The Shortest Path to Happiness

Here at Optimize Your Life we are spending the month of April exploring the science behind happiness.

We’ve already explored how much of happiness is in our control and last week we learned how hedonic adaptation makes many of our happiness gains fleeting.

The conclusion of that article included a call to focus on the 40% of happiness that derives from our thoughts and actions rather than our stuff and situation.

But what if there was a way to focus on our thoughts and actions in a way that also fought back against hedonic adaptation?

Hedonic Adaptation

At its core, hedonic adaptation is basically the idea that we get used to things and take them for granted. As we add new stuff or money or victories to our lives, we quickly adjust and start desiring the next thing.

This causes our happiness from any new addition or milestone to be short lived.

One way to combat this, then, would be to avoid taking things for granted.

The key to this strategy is practicing gratitude.

Gratitude redirects our attention from the things we want to the things that are already great in our life. To use a cheesy turn of phrase, happiness is about wanting what we have rather than having what we want.

Appreciating Now

In Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin makes an observation:

 “One important lesson from my first happiness project was to recognize how happy I already am. As life goes wheeling along, I find it too easy to take my everyday happiness for granted, and to forget what really matters.”

I think this is something to which we can all relate. We tend to look back on the good old days, but did we appreciate how happy we were at the time? Probably not.

Maybe it is time to stop and remind ourselves that someday these will be the good old days.

The Power of Gratitude

Anything you can do to cultivate gratitude is worth it. Studies have found that even doing something simple, like writing down a few good things that happened during the day, drastically increases happiness.

Feeling grateful directly boosts your happiness. It also makes you more optimistic, which in turn makes you happier. On top of that it makes you feel a stronger connection with friends and relatives, which also makes you happier. Studies have even found that grateful people sleep better (and we’ve already learned that more sleep improves our mood).

Gratitude also decreases negative emotions. More gratitude means less depression, anxiety, loneliness, and envy. It also means fewer headaches, less acne and coughing, and more time exercising.

Practicing gratitude is an all-around boost to your life.

Savoring

A number of studies have been done on one particular aspect of gratitude: savoring.

Savoring is pretty much what you think – taking time to enjoy something rather than moving past it. Psychologists have defined savoring as any thoughts or behaviors that generate, intensify, or prolong enjoyment.

This can include something as simple as stopping to appreciate the weather when you step outside or taking a moment to think about how great your spouse is.

You can savor the present, the future, or the past, and each has different effects.

Savoring the present, or stopping to smell the roses so to speak, has been found to lead to decreased depression, stress, guilt, and shame.

Savoring the future, which can include imagining future happy events, leads people to be more optimistic.

Savoring the past, which generally means reminiscing about happy moments, causes a decrease in stress.

To get the most out of your savoring, make sure to consciously anticipate good things, appreciate them as they happen, and then revisit the memory from time to time.

Meditation

One way to build your ability to appreciate the present is through meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is all the rage in the entrepreneur community right now, and it is great for training yourself over the long term to be better at focusing on the present. (It also has a lot of other benefits.)

But you don’t need to be formal about meditation to get a happiness boost. You can just be mindful while doing normal activities.

Really focus on that piece of chocolate in your mouth. Block everything else out. Appreciate the taste and the texture. Take your time and let it melt in your mouth. Savor it.

Take an activity that you normally do on autopilot – brushing your teeth, taking a shower, walking to the train – and really focus on it. Think about every movement and how it feels. Focus on the sounds and smells. When your mind wanders, which it will, just bring it back and pick up where you left off.

Even picking one activity a day (or whenever you think of it) and performing it mindfully can go a long way towards helping you appreciate the present moment.

Keep the End in Mind

Another key is recognizing that everything ends.

According to Stanford’s Center on Longevity, this recognition is one of the reasons that people tend to get happier as they get older. When people start to face the fact that their time is limited, their perspectives shift and they become more present.

We don’t need to wait for old age to force a perspective shift. We can choose to actively cultivate it ourselves.

This concept doesn’t just apply to the life and death, either.

One study asked seniors to write about their college experience. One group was told to focus on the fact that they only had 1200 hours left. The other was told to focus on the fact that they still had 1/10 of the year left. The facts were the same, but the framing shifted people’s perspectives.

The first group took more time to savor their experiences and ended up measurably happier. The simple act of recognizing that college was almost over made them happier in their day to day college life.

Stoic Lessons

The ancient Stoic philosophers had a practice specifically aimed at developing this shift in mindset. The Stoics taught that we should regularly take time out of our day to imagine loss.

Really stop and think about what your life would be like if you lost your money. Your car. Your house. Your photographs.

Think about your abilities. What would life be like without your sight? Use of your limbs? Your ability to speak?

Think about your relationships. What if a friend or family member passed away unexpectedly? What if you drifted apart from cherished friends?

Taking the time to consider how we would feel if we lost the things in our life makes us appreciate even more the fact that we still have them.

Join the Conversation!

There are many different paths to gratitude. There are a lot of different tools that you can use to cultivate the skill of being thankful for the things that you have.

Find something that works for you and start working down the path towards a more grateful life.

You’ll be happy that you did.

8 thoughts on “The Shortest Path to Happiness”

  1. I struggle in the PF sphere with being mindful of enough. BUT I like to think I pretty much kill it in gratitude (on the interwebs and IRL). People tease me because I write thank you cards the same day that someone does something kind or gives us a gift. But it’s so therapeutic for me. Plus, who doesn’t love snail mail that isn’t a bill?! This is an awesome list to start my Monday, Matt!

  2. This is going to be a great week. I arise this Monday morning to read a great post from one of my favorite bloggers (you, Matt), and this great post references one of my favorite podcasters (Gretchen Rubin). Lot wisdom here, my friend. I especially like the “savoring” point. For roughly three years now I have given up bread. But on a rare occasion, I will indulge. Yes, I will have a hamburger with the bun. And when I do, it’s amazing. My happiness goes through the roof. Now, is that gratitude or what?

  3. Well put together list Matt and if you have seen my website much of what you have shared here is the foundation of my beliefs. Thanks for sharing this and I really hope your readers take the time to digest it and implement some portion of it into their lives.

  4. > Even picking one activity a day (or whenever you think of it) and performing it mindfully can go a long way towards helping you appreciate the present moment.

    I really like that idea of meditation/mindfulness. It’s a more approachable version than the traditional eyes-shut-monitoring-breathing version for me personally. That could be something as simple as washing dishes, walking my dog, or sweeping the house.

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