people conducted by the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index revealed that those who volunteer are the most satisfied people in the country, being the group happiest with their work, community ties, and spirituality. In addition to life satisfaction, recent research sponsored by the Economic & Social Research Council revealed that people who live in areas with high levels of volunteerism enjoy better health and experience fewer burglaries; students even earn higher grades.