Happiness: everyone wants it, yet relatively few seem to get enough of it, especially those in their early forties. (That’s about the time many of us start thinking, “Is this all there is?”)
Maybe that’s because approximately 50% of your “happiness set-point” is determined by personality traits that are largely hereditary. In short, half of how happy you feel is basically outside your control. (Bummer.)
But that also means 50% of your level of happiness is totally within your control: relationships, health, career, etc. So even if you’re genetically disposed to be somewhat gloomy, you can still do things to make yourself a lot happier.
1. Make good friends.
It’s easy to focus on building a professional network of partners, customers, employees, connections, etc, because there is (hopefully) a payoff. But there’s a definite payoff to making real (not just professional or social media) friends. Increasing your number of friends correlates to higher subjective wellbeing. In terms of how happy you feel, doubling your number of friends is like increasing your income by 50%. And if that’s not enough, people who don’t have strong social relationships are 50% less likely to survive at any given time than those who do. (That’s a scary thought for relative loners like me.) Make friends outside of work. Make friends at work. Make friends everywhere. But above all, make real friends. You’ll live a happier and longer life.
2. Actively express your thankfulness.
According to one study, couples that expressed gratitude in their interactions with each other resulted in increases in relationship connection and satisfaction the next day — both for the person expressing thankfulness and (no big surprise) for the person receiving it. (In fact the authors of the study said gratitude was like a “booster shot” for relationships.) Of course the same is true at work. Tell a coworker she did a great job and you both feel better about yourselves. Another easy method is to write down a few things you are grateful for every night. One study showed people who wrote down 5 things they were thankful for once a week were 25% happier after ten weeks. Happy people focus on what they have, not on what they don’t have. It’s motivating to want more in your career, relationships, bank account, etc. but thinking about what you already have, and expressing gratitude for it, will make you a lot happier. And will remind you that even if you still have huge dreams, you have already accomplished a lot… and should feel genuinely proud.
3. Actively pursue your goals.
Goals you don’t pursue aren’t goals, they’re dreams — and dreams only make you happy when you’re dreaming. Pursuing goals, though, does make you happy. According to David Niven, author of100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life, “People who could identify a goal they were pursuing (my italics) were 19% more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26% more likely to feel positive about themselves.” So be grateful for what you have… then actively try to achieve more. If you’re pursuing a huge goal, make sure that every time you take a small step closer to achieving it you pat yourself on the back. But don’t compare where you are now to where you someday hope to be. Compare where you are now to where you were a few days ago. Then you’ll get dozens of bite-sized chunks of fulfillment — and a never-ending supply of things to be thankful for.
4. Do what you excel at as often as you can.
You know the old cliché regarding the starving yet happy artist? Turns out it’s true: artists are considerably more satisfied with their work than non-artists — even though the pay tends to be considerably lower than in other skilled fields. Why? I’m no researcher, but clearly the more you enjoy what you do and the more fulfilled you feel by what you do the happier you will be. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Anchor says that when volunteers picked, “…one of their signature strengths and used it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed.” Of course it’s unreasonable to think you can abandon your career and simply do what you love. But you can find ways to do more of what you excel at.
Delegate. Outsource. Start to shift that you do into areas that allow you to bring more of your strengths to bear. If you’re a great trainer, find ways to train more people. If you’re a great salesperson, find ways to streamline your admin tasks and get in front of more customers. Everyone has at least a few things they do incredibly well. Find ways to do those things more often. You’ll be a lot happier. And probably a lot more successful — which should also make you feel a little happier. (And keep in mind you don’t have to start out loving what you do for it to make you happy.)
While giving is usually considered to be unselfish, giving can also be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver. Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. Intuitively we all know that since it always feels great to help someone who needs it. Not only is helping those in need fulfilling, it’s also a reminder of how comparatively fortunate we are… which is a nice reminder of how thankful we should be for what we already have. Plus receiving is something you cannot control. If you need help — or simply want help — you can’t make other people help you. But you can always control whetheryou help someone else. And that means you can always control, at least to a degree, how happy you are — because giving makes you happier. (Want to know if you’re a relatively giving person? Check this out.)
6. Don’t single-mindedly chase “stuff.”
Money does a lot of things; one of the most important is to give us choices. But after a certain point money doesn’t make people happier. After about $75,000 a year, money doesn’t “buy” more happiness.
As the authors of the linked study say, “Beyond $75,000… higher income is neither the road to experience happiness nor the road to relief of unhappiness or stress. Perhaps $75,000 is the threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.” And if you don’t buy that, here’s another take: “The materialistic drive and satisfaction with life are negatively related.” (Or in non-researcher’s terms, “Chasing possessions tends to make you less happy.”)
Think of it as the bigger house syndrome. You want a bigger house. You need a bigger house. (Not really, but it sure feels like you do.) So you buy it. Life is good… until a couple months later when your bigger house is now just your house. All too soon, new always becomes the new normal. “Things” only provide momentary bursts of happiness. To be happier, don’t chase as many things. Chase more experiences instead.
7. More than anything, live the life you want to live.
Bonnie Ware worked in palliative care, spending time with patients who had only a few months to live. Their most common regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” What other people think — especially people you don’t even know — doesn’t matter. What other people want you to do doesn’t mater. Your hopes, your dreams, your goals… live your life your way. Surround yourself with people who support and care not for the “you” they want you to be but for thereal you. So make the choices that are right for you. Say the things you really want to say to the people who most need to hear them. Express your feelings. Stop and smell a few roses. Make friends, and stay in touch with them. And most of all, realize that happiness is a choice. 50% of how happy you are lies within your control, so start doing more things that will make you happier.