We know tons of money doesn’t do it. Thank goodness. But at a time when stress, tech, and the pace of modern life are slowly stealing our happiness, as new research shows, the need to discover the sources of genuine bliss is more urgent than ever
Photography Matt Hawthorne
Of course you want to be happy. Who doesn’t? Even if you consider yourself to be reasonably happy already, odds are you wouldn’t mind being more so. “It’s a natural inclination, part of human nature,” says Tal Ben- Shahar, a positive-psychology lecturer and the author of Choose the Life You Want.
The demands of our busy, stressful lives and worries about finances are contributing to our malaise, experts say. “But even more so is our over-reliance on and overuse of technology,” Tal explains. “The number one predictor of happiness is the amount of time we spend with people who care about us, and social media and the Internet increasingly take us away from that. Technology in moderation is great, but having 1,000 Facebook friends is still no substitute for one really good friend who’s there for you.”
It’s no wonder, then, that we’re devoting time, energy, and money to pursuits we hope will land us in Pharrell Williams’ “room without a roof”. Not only does feeling good feel, well, good, it also bestows an unlimited buffet of benefits on those who experience it, compelling research shows. Happy people live longer and are healthier than not-sohappy people. They deal with stress better and have better relationships and marriages. And they tend to make more money.
That’s why happiness experts have been searching for ways to apply all the information about the lifestyles of the happy to everyone else, even those who weren’t dealt the best hand to begin with. Because while genetics plays a big role in your happiness, about 40 per cent of it is influenced by the activities you choose and how you respond to situations in your life.
“The more you think your life is meaningful, that it has purpose and value, the happier you’ll be.”
WHAT REAL HAPPINESS LOOKS LIKE
To be happy, you need to know what happiness is – and, just as important, what it’s not, says Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri in the US, who studies goals and personal well-being. “People tend to confuse happiness with possible causes of happiness,” Kennon notes. “Take the saying ‘Happiness is a warm puppy’. Getting a warm puppy might make you happy – or it might not,” he says. Happiness is not the puppy itself but the sustained lifeis- good feeling that you hope the puppy will elicit in you.
Put another way, happiness is a combination of overall life satisfaction and having more positive emotions than negative ones. To increase your happiness, Kennon says, you want to fill your hours with activities and interactions that contribute to these feelings, and as much as possible, purge your life of the stuff that detracts from them. That’s why the puppy is beside the point. What’s important is the enjoyment of walking the puppy, the feeling of competence you get when you train him, or the sense of belonging that comes from hanging out at the dog park with like-minded puppy lovers. All of this contributes to a sense that life is worth living.
Happiness is also not the initial elation that comes with a positive event, such as getting a new job, buying a house, or reaching a weight-loss goal. “These things are a temporary high,” Tal says, and your happiness level goes back to normal in a month or two. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation, and it means that as you quickly get used to the new state of affairs, it makes you less happy than it did at first. “There’s a very strong belief that the more successful you become, the happier you’ll be,” Tal says. “There’s actually no such cause and effect.” He chalks up this belief in part to the natural human instinct we have to accumulate and hoard, a holdover from our cavewoman days. Even when we have what we need, we believe more will make us happier. And while working towards goals such as a high-level job is definitely a good thing, Kennon says, the achievement of the job is not what brings happiness – it’s what you do with the job and the satisfaction you glean while in pursuit of it. “It’s a cliche but it’s true: Happiness is a journey, not a destination,” he says. What you need is not to “get to” a goal to be happy but to continually pepper your life with satisfying experiences.
Nor is real happiness a sense of perpetual perkiness. “Happiness means that you have an overall feeling that your life is going well; it doesn’t mean you never have a bad day,” says Kristin Layous, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University in the US, who has co-authored several papers on things you can do to feel happier. “We’re not talking about people who are overly chipper; sometimes the happiest people are not going around with the hugest smiles. Positive emotions include things like gratitude or sitting contentedly with your cup of tea,” she explains. And while feelings of pleasure can contribute to happiness, that’s most likely to be true if the activity that gave you those warm feelings holds special meaning for you. Kennon agrees. He says: “The more you think your life is meaningful, that it has purpose and value, the happier you’ll be.”
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FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE
Fortunately, there are plenty of concrete and easy ways to increase happiness. Kristin and others have done a lot of research into what they call positive activity interventions, or PAIs, and people who have practised them tend to see an uptick in their overall contentment. Modelled on the habits of the naturally happy, they include things like writing letters to yourself and other people outlining what you’re grateful for; mentally counting your blessings; performing acts of kindness; doing things that reinforce your values (such as helping others, if you feel strongly that community involvement is part of what makes you a decent person); and thinking about how good you feel about people in your life. One meta-analysis found that these activities significantly increase happiness: 64 per cent of the people who performed PAIs reported a boost in wellbeing, as opposed to only 36 per cent of the people who didn’t do them .
PAIs work because they create opportunities for positive emotions that might not arise on their own. “They help us take the positive events in our lives and appreciate and notice them,” Kristin explains. “That’s what happy people do – they savour the good stuff and think about things optimistically.” PAIs are the way the rest of us can learn to do the same thing.
These little bliss hits can contribute to an upward spiral of happiness. Say that a couple of days a month, you tutor children who need help reading, because you like children and you feel it’s important to give back. The kids’ teachers and parents appreciate your help, and you feel a sense of helping to make the world a better place. You discover you really have a way with children, which increases your sense of self-worth, something your go-nowhere job has been eating away at. Maybe you’re not stuck! Your happy feelings motivate you to get a teaching degree, and at the desk next to you in grad school you meet the love of your life. This may seem oversimplified, but it shows how much PAIs can impact your outlook in the long and short term , Kristin says.
There is such a thing as overdoing PAIs, although researchers are still figuring out the correct “dosage”. One of Kennon’s studies found that participants who counted their blessings only once a week for six weeks saw a bigger jump in their well-being than those who did it three times a week, suggesting that it can become more of a drag than a positive experience if you have to do it too often. It also has to be a PAI that you genuinely enjoy. “Really shy people might not want to perform acts of kindness for strangers, like buying a cup of coffee for the person behind them in line,” Kristin says, “because the stress of being social might outweigh the joy in making someone else happy.”
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YOU CAN ALSO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN PAIS – SOME ACTIVITIES THAT FEEL RIGHT FOR YOU, EXPERTS SAY. WHICHEVER PAIS YOU CHOOSE TO DO, HERE ARE SOME TIPS ON HOW TO DO THEM IN ORDER TO GET THE BIGGEST HAPPINESS BUMP.
Mix it up Write someone a thank-you note one day; notice good things that happen to you on another. Just as people tend to adapt to life changes, repeatedly using the same method to boost your happiness will probably cause it to stop working.
Do it voluntarily Your mum or even your inner critic telling you that you “should” count your blessings so that you realise how lucky you are will make it feel like work. Pick a PAI that suits your personality and decide on your own to do it.
Put in a little effort In one of Kristin’s studies, people who invested more time and energy in writing a gratitude letter saw a bigger happiness lift. Instead of quickly jotting down a few sentences, take 20 minutes and really put some thought into what you want to say.
Make it a habit Think of PAIs as you would yoga practice or a workout schedule. “If you went to the gym one time, you wouldn’t expect to maintain your fitness level over weeks and weeks,” Kristin says. “Likewise, you have to continue doing PAIs. Over time, they’ll become second nature.”
Keep it feeling new Even though the happiness that came from buying that new iPhone didn’t last, if you can use it in meaningful ways – say, sharing photos with friends – you can stave off hedonic adaptation, Kennon says. The same goes for any positive change you make. If you move to California because you want to be able to surf more, and that stops making you as happy as it used to, find a new beach or join a surfing group to make more of the experience. Kennon says: “Keep interacting with what makes you happy on a daily basis, changing it up as needed, and it will continue to give you a positive experience.”