How to Be Happier

For the last couple weeks we’ve been revisiting the themes that we’ve spent 2018 exploring.

We have already reviewed what we learned about life planning, personal finance basics, and time management and productivity.

Today we’re getting into the good stuff. Today we learn about happiness.

It’s All About Happiness

Ultimately, everything else that we do is because we want a happier life.

We want to afford better things and bigger homes because we think they’ll make us happy.

We want to retire early because we think having more control of our time will make us happier.

We want to get more done and accomplish more because we think we’ll be happier. Or maybe because we hope we will be more successful which will make us happier.

If all of this is just so that we can be happier, why not cut to the chase? Let’s just study happiness directly.

The Science of Happiness

Understanding happiness requires understanding how much of happiness is in our control and what we can do to affect it.

The bad news is that a full 50% of happiness is genetic. You’re either born with it or you’re not. If you are a naturally sulky person you can write a strongly worded letter to your parents.

The good news is that a full 50% of happiness is not genetic! That’s a lot that we can work with.

10% is situational. Everything about your situation combines to form this little chunk of your happiness. Whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, where you live, whether you have a job, what you look like. All of these factors, and many more, combine to form only one tenth of your happiness.

The remaining 40% of your happiness is based on factors that you have much more control over. This is in what we think and what we do on a day-to-day basis. If we can adjust our actions and our mindsets we can boost our happiness a great deal through simple changes.

Hedonic Adaptation

Before diving into that, though, let’s take a look at how we can impact the 10% of our happiness based around situational factors.

One way to address this is to be constantly improving our situation. That’s not all that practical, though. So instead, let’s look at hedonic adaptation.

Humans are built for survival rather than happiness. We spent millennia just trying to survive from one generation to the next. The quest for happiness is a much more recent addition.

This means that we are designed to think that reaching the next goal will make us happy. This keeps us moving and motivated to achieve. It also means that once we hit that goal we’re designed to immediately want to hit a new goal.

This is the big secret to the happiness caused by situational factors. An improvement in our situation brings a short-term boost to our happiness. That boost wears off as we get used to that improvement and start looking for the next one.

This means that buying new stuff won’t make you happy over the long term. Neither will your house. Neither will any other single change to your life situation.

Instead, we need to recognize that our instincts are trying to trick us and we need to work to adjust our mindset.

The Shortest Path to Happiness

The mindset adjustment that fights off hedonic adaptation is a focus on gratitude.

Gratitude fights hedonic adaptation by making sure that you don’t take the things you have in your life for granted. If you never allow yourself to lose sight of how great things are, you won’t get lost in the constant quest to reach the next goal.

In addition to fighting off hedonic adaptation and helping us improve that 10% of our happiness, gratitude also affects a number of factors in the 40% realm.

For one, this mindset shift directly improves our happiness. It also leads to increased optimism, which is another way to boost your happiness. On top of that, it makes you feel a stronger connection with friends and family, which also makes you happier.

Studies have also found that practicing gratitude leads to better sleep, less anxiety, decreased loneliness, and less envy.

It’s worth setting aside some time every day and thinking about the things that you are grateful for.

Finding Flow

Following our research on gratitude, we learned about why people are happier at work.

No, really.

Studies find that people expect to be happier at home than work, but the opposite is actually true. The difference is that at home they’re more likely to be engaged in “leisure” while they’re more likely to be working on a project of some sort at work.

We’re happier when we’re actively working on something than when we’re passively entertained, despite what our instincts may tell us.

The happiest we get while working is when we hit a state of flow. Flow is the feeling that you get when you are so absorbed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time.

To hit flow you need to be doing something that is a good balance between skill and challenge. If it is too easy you’ll get bored. Too hard, you’ll get frustrated. Right in the middle and you’ll hit flow, grow, learn, overcome challenges at just the right level, and build self-confidence in your abilities.

By understanding this we can use these guidelines to design happiness-boosting projects for ourselves at home. If we can learn new skills, challenge ourselves, and never stop learning, we can be happier at home.

Chasing Goals

While flow is one of the biggest reasons that people tend to be happier at work, there are other reasons as well.

One of these is that work forces us to set and pursue goals.

As we learned earlier, hitting a goal gives us a short term happiness boost. However, actively pursuing goals increase our happiness more sustainably. The joy is in the striving.

Another factor is that work tends to include an atmosphere of growth. This can be minimal at some jobs, but it is still usually greater than the growth we experience at home.

We can use these lessons to boost our happiness at home by setting and pursuing goals and making sure that we have sources of growth in our life outside of work.

The Bright Side

One mindset shift that is a great boost to happiness is adopting an optimistic outlook.

Studies show that happy people and unhappy people experience the same range of events. The difference is in how we view and respond to these events.

Happiness is in our heads. It isn’t what happens to us; it is how we interpret and respond to what happens to us. Studies have found that it is easier to predict a person’s happiness by how optimistic they are than by what they’ve been through in their life.

If you’re not convinced, check the research. Optimists are happier than the rest of us. They’re also better at coping with stress, difficulty, and tragedy.

Not an optimist? You can become one!

Slowly and gradually, but you can get there. Catch yourself in negative thoughts and challenge them. Look for silver linings. Try to find the positive in negative events.

Eventually you will find that your mindset is shifting and optimism will come more naturally to you.

The Meaning of Life

We wrapped our month on happiness research by learning about the meaning of life. Just a little light reading to close out the month.

The interesting thing is that feeling that you have meaning in your life makes you happier, regardless of what that meaning is.

You could find meaning in the work that you do. The important thing, as far as happiness is concerned, is how you view your work rather than what it is. It doesn’t matter how objectively important the work is. If you view it as a calling that provides a sense of meaning to your life, you will be happier.

Religion provides meaning for a lot of people for obvious reasons. Study after study shows that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people.

Again, though, it doesn’t matter what religion you belong to or how conservative or liberal the doctrine. You don’t get a happiness boost from finding the one true religion. You get a happiness boost from feeling that there is something in your life that provides meaning to your existence.

Ultimately, the important thing is finding some source of meaning. Whether it comes from work that you do, beliefs that you hold, people that you treasure, or somewhere else entirely, meaning will help us reach a new level of happy.

Join the Conversation!

What do you think about happiness? Any big things that I missed? Anything that strikes you as odd? Let us know in the comments!

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