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.
4. Count Your Blessings
Researchers agree that one of the best ways to keep a positive attitude is to focus on your blessings. Robert Emmons—a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who has done groundbreaking research on gratitude—says people who are grateful enjoy higher levels of happiness, optimism, joy, and love. Conversely, those who are ungrateful experience feelings of loneliness, depression, and lack of meaning in life.
So what is the best way to express your gratitude? Experts have discovered several effective exercises, ranging from keeping a gratitude journal to writing a thank-you letter to someone deserving. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, suggests writing down three blessings each day. In a study where people performed this exercise, 94 percent of severely depressed people became less depressed, and 92 percent became happier, with an average mood improvement of 50 percent in just over two weeks.
5. Buy Some Happiness
The relationship between money and happiness is a complicated one. Many people think that more money guarantees more life satisfaction, but studies show that once a person’s basic needs are taken care of, more money doesn’t necessarily mean more joy.
Consider the following data: In 1972, when the average salary was equivalent to about $25,000 by today’s standards, 30 percent of Americans rated themselves as “very happy.” Fast forward three decades and the percentage of very happy Americans in 2004 remained nearly stagnant, hovering at just 31 percent, despite the fact that the average annual income had jumped to $38,000.
“Most people fool themselves into thinking they need more money than they actually do,” says Brooks. “At about age 34, a lot of [people] realize what they do to make a living doesn’t have anything to do with their passion. We make superficial choices. That’s the tragedy of materialism—it holds us back from our most creative nature—to create value, to serve others. The data is very clear on this one.”
Even if you do get the big raise you’ve been dreaming of, odds are the happiness that comes from it will be short lived. “Humans tend to adapt to their circumstances very quickly,” Brooks says. “Almost immediately the increased income becomes the new ‘normal.’ It takes just three months for the happiness of the salary increase to wear off. And you’ll get used to the big fancy house within six months.”
Interestingly, studies show that regardless of what income level people attain, they still usually report that their “required income” is about 40 percent higher than what they are currently earning.
The good news is that money can buy happiness—as long as you give it away to someone in need.
“Giving away money will bring you happiness,” Brooks says. “People who give are richer, happier, and healthier. The data is undeniable. Happier people give more, and people who give are happier and earn more money.”
Experiments spearheaded by Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, measured how happy people felt after either spending money on themselves, or giving money to prosocial causes, such as paying for someone’s meal or donating to charity. One experiment measured the change in happiness of workers after they spent a bonus of between $3,000 and $8,000. Those who spent more of their bonus on others were happier. In fact, those who spent one-third of their windfall on others experienced a 20 percent increase in happiness compared to those who spent nothing on prosocial causes.
In another experiment, college students were given a small amount of money with instructions to spend it that same day. One half of the group was told to spend the money on themselves, and the other half was told to spend it on someone else. The study concluded that students who spent the money on others felt significantly happier.
Other studies, cited in Brooks’ book, Gross National Happiness, show that people who donate are less likely than nongivers to suffer from depression—people who donated each year were 34 percent less likely than nongivers to say they had felt “so sad nothing could cheer [them] up” in the past month; they were also 68 percent less likely to have felt hopeless.
6. Fake It Till You Make It
“Feelings follow actions,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. Rubin, who spent a year testing a slew of happiness theories from the Buddha to Oprah, has first-hand knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. “You need to act the way you want to feel. It’s crazy how effective it is.”
There is plenty of data to support Rubin’s finding. Research shows that simply going through the act of smiling actually makes you happier. In one study, people who were instructed to smile while watching cartoons rated them to be funnier than other subjects who were told to furrow their eyebrows.
But why is it so effective? When you feel depressed, your brain sends signals to your facial muscles, telling them that you’re sad; the face responds by adopting an unhappy expression, in turn signaling the brain that you’re in a miserable mood. Consciously choosing to change your facial expression so it doesn’t reflect your negative emotions is one way to change the message to the brain, which will then respond by changing your mood.
Another sure-fire way to boost your mood is to laugh out loud—whether you find something funny or not. Laughing releases endorphins, oxygenates the blood stream, and strengthens abdominal muscles. If you don’t want to laugh alone, you can even attend laughter yoga classes, where people get together and do laughing exercises. Practiced in 53 countries around the world, laughter yoga is now a growing trend in the U.S. as well.
7. Settle for Good Enough
Generally, there are two types of people: satisficers and maximizers. Satisficers are those who are happy once they have found a certain level of quality that meets their criteria. Maximizers, on the other hand, insist on having the best of everything and are more prone to get overwhelmed by endless choices, exploring every possibility. And while maximizers are usually the ones who end up with the best jobs and the best cars, they also tend to be more stressed and unhappier in the long run.
“Past a certain point, choice overwhelms us,” Brooks says. “The costs of processing all the information outweigh the gains from having more options.”
That’s not to say you should never insist on the best. Sometimes you should—but only when it really counts. Finding the best health care for your child is one thing. Choosing a paint color or a cell phone is another. Such efforts can drain countless hours from your life that you could be investing in more important things, like strengthening relationships with family and friends.
8. Try New Things
Humans are generally creatures of habit. But adding a new activity to your routine can pay big dividends.
Psychologist Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University reviewed 500 diaries, covering time frames from three months to four years, and examined 30,000 memories of events. He found that people who participate in a wide variety of experiences are more likely to enjoy lasting happiness. Conversely, those who stick to the status quo tend to struggle with minimizing negative feelings.
“Novelty and challenge make people happier,” says Gretchen Rubin. “If you can find ways to try new things, it’s a huge source of gratification.” She also says not to worry if you’re not very good at something. “I often remind myself to enjoy the fun of failure.”
According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, applying yourself to something challenging can eventually lead to what he calls a state of “flow”—a balance between difficulty and pleasure that allows you to get completely absorbed in what you’re doing; that flow leads to increased happiness.
So go ahead—invest in the voice lessons, or sign up for that pottery class you’ve been thinking about.
9. Utilize Your Strengths
Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, have identified 24 personality strengths, or “signature strengths.” The two theorize that when you use these strengths at work, in your personal life, and in the service of others, you can increase your happiness dramatically.
But how do you know what your signature strengths are? Yours are those that energize and uplift you, the ones you yearn to put into action.
Visit viacharacter.org to take a survey and learn which of the following 24 signature strengths you possess (although you can be capable of any of them with enough effort): 1) appreciation of beauty and excellence; 2) bravery and valor; 3) capacity to love and be loved; 4) caution, prudence, and discretion; 5) citizenship, teamwork, and loyalty; 6) creativity, ingenuity, and originality; 7) curiosity and interest in the world; 8) fairness, equity, and justice; 9) forgiveness and mercy; 10) gratitude; 11) honesty, authenticity, and genuineness; 12) hope, optimism, and future-mindedness; 13) humor and playfulness; 14) industry, diligence, and perseverance; 15) judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness; 16) kindness and generosity; 17) leadership; 18) love of learning; 19) modesty and humility; 20) perspective (wisdom); 21) self-control and self-regulation; 22) social intelligence; 23) spirituality, sense of purpose, and faith; and 24) zest, enthusiasm, and energy.
10. Go to Bed Angry
Contrary to what we’ve been told for years, bottling up anger, frustration, or sadness may actually be a better option than venting every negative emotion we experience—findings reveal that expressing emotion actually magnifies the feeling. So just as expressing gratitude brings more happiness and a variety of positive emotions, venting anger and frustration will only intensify what you were already feeling.
“Slamming doors or throwing pillows only stokes your anger,” says Rubin. “Catharsis, the theory that if you act out in a rage you’ll somehow feel better, is poppycock. Managing anger is a big issue for me, but if I can keep a lid on it, a lot of times it will just go away.”
In the end, happiness is something that is well within our reach. And when we become happier, we not only improve our lives, but the lives of others. After all, happy people are more likely to change the world for the better. So what are you waiting for? Start getting happy today!