The experts offer four basic practices you can use to start being happier today.
We all seek happiness. This is universal and without exception. No matter how we choose to strive for happiness, it is nonetheless our goal. Also universal seems to be our difficulty in finding happiness. Even within our crazy world of capitalism, psychologists are optimistic that happiness is attainable. Positive psychology at its foundation tells us to be mindful of our moment-to-moment experience, to recognize the beauty of nature, and to be grateful for the positives in our lives.
Research also supports the idea that happiness increases in response to optimism, religious faith, acts of generosity, giving back to your community, and hobbies that produce the state of flow (a state of complete engagement in which time seems to stop.)
- Get Social: Spend Time with Others
Very happy people spend a lot of time socializing and the least amount of time alone. They tend to be more extroverted and agreeable than unhappy people. They credit their happiness to the maintenance of social relationships. Happy people report strong social ties, especially to their close family.
We’re social animals. We have a need to belong and to relate to others. Social relatedness is essential for our well-being and can be the tool you need to go from sadness to happiness. People who maintain close relationships and strong social ties cope better with stress and bereavement, job loss, illness, even rape. It makes sense then, that love is frequently mentioned as an ingredient missing in one’s life, causing unhappiness. All meaningful relationships (not just romantic relationships) increase life satisfaction and, according to many, are necessary if you want to be happy.
- Get in the Zone: Flow
According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., one measure of the good life is flow (a strong level of engagement.) Flow is what happens when you’re completely in the zone — when you’re engaged, immersed, and absorbed in an activity. Flow is when time seems to stop. Flow can be achieved in different ways; performing a physical task like exercising, raking leaves, mowing the grass, dancing, solving a complex problem, negotiating a business deal, or writing an eBook as a gift to show your appreciation to those that have supported you. Flow happens when we are using our strengths or doing something we’re good at or enjoy. There is a strong correlation between this kind of engagement and lasting levels of happiness.
- Get Purpose: Volunteer
Happy people consistently want to be part of a cause bigger than themselves. Having a purpose in life creates an environment for happiness, meaning, and fulfillment. Volunteering, caring for your family, supporting a charity, or working for moral causes are all very rewarding. It feels great to know we’re making a difference and that what we do matters and has a lasting impact.
We experience meaning when we feel as though who we are and what we do is in unity, when we feel connected with others, and when we engage in meaningful activities. An example of this would be the people that drove from all over the country to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy rebuild their homes. We increase our own happiness by connecting with something bigger than ourselves. Just trying to maximize wealth or material goods will not accomplish this.
Martin Seligman Ph.D. says “The importance of eudemonia, or true happiness and well-being, is the result of an active life governed by intrinsic meaning, self-sacrifice, and self-improvement.”
We’ve already covered the effects of money on happiness, but giving some away has different results. Regardless of what you’re buying, if you spend more money on others instead of yourself, you’ll feel happier. In a research experiment, people were asked to consider spending time with a nonprofit organization. Later they were asked to donate real money. Those who were first asked to think about spending time with the nonprofit ended up donating twice as much money vs. the group who of people were not asked to imagine time spent with the nonprofit. Even more interesting, this doubling effect was fueled by the belief that such volunteer work would make them happy. These findings suggest that once personal goals are aligned with creating meaning in the world, individuals become much, much happier.
We don’t need to make huge adjustments to our lives to feel like we’re making a difference. Little things like buying food for a homeless person or helping a neighbor clean up their yard can bring higher feelings of fulfillment and happiness. Kindness and fulfillment are linked. Random acts of kindness are great, but can get boring. Deeds that strengthen existing social ties have a higher return as you’re building upon an existing relationship.
- Find Meaning and Balance
A holistic and interconnected life is essential to an enduring level of happiness and meaning. One way to picture this is to think about where areas of your life overlap.
— Self (Mind/Body/Spirit)
During your life these areas are not equal in size and importance. They tend to overlap, and changes in one area affect another. We see when we ignore our area of “self” often other areas suffer, like work and family. We can’t focus on only one area and exclude others if we are to achieve optimal levels of happiness.
Thinking of our lives as containing overlapping areas creates a possibility of increasing our happiness. An example of this would be finding a way to create engagement and flow within your community leading to increased happiness and meaning at home, work, and in your interior life.
If we stopped chasing happiness and slowed down long enough to experience life in the present moment, maybe we’d find what we seek. Learning to savor life, practice gratitude, and being mindful all help to relieve stress, increase pleasure, increase enjoyment, and increase happiness. Tending to our day-to-day life satisfaction not only puts us in a position to be happier, but to make others happy as well.
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Photo: Flickr/Brandon O’Connor