Break the happiness myth — that you’re either born happy or you’re not — with proven strategies for creating a life you love.
by Stacy Baker
Happy people have a reason to be in a good mood: They’re excelling in almost all areas of their lives from their relationships to their careers to their physical health. A new meta-analysis of more than 200 studies shows the emotion helps you create success in all areas by making you more effective and efficient at nearly everything you do.
“When you’re happy dopamine is released, which turns on all the learning centers in the brain so you’re better at figuring out how to achieve what you want,” explains Shawn Achor, researcher of the meta-analyis and author of The Happiness Advantage (Crown, 2010). “Positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we can process, making us more thoughtful, creative and open to new ideas.” He reports that optimistic salespeople sell 56 percent more than their colleagues and doctors who are in a good mood make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster than counterparts who are neutral or negative.
Contrary to popular belief, happiness isn’t a result of success, nor does it magically happen once you achieve your goals (otherwise you’d only feel joy the moment you reached a target rather than on the path toward your dreams). Instead, researchers like Achor define the emotion as, “the joy you feel while striving after our potential.” Yes, happiness, like life, is about the journey, not the destination. “We often wait to be happy until after we hit the goal — we postpone the emotion,” he explains. “When you put happiness before the achievement, you can raise your success bar and constantly refuel your ability to be successful.”
While this might seem like great news for all the positive people, what about those of us who weren’t born with a smile on our face? Turns out we’ve got a fighting chance at loving our lives, too. In her book, The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2008), researcher Sonya Lyubormirsky, PhD, explains we have the power to change as much as 40 percent of our happiness. In other words nearly half of our personal joy is based on the actions we take toward cultivating the emotion. Life circumstances — where we live, our age, occupations, wealth, beauty, marital status, etc. — are responsible for just 10 percent. Finally, our genetic makeup (how much we can blame on our relatives) accounts for half of our predisposition to bliss, or our set point.
This means, regardless of the events we’ve experienced or a family history of depression, we have the power to become happier. “We’ve found that very simple, life habits can change your baseline levels of happiness well above your genetic set-up,” Achor explains. “Even the happiest people go up and down around their baseline, but it starts from a higher level than depressed people.”
We’ve listed nine proven strategies below for improving your happiness “bottom line.” Lyubomirsky suggests trying one or two activities at a time to find the approach that works for you.
1.Un-stick yourself from a pessimistic point of view.Research has shown that the human brain is wired to create patterns, so if you constantly focus on worries, fears and problems, your brain gets “stuck” looking for the negative and has no resources left to seek the positive. In turn, this viewpoint becomes your life experience and sets you up to fail. The concept, called the Tetris Effect, was discovered by Achor. To counter this habit, we must teach our brains to “spot patterns of possibility,” which helps us more easily identify new opportunities, become more optimistic and naturally see the glass as half full.
Achor recommends spending just 45 seconds a day listing three things you’re grateful for —the key is making sure each one is new, different and specific each time you do the exercise. “This prevents your brain from developing patterns and trains it to seek the positive,” he explains. “In our study, after 21 days, people’s Tetris Effects changed and their levels of optimism increased in significantly measurable ways.” Even better, the impact on happiness levels lasted more than six months. Sharing your gratitude lessons aloud to someone you love can heighten the results.
2.Become aware of what’s around you. Most of us naturally search for certainty or consistency in our lives, but mindfulness is all about discovering what’s new, says Ellen Langer, PhD, Harvard professor and author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books, 2009).
“Notice new things or do things in novel ways that will make you feel engaged, and you’ll feel enlivened and flourished in life,” Langer advises. “By actively looking for something you didn’t expect about an experience or know about a person causes your attention to go there and creates mindfulness.” She says most people don’t do this because they live their lives out of habit, which prevents them from engaging in what’s around them. Mindfulness, however, energizes, excites and allows us to maximize our potential personally, professionally and socially. “It’s simple, but it works,” she says.“Walk out of the house and actively seek five new things, you’ll be happier. When you discover what’s different about a task at work, a friend or a lover, that task becomes more interesting, the friend more likeable, the lover more engaging and life more interesting.”
3. Use positive feelings to create even more joy. Learning to use healthy emotions — pleasure, gratitude, interest, hope, satisfaction and pride, for example — as resources in your happiness tool kit is key to creating a life you love, says Martin Seligman in his new book, Flourish (Free Press, 2011). The idea is that when you successfully identify how positive emotions impact your life, you can leverage them to increase your joy.
“Positive emotions shine a light on things that are going particularly well for us or that have the potential to do so—that is, situations that are congruent with our goals,” he explains. For example, if you admire a co-worker for her presentation skills, it means you value that ability. Consider asking her for coaching lessons or picking up a continuing education class from a community college. When you master the same talent, you’ll attach those positive feelings to yourself.
4. Stop lying about your age. A recent study from Yale University found that those who have a positive view of aging lived an average of seven years longer than those who dreaded the process, according to Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, in Being Happy (McGraw-Hill, 2011). Research also showed that thinking positively about aging gives people a better quality of life, stronger memories and more physically active lives. Our beliefs systems impact our happiness at a young age — if we’re pessimistic about growing older, we have little to look forward to and become more frustrated and unhappy as the years go by. “We enjoy greater mental and physical health when we spend our time pursuing a positive rather than avoiding a negative, especially when it comes to something as inescapable as age,” he explains. Seligman recommends turning around your attitude about growing old. List all the ways that you’ve improved with age — you’re a better friend, you’ve got more interests, your career is flourishing — and how you continue to build on your strengths.
5. Accomplish something that has value to you. Money really doesn’t buy happiness, according to Paul Wong, PhD, a practicing psychologist, author and expert in positive psychology. He asked hundreds of people from all walks of life to describe their dream lives, if money wasn’t an issue, and discovered that true happiness stems from achieving something meaningful. “Everyone has a unique gift, talent or the potential to do work that they think is important, whether it’s raising children, painting, helping others, growing a garden or building houses,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter how spectacular your calling or how famous it makes you — what you do just has to be intrinsically motivated.” Ignoring what matters to you sets you up for unhappiness now and regret later in life. Start today by identifying your passions and skill sets and begin working with them. “You might not be the best, but you’re developing your potential and utilizing your strengths, which is the key to creating a happier, more meaningful life,” he adds.
6. Break the cycle of overthinking. Ruminating about your life — obsessing over circumstances you can’t change or replaying them over and over in your mind — can sabotage your happiness and lead to depression, according to research from Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, a leading researcher on the subject and professor at Yale University. Studies also show this habit can zap creativity, lessen decision-making abilities and slow comprehension. The easiest way to stop is to catch yourself dwelling on an event — a negative exchange with a coworker at the office — and find a solution. Even if the situation already happened, refocusing on the present will help you determine what to do, if anything, and allow you to move on.
7. Trade daydreaming for life-streaming. Life-streaming, a technique developed by Achor, is journaling 2.0, a more evolved version designed to help you evaluate your life more positively and, ultimately, more happily. This is especially useful for people who judge their productivity and success by how much they checked off their To Do list that day.
“After 21 days, your brain automatically connects dots and finds the line of significant events that happen every day in your life, from your work to your commute to your relationships,” he explains. “Most people wake up and think about what tasks they need to do that day — when they go to sleep at night, they’re frustrated with what they didn’t complete. Life-streaming changes the trajectory of how you view what you’ve accomplished throughout your life.” Each night, think back over the last 24 hours and write about your most important event for two minutes. “Write about every detail so your brain relives the experience— your mind can’t tell the difference between visualization and what actually happened,” he explains. “It only takes reliving one significant moment for your brain to judge an entire day as meaningful.”
One of Achor’s studies found that participants were happier and less depressed at the one-month, three-month and six-month follow-ups, and remained happier and more optimistic even after stopping the journaling.
8. Create emotionally intimate relationships. Research shows when it comes to friendships, quality trumps quantity, says Wong. “One thousand Facebook friends will do less for your happiness than two or three intimate friends, family members, partners or a spouse,” he explains. “We all need a few confidants who hear us on a deeper level, allow us to share experiences, and become involved in our lives.” Achor agrees, adding that the correlation between happiness and friendships is higher than smoking and cancer. “It’s the greatest buffer against depression,” he explains. “We also found that social support is equally predicative of longevity as high blood pressure, weight and smoking.” A two-minute e-mail to a friend each day is enough to keep you connected and upbeat, plus lets you pay it forward by triggering her happiness at the same time.
9.Imagine an incredible future. InThe How of Happiness, Lyubomirsky describes her Best Possible Selves study, which asked participants to spend 20 minutes on several consecutive days visualizing and writing about their dream future. Rather than ruminate about an unrealistic fantasy life, they were asked to picture their deepest desires and dreams, along with a plan on how they would achieve them.
“‘Think about your ‘best possible self’ means that you imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could,” she explains in the book. “You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of your life dreams, and of your best potential.” The people who completed the activity experienced a significant increase in happiness levels, felt more in control of their future and were motivated to turn their goals into action.