By Ray Williams
November 25, 2020
“The joys of loves and triumphs and the sorrows of losses and humiliations fade with time.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky
Did you know what over 45,000,000 people search for happiness on GOOGLE monthly? And that’s just on the main search engine. This number could potentially be tripled if you take into consideration that happiness seekers might word the phrase differently. Some may search for ways to be happy or how to be happier. Others may take a different approach and look for ways to snap out of a bad mood or how to overcome the blues. Few subjects have been researched as the question of whether wealth leads to greater happiness. A Google search of happiness-wealth yields more than 220 million results.
Happiness is a fuzzy concept . Some related concepts include well-being, quality of life, flourishing and contentment. In psychology, happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being which can be defined by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense. Happy mental states may reflect judgements by a person about their overall well-being.
Since the 1960s, happiness research has been conducted in a wide variety of scientific disciplines, including gerontology, social psychology, clinical and medical research and happiness economics.
In philosophy, happiness is translated from the Greek concept of eudaimonia, and refers to the good life , or flourishing, as opposed to an emotion. Happiness in this sense was used to translate the Greek eudaimonia, and is still used in virtue ethics. There has been a transition over time from emphasis on the happiness of virtue to the virtue of happiness.
Research in positive psychology has legitimized the study of happiness and brought it to the forefront of the cultural dialogue, simultaneously boosting the prominence of happiness studies and complicating how the term is defined.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have arrived at insights into humanity’s inherent capacity for happiness — what’s known as the “happiness set point” — as well as one’s potential to be more or less happy.
“As a rough generalization, about a third of the factors that determine outcomes of well-being are genetic or biological,” cognitive psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: “That leaves about two-thirds that are based on the environment around us and what we do inside ourselves.”
The problem is that the brain is attracted more to negative experiences than positive ones. In Hanson’s analogy, the brain is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones. His research has found that the simple secret to boosting our happiness levels is to maximize life’s everyday simple pleasures and small joys, which we can do by lingering on positive moments and finding small ways to build more joy into our lives. “If we train ourselves increasingly to look for the positive, we have trained our brain in terms of what it’s primed to see and what it’s scanning for,” said Hanson. Having positive experiences more often tends to increase flows of dopamine, the chemical that tracks rewards, in the brain, which builds out more receptors for dopamine, and over time makes us more sensitive to reward, says Hanson.
Dean Burnett’s book Happy Brain: Where Happiness Comes From, and Why examines the brain’s impact on our happiness. Burnett, a neuroscientist and standup comic, explores some of the inner workings of our brains to reveal how our neural networks support us in experiencing happiness so we can move forward in life and love. Add to that some pretty weird anomalies—like the neurotransmitter serotonin, which modulates mood, being produced primarily by our gut bacteria—and it becomes clear that we don’t understand everything about our brains and happiness. Much of it may be out of our conscious control. “Just embrace the important point: The things that influence our brain’s ability to make us happy extend far beyond just our experiences and personal preferences,” warns Burnett. He goes on to explain how work, laughter, love, lust, and our age all impact happiness, too, and how that’s mapped in the brain.
Not all the things that make us feel good are benign, unfortunately, and the book also explores some of the darker findings around happiness—like schadenfreude, our pleasure at another’s misfortune, and the desire to put others down to make ourselves feel good. Clearly, the reward systems in our brains are not always kind toward others, which is important, if distressing, to know.
Hedonic adaptation is the tendency for humans to quickly adapt to major positive or negative life events or changes and return to their base level of happiness. As a person achieves more success, expectations and desires rise in tandem. The result is never feeling satisfied — achieving no permanent gain in happiness.
After a significant life event, hedonic adaption occurs as a result of cognitive changes. These changes can include a change in values, goals, attention or interpretation of a situation.
For example, after making your first million dollars, a number you had previously thought was significant, you might start thinking one million dollars is really not all that much in the grand scheme of things.
The outcome is that no matter how pleasurable — or how disappointing — a situation is, we return to a happiness “set point.” A happiness set point is where humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment.
According to Alex Lickerman M.D., “[One’s happiness set point] is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time.”
Myths About Happiness
You may have noticed that many books, blogs and inspirational speakers make large and silly promises. Break free from fear and you’ll soar like an eagle, reverse the aging process and attract a bevy of sexy and appreciative lovers. As one self-help book puts it, “Bliss is available to anyone at anytime, no matter how difficult life may be.” And that is the most hurtful myth of all—the idea that every one of us can create ourselves a great day no matter how painful our current circumstances. We need only to choose happiness along with a brighter attitude and a new set of skills.
Of course, each of us can move in the direction of experiencing less fearand more calmness, love and peace. There are many paths we can take to become more whole and centered, to navigate our relationships with greater clarity and conviction, and to grab a little dignity and peace along the way. We can’t stop bad things from happening, but we can stop our relentless focus on how things were or how we want them to be, and develop a deeper appreciation for what we have now. We can work on becoming our best and bravest selves. But it is arrogant and deeply dishonest to tell people that they can transform their own reality and find joy no matter how dreadful their circumstances. Such a falsehood only breeds silence and shame about our honest suffering.
Sooner or later the universe will send every one of us a crash course in vulnerability, meaning that you—or someone you love—will get a great big lesson in all the painful emotions that we try so hard to avoid. It is not useful to deny that fear and suffering define the human condition as much as happiness and joy.
A New Disease Of Western Societies
One risk inherent in our obsession with the pursuit of happiness is that we will begin to fear or devalue painful, negative emotions and challenging experiences.
For Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay, the notion that individuals should do everything for the sake of happiness is a dangerous one. In his book The Good Life, Mackay argues that this philosophy has led to a new disease among Western societies: “fear of sadness.”
Mackay explains that it’s wholeness, not happiness, that we should be after: It’s a really odd thing that we’re now seeing people saying, “Write down three things that made you happy today before you go to sleep,” and “Cheer up” and “Happiness is our birthright,” and so on. We’re kind of teaching our kids that happiness is the default position — it’s rubbish. Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are. Happiness and victory and fulfillment are nice little things that also happen to us, but they don’t teach us much … I’d like just for a year to have a moratorium on the word “happiness” and to replace it with the word “wholeness.” Ask yourself “Is this contributing to my wholeness?” and if you’re having a bad day, it is.
What Prevents Us From Being Happy?
It turns out, a study about this has been done and has recently reached its conclusion. The 20-year old study conducted by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University concluded with a simple and straightforward answer: Don’t spend your money on material things. According to the study, happiness acquired through material ownership dulls rapidly over time and this is due to three reasons:
- Yesterday’s shiny and new become today’s dull and boring. Once the allure fades, we move on in search of the next thing that will rouse our excitement.
- Comparisons breed envy —Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness who did a talk at TED put it best: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”“One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation,” Gilovich said. “We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”
- We become what we live —“Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods,” said Gilovich. “You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.”
- No two experiences are the same —We tend to put deeper thought in decisions that will affect our lives. Given the same circumstances and the same choices, no two individuals will think exactly alike. Their own unique personality and values come into play which makes the whole experience difficult to gauge and assess.
- Consistency throughout the whole experience —The study also looked at the effects of anticipation and observed that it causes excitement for a new experience while it had the opposite on anticipation for material things and caused impatience instead. From start to finish, the anticipation we feel for new experiences are consistent.
- Constant reminder versus a fleeting one —Not all purchases we make are planned and/or fulfill a certain need or purpose. We sometimes buy on impulse and experience what’s called as Buyer’s Remorse.
Ways We Sabotage Our Happiness
- Thinking that you have to be just like someone else, or to match their apparent success.
- Thinking that wealth, achievement, looks, intelligence, talent, and status equate to fulfillment
- Thinking that you need to be perfect in order to be lovable.
- Judging yourself harshly.
- Being hungry for approval.
- Rehashing past mistakes or fearing future failures.
- Obsessing over outcomes.
- Ruminating about what can’t be changed.
- Thinking that being alone means being unha.ppy.
- Thinking that you have to say “yes” to every request.
- Clinging to resentment.
- Believing that you can change someone else.
- Inventing and dwelling upon painful inner dramas that have little or no basis in fact.
- Thinking that mistakes, setbacks, and failures doom you for life.
- Blaming yourself for things you can’t control.
- Blaming other people and situations for things you CAN control, or passively accepting what you COULD change.
- Creating suffering through bad habits and addictions.
- Falling for the belief that you can’t change.
- Trying to give to others without giving to yourself.
- Focusing on lack instead of abundance.
- Waiting for the day when you finally arrive.
- Excessive thinking and worrying about the future.
- Putting up with things that do not serve you.
- Complaining about life instead of taking responsibility.
What Does Research Say About How to Be Happy?
According to psychologists, circumstances are responsible for only about 10% of our personal levels of happiness. Studies have shown that regardless of what happens to people – winning the lottery or losing a limb – their happiness levels tend to return to what they were before the event in about two months. This phenomenon is called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation.
Researchers say that another 50% of our happiness is determined by our biology, and more specifically, genetically determined personality traits like “being sociable, active, stable, hardworking and conscientious.” Twins who had similar scores in key traits — extroversion, calmness and conscientiousness, for example — had similar happiness scores, but these similarities disappeared once the traits were accounted for.
Not all is lost, however. 40% of your happiness is determined by your thoughts, actions, and behaviors. According to Buddha, this is enough to liberate you from suffering, if you channel this potential in the right thoughts, actions and behaviors. Science agrees — there is a lot you can do to influence your happiness levels.
Scientists spent 75 years studying happiness and this is what they learned. It’s the longest running study on happiness, ever. It’s hard to measure happiness – it means different things to different people and it can’t be seen. However the brave scientists at Harvard University decided to measure it anyway – and they might have conquered it! Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger who is the current director of the study detailed the findings of the study in a fascinating TED Talk in January 2016.
The study known as the Grant Study, and it is the longest running study on happiness ever. The scientists looking into happiness in adult development wanted to analyze what enhanced the wellbeing of an individual rather than what deteriorated it. So, for 75 years they tracked the lives of 724 men, asking on a yearly basis how they were coping in every area of their lives, 60 of these men are still alive and still participating. The participants were from two groups: the first were sophomore students at Harvard in 1938, when the study first began and the second were children from one of the poorest areas of Boston, who came from poverty-stricken backgrounds.
Researchers closely monitored the lives of those involved over the course of the study using interviews, questionnaires, brain scans, blood tests, medical records and talking to their loved ones. As the study evolved alongside their lives, the experts also began to talk to their wives and children.
The revolutionary research was the first of its kind in the world and it has produced some surprising – but lovely – results. The biggest discovery of all was that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Those who were in unhappy relationships or were lonely were more likely to suffer from pain, discontent and lead unhealthy lifestyles.Nearly 1,200 Germans explored this question in a recent study—and then Julia M. Rohrer and her colleagues followed up with them a year later to find out how happy they felt. The researchers found not all roads lead to happiness.These findings back up an earlier study, which suggested that people who intensely pursue happiness aren’t always more content. That was only true in cultures that define happiness in terms of social engagement and helping others (like East Asia and Russia, but not Germany or the United States). What seems true across cultures is that social connections are key to well-being. For example, very happy people are highly social and tend to have strong relationships; kids with a richer network of connections grow up to be happier adults; and socializing is one of the most positive everyday activities. But this is one of the few studies to actually comparesocial and individual paths to happiness—and find that connecting with others might be inherently more rewarding.
Across all the age-groups in one study, people found pleasure in all sorts of experiences; both ordinary and extraordinary. But it was older people who managed to extract more pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences. They got more pleasure out of spending time with their family, from the look on someone’s face or a walk in the park. Younger people, meanwhile, defined themselves more by extraordinary experiences.
Surprisingly, people are often wrong about the type of goals that will make them happiest. New research suggests that certain concrete goals for happiness work better than abstract goals. The study found that acts performed in the service of a concrete goal (making someone smile) made the givers themselves feel happier than an abstract goal (making someone happy). By thinking in concrete ways about our goals for happiness, we can minimize the gap between our expectations and what is actually possible.
More recent studies:
1.Wealth can lead to more satisfying life if viewed as a sign of success vs. happiness
A study featuring researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York found that viewing wealth and material possessions as a sign of success yields significantly better results to life satisfaction than viewing wealth and possessions as a sign of happiness.
“People simply say ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ and just assume that materialism has a negative influence on overall well-being,” said Jenny Jiao, assistant professor of marketing at Binghamton University School of Management. “But it’s not that simple. There is a real difference between success materialism and happiness materialism.”
Jiao and her fellow researchers surveyed over 7,500 German adults to get their findings. They first determined if participants had either a happiness materialistic or success materialistic mindset, and then asked questions regarding current satisfaction of life, expected satisfaction of life in the future and economic motivations.
What they found:
Happiness materialism (wealth and material consumption is the sign of a happy life) can negatively influence life satisfaction in two different ways:
- It can lead a person to be dissatisfied with their current standard of living, which in turn negatively influences overall life satisfaction.
- This can lead a person to not find satisfaction from other important areas of life (family life, social life, health, etc.), which negatively influences overall life satisfaction.
Success materialism (wealth and material possessions are a sign of success in life) positively influences life satisfaction by boosting a person’s economic motivation. This can lead to a rise in their future satisfaction with their standard of living, which positively influences overall life satisfaction.
“We work so hard over the course of our lives. We want to make money and we want to have a better life, but what actually gives us satisfaction with life? Is it wealth and material possessions, or is it what those things are a sign of?” said Jiao.
The researchers cross-checked their results with survey answers from other parts of the world, including the United States, to verify the universality of the findings.
Jiao recommends focusing on future goals in order to stay driven and motivated.
“Your happiness should never rely on money alone, but money can be a tool to motivate you to achieve major milestones in your life, which can make you feel happier in the long run,” said Jiao.
She also cautions to forget about the other aspects of life that bring satisfaction.
“Never lose sight of the other things that provide happiness that don’t necessarily have monetary value. These include family, friends, your health, continual learning and new experiences,” she said.
- Money spent on other people brings more happiness than money spent on selves
Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School have found that it’s possible to buy happiness after all: when you spend money on others.
In a series of studies, UBC Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Dunn found that individuals report significantly greater happiness if they spend money “pro-socially” — that is on gifts for others or charitable donations — rather than spending on themselves. Her findings appeared in the journal Science.
“We wanted to test our theory that how people spend their money is at least as important as how much money they earn,” says Dunn, who teaches in the UBC Dept. of Psychology and is lead author of the study.
Her co-authors are UBC master’s student Lara Aknin and Michael Norton, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School.
The researchers looked at a nationally representative sample of more than 630 Americans, of whom 55 per cent were female. They asked participants to: rate their general happiness; report their annual income; and provide a breakdown of their monthly spending, including bills, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.
“Regardless of how much income each person made,” says Dunn, “those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not “
The study also measured the happiness levels of employees at a firm in Boston before and after they received their profit-sharing bonus, which ranged between $3,000 and $8,000.
What affected the employees’ happiness, says Dunn, was not so much the size of the bonus but how they spent it.
The employees who devoted more of their bonus to gifts for others or toward charity consistently reported greater benefits than employees who simply spent money on their own needs.
In another experiment, the researchers gave participants a $5 or $20 bill, asking them to spend the money by 5 p.m. that day. Half the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves, and half were assigned to spend the money on others. Participants who spent the windfall on others reported feeling happier at the end of the day than those who spent the money on themselves.
“These findings suggest that very minor alterations in spending allocations — as little as $5 — may be enough to produce real gains in happiness on a given day,” says Dunn.
- Using money to buy free time brings greater happiness than spending on things
The study, led by researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, suggests that using money to buy free time — such as paying to delegate household chores like cleaning and cooking — is linked to greater life satisfaction.
“People who hire a housecleaner or pay the kid next door to mow the lawn might feel like they’re being lazy,” said study lead author Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School who carried out the research as a PhD candidate in the UBC department of psychology. “But our results suggest that buying time has similar benefits for happiness as having more money.”
The researchers surveyed more than 6,000 adults in the United States, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands. Respondents were asked if and how much they spent each month to buy themselves free time. They also rated their life satisfaction, and answered questions about feelings of time stress.
Respondents who spent money on time saving purchases reported greater life satisfaction. The effect held up even after controlling for income.
“The benefits of buying time aren’t just for wealthy people,” said UBC psychology professor and the study’s senior author Elizabeth Dunn. “We thought the effects might only hold up for people with quite a bit of disposable income, but to our surprise, we found the same effects across the income spectrum.”
To test whether buying time actually causes greater happiness, the researchers also conducted a field experiment. Sixty adults were randomly assigned to spend $40 on a time saving purchase on one weekend, and $40 on a material purchase on another weekend. The results revealed that people felt happier when they spent money on a time saving purchase than on a material purchase.
Despite the benefits, the researchers were surprised to discover how few people choose to spend their money on time saving purchases in daily life. Even in a sample of 850 millionaires who were surveyed, almost half reported spending no money outsourcing disliked tasks. A survey of 98 working adults asking how they would spend a windfall of $40 also revealed that only two per cent would use it in a way that saved them time.
“Although buying time can serve as a buffer against the time pressures of daily life, few people are doing it even when they can afford it,” said Dunn. “Lots of research has shown that people benefit from buying their way into pleasant experiences, but our research suggests people should also consider buying their way out of unpleasant experiences.”
- A worldwide survey of more than 136,000 people in 132 countries included questions about happiness and income, and the results reveal that while life satisfaction usually rises with income, positive feelings don’t necessarily follow
The findings, from an analysis of data gathered in the first Gallup World Poll, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“The public always wonders: Does money make you happy?” said University of Illinois professor emeritus of psychology Ed Diener, a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization. “This study shows that it all depends on how you define happiness, because if you look at life satisfaction, how you evaluate your life as a whole, you see a pretty strong correlation around the world between income and happiness,” he said. “On the other hand it’s pretty shocking how small the correlation is with positive feelings and enjoying yourself.”
The Gallup World Poll conducted surveys on a wide range of subjects in a representative sample of people from 132 countries from 2005 to 2006. The poll used telephone surveys in more affluent areas, and door-to-door interviews in rural or less-developed regions.
The countries surveyed represent about 96 percent of the world’s population, the researchers report, and reflect the diversity of cultural, economic and political realities around the globe.
This “first representative sample of planet earth,” the authors wrote, “was used to explore the reasons why ‘happiness’ is associated with higher income.” The researchers were able to look at a long list of attributes of respondents, including their income and standard of living, whether their basic needs for food and shelter were met, what kinds of conveniences they owned and whether they felt their psychological needs were satisfied.
The surveys included a global life evaluation, which asked respondents to rate their lives on a scale that ranged from zero (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life). Participants also answered questions about positive or negative emotions experienced the previous day. And the poll asked respondents whether they felt respected, whether they had family and friends they could count on in an emergency, and how free they felt to choose their daily activities, learn new things or do “what one does best.”
Like previous studies, the new analysis found that life evaluation, or life satisfaction, rises with personal and national income. But positive feelings, which also increase somewhat as income rises, are much more strongly associated with other factors, such as feeling respected, having autonomy and social support, and working at a fulfilling job.
This is the first “happiness” study of the world to differentiate between life satisfaction, the philosophical belief that your life is going well, and the day-to-day positive or negative feelings that one experiences, Diener said.
“Everybody has been looking at just life satisfaction and income,” he said. “And while it is true that getting richer will make you more satisfied with your life, it may not have the big impact we thought on enjoying life.”
Weiting Ng, of the Singapore Institute of Management; and James Harter and Raksha Arora, of The Gallup Organization, were co-authors on the study with Diener.
- Experiential purchases–money spent on doing–may provide more enduring happiness than material purchases (money spent on having)
Four presentations during the symposium “Happy Money 2.0: New Insights Into the Relationship Between Money and Well-Being,” delve into the effects of experiential purchases, potential negative impacts on abundance, the psychology of lending to friends, and how the wealthy think differently about well-being. Participants reported that waiting for an experience elicits significantly more happiness, pleasantness and excitement than waiting for a material good.
“The anticipatory period [for experiential purchases] tends to be more pleasant…less tinged with impatience relative to future material purchases we’re planning on making,” explains lead researcher Amit Kumar. In an analysis of stories in the news media about long lines, “Those waiting for an experience tended to be in a better mood and better behaved than those waiting for a material good.” Given the results, the researchers suggest that it may make sense to delay consumption of some purchases, and shift spending away from material goods to more experiences. In short–start planning for vacations, dinner parties and concerts ahead of time to reap more benefits from anticipation.
Abundance, adversity and savoring
Can less really be more? Research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletinshows that both material and experiential wealth tends to reduce people’s ability to savor simple joys and experiences. Wealth and abundance may undermine appreciation and reduce the positive emotions associated with everyday experiences.
In contrast to abundance, experiencing adversity in the past or scarcity in the present increases individual’s ability to savor everyday moments, according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science(SPPS). “Simply reminding individuals that the future can be unpredictable drives people to stop and smell the roses,” says lead researcher Jordi Quoidbach.
Temporarily giving something up may provide an effective route to happiness, concludes another study published in SPPS. Consistently indulging in pleasure and abundance may not be the most productive route to happiness.
The cost of lending money
Researchers at UCLA and Harvard Business School are studying how lenders and borrowers differ in how they mentally account for loaned funds, and the expectations for how the money should be spent.
The researchers showed that lenders were angriest when borrowers purchased hedonic (vs. utilitarian) items. In a follow up study, researchers distinguished lending from other types of exchanges, finding those who had loaned money (versus gifted or paid) reported the most anger towards those who purchased a hedonic item with the funds. A third study demonstrated lenders believe they are entitled to far more oversight over what the borrower purchases than borrowers believe lenders to be, especially for larger amounts of money. These results shed light on the root of the anger lenders feel when borrowers seem to ‘misappropriate’ their loan.
“Our work shows that interpersonal lending can become an emotional minefield, especially for the lender and particularly when the borrower makes purchases that are hedonic rather than utilitarian,” explains lead researcher Noah Goldstein.
What do the wealthy need to be happy?
Many people believe that becoming rich is the path to happiness, but pursuing wealth may be an ineffective means of pursuing well-being. According to a study from researchers at Harvard Business School, the University of Mannheim and Yale University, wealthy individuals report that having three to four times as much money would give them a perfect “10” score on happiness–regardless of how much wealth they already have.
“Wealthy individuals–whether worth $1 million or $10 million–are not happier as their wealth increases,” says lead researcher Michael Norton. The research shows that current happiness is not related to wealth and may even be negatively related to income.
Here are some other things that contribute to happiness:
Going for a walk in nature, particular among trees, can raise your level of happiness. In the study, a group of 38 Northern Californians (18 women and 20 men) were split up into two groups — one who took a 90-minute walk in nature and another that did the same walk in the city. The nature walkers reported having fewer negative thoughts about themselves after the walk than before the walk, while the urban walkers reported no change. What’s more, fMRI brain scans revealed less activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), a brain region that may play a key role in some mood disorders and has been linked with patterns of negative thought, according to the study. Those who went on the urban walk did not show any of these benefits, the study found.
Do things you do when you’re happy — even if you’re not. Experiencing positive emotions not only appear to have the power to neutralize negative ones, but can also encourage people to be more proactive. “Positive emotions may aid those feeling trapped or helpless in the midst of negative moods, thoughts, or behaviors — for example, grief, pessimism, or isolation — spurring them to take positive action,” write a team of UC Riverside psychologists in a recent paper summarizing these findings.
Participate in cultural activities.Visiting a museum or seeing a concert is yet another way to boost your mood. A study that examined the anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction of over 50,000 adults in Norway offered an interesting link: People who participated in more cultural activities, like attending a play or joining a club, reported lower levels of anxiety and depression as well as a higher satisfaction with their overall quality of life. So get out there and participate!
Listen to sad songs.Happiness is entirely subjective, meaning that what makes one person happy might affect someone else differently. However, listening to sad music seems to be a common activity that’s been linked with increased happiness around the globe. In a study that looked at 772 people on the eastern and western hemispheres, researchers found that listening to sad music generated “beneficial emotional effects such as regulating negative emotion and mood as well as consolation,” the researchers write in their paper.
Set small realistic goals based upon positive habits. If you’re one of those people who like to make to-do lists on a regular basis, then listen closely: When you’re setting your goals, it’s better to be specific and set goals you know you can achieve. For example, instead of setting a goal like “save the environment,” try to recycle more. Those two examples were tested on a group of 127 volunteers in a study published last year. The first group were provided a series of specific goals like “increase recycling,” while the second group had broader goals like “save the environment.” Even though the second group completed the same tasks as the first group, the people in the second group reported feeling less satisfied with themselves than the first group. The people in the second group also reported a lower overall sense of personal happiness from completing their goal, the scientists report.
Write down your feelings. Ever heard someone say, ‘If you’re angry at someone, write them a letter and don’t send it’? While that might seem like a waste of time, science reveals recording your feelings is great for clarifying your thoughts, solving problems more efficiently, relieving stress, and more. A team of psychologists recently hit on a neurological reason behind why this simple act might help us overcome some emotional distress.
The researchers studied brain scans of volunteers who recorded an emotional experience for 20 minutes a day for 4 sessions. They then compared the brain scans with volunteers who wrote down a neutral experience for the same amount of time. The brain scans of the first group showed neural activity in a part of the brain responsible for dampening strong emotional feelings, suggesting that the act of recording their experience calmed them. This same neural activity was absent in the volunteers who recorded a neutral experience.
Spend money on others, not yourself. When you’ve had a really bad day, you might have the urge to go and buy your favorite comfort food or finally purchase that pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing for the last three months. However, research shows that you’ll feel happier if you spend that money on someone else, instead of yourself. Case in point: A 2008 study gave 46 volunteers an envelope with money in it wherein half were instructed to spend the money on themselves and the other half put the money towards a charitable donation or gift for someone they knew. The volunteers recorded their happiness level before receiving the envelope and after spending the money by the end of that same day. Sure enough, the researchers discovered that those who spent their money on others had a higher level of happiness than those who spent the money on themselves.
Volunteer. It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the main ways you can care for yourself is to care for others. In a recent review of 40 studies done over the last 20 years, researchers found that one activity was far more important than the rest for boosting psychological health: volunteering. This activity, the researchers reported, had been found in many volunteers to be linked with a reduced risk of depression, a higher amount of overall satisfaction, and even a reduced risk of death from of a physical illness as a consequence of mental distress.
Make time for friends. Spending time with friends may promote greater happiness than spending time with family, at least according to a recent study. For the study, researchers used an app called the “Mappiness” app to determine how much happier people were when they were with their friends, parents, and children. The app sent alerts asking people how happy they felt — on an 11-point scale from “not at all” to “extremely” — throughout the day. By analyzing over 3 million submissions from more than 50,000 volunteers, the researchers discovered that people experienced, on average, an 8% increase in happiness when they were with friends, compared with a 1.4% increase with parents, and just a 0.7% increase when they were with their children.
Smile. It might come as no surprise that smiling can make you feel happier. But the important thing here is that the smile must be sincere, it can’t be faked. If you fake it, you might even make yourself more unhappy, according to a 2011 study. The study examined a group of city bus drivers over a period of two weeks. They found that employees who put on a fake smile for the job were in a worse mood by the end of the day compared to when their shift began. But drivers who genuinely smiles as a result of positive thoughts actually had a better mood by the end of the day.
Forgive. It’s one thing to get upset over an injustice you suffered at the hands of someone else, but it’s another thing entirely to hold on to that emotion long-term. That’s called holding a grudge and it can easily consume you if you’re not careful. The reason this is so bad for your happiness is because the negative emotions associated with grudges eventually give way to resentment and thoughts of revenge. In turn, this leaves little room in your emotional repertoire for anything else, like happiness, according to the Mayo Clinic. What’s more, decades of research have linked this simple act to better overall heart health, less psychological stress, improved physical ability, and longer life.
Increase your positive-to-negative ratio. Recent studies have tried to explore this effect, including one by positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, which concluded we need a 3:1 positive-to-negative ratio of thoughts to free our minds from the tar-paper effect of negative thinking. One 2006 study, however, found that people who wrote down their positive experiences in a diary reported greater feelings of life satisfaction, and the effect lasted for up to two weeks afterwards.
Make friends with people who live near you: The sweet spot is a happy friend who lives a mile away.The town of Framingham, Massachusetts, was the focus of a multigenerational study on happiness known as the Framingham Heart Study.Beginning in 1948, the study has tracked three generations of Framingham residents and their offspring to discover trends in the way that happiness moves among a population. Individual happiness cascades through groups of people, like contagion.
Embrace opposing feelings at the same time: Cheerful + Downcast = Happy. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” according to psychologist Jonathan Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. He feels happiness can come from noticing and embracing a wide spectrum of emotions–both good and bad. Adler and his colleague Hal Hershfield performed a study on this so-called mixed emotional experience and how it relates to positive psychological well-being. They monitored participants who went through 12 weekly therapy sessions and filled out questionnaires before each session. The results: Feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time was a precursor to improved well-being in the following sessions. Hershfield followed up with another study about mixed emotions and health. After studying participants over a 10-year span, he and his team found a direct correlation between accepting one’s mix of emotions (like “taking the good with the bad”) and good physical health.
Still not convinced? A 2012 study by psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University found that mindfulness helped participants overcome anxiety disorders through acceptance of their wide range of feelings and then working toward improvement.
Say “no” to almost everything. Better yet, say “I don’t.”According to Warren Buffett, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”Overworked and overburdened is a recipe for unhappiness. So if you want to be happy, get some quick wins by saying no.
Prepare for the worst; hope for the best: Take the samurai approach to happiness. Samurai warriors had two essential elements to performing at their best: They trained extremely hard, and they prepared for the worst. The latter element, so-called “negative visualization,” has its roots in Stoicism. Oliver Burkeman wrote a book about counterintuitive happiness, including sections on this idea of Stoic thought. In an interview with writer Eric Barker, Burkeman explained: It’s what the Stoics call “the premeditation” — that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations, you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated. Another benefit of visualization is that you feel more in control when you have a plan for various outcomes. Navy SEALs undergo psychological training so that they feel in control at all times. And according to neuroscience, the brain can continue to function as normal so long as we maintain the illusion of control (via training and visualization).
Give up your favorite things: Just for a day or two, not forever. Here’s a gem of an idea from Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog: “Denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted.”The scientific elements at play are self-control and willpower. Researchers who conducted an overview of 83 studies on self-control concluded that willpower wanes as the day goes on, yet you can train willpower just as you would a muscle.In short: Exerting self-control leads to more self-control over time.
Harvard professor Michael Norton has a great way of thinking about this: The idea is that the things that you really like a lot, stop. Stop it. So, if you love, every day, having the same coffee, don’t have it for a few days and, when you wait, and then you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime. The problem with that is, on any given day, it’s better to have a coffee than not, but if you wait three days and don’t have it, it’s going to be way better once you finally do. Interrupting our consumption is free. It actually saves you money and gets you more happiness out of the money spent. It’s like the best of all worlds, but we’re completely unable to do it, because we always want to watch the thing or eat the thing right now. It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it.”
Celebrate strengths; recognize weaknesses: Give yourself permission to be yourself.You’ve perhaps heard the old maxim “You can be anything you want to be.” Tom Rath puts it a little differently: “You can be a lot more of who you already are. When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists.”Psychologist Paul Pearsall calls this “openture” (his coined phrase for the opposite of “closure”). Pearsall says we should embrace imperfections and celebrate strengths.Research also shows wedging ourselves into places we don’t fit can lead to undesirable results. As an extreme example, a study from Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo asked people with low self-esteem to say to themselves, “I’m a lovable person,” and at the conclusion of the exercise, participants felt reaffirmed in their low self-esteem rather than empowered to change.If happiness seems elusive because you feel a need to be someone you aren’t, then take comfort from Rath. Celebrate what you’re good at, and appreciate that we all bring unique characteristics to the table.
Perform an act of kindness. Do something nice for someone else today — it could make you happier, according to University of California research.
Practice Mindfulness.In Eckhart Tolle’s “15 Mindfulness Ways To Find Peace and Happiness,” he says,“The past has no power over the present moment. Life is too large to measure it with a single incident or a single failure.” Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance. Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within.Real happiness comes from inside, not from the outside. Material things can give you pleasure for sometimes, however, in the long run, happiness can only stay with you if you feel it from inside. Meditation may be helpful in lowering stress levels and reducing symptoms of mild depression, and has been linked with emotional well-being and improved sleep.
Think of happy times. Feeling nostalgic about the past can make you feel happier and more optimistic about the future, according to a recent University of Southampton study.
Happiness and Self-Mastery
Ambitious entrepreneurs and other professionals often struggle with happiness. To be truly happy, we all need to feel like we’re good at something–a feeling of mastery. High achievers generally have plenty of skills and accomplishments. They’re objectively good at stuff. But they often don’t enjoy the full happiness boost that should come from doing good work.
Why? Because they go about measuring mastery. Many people use social comparisons to determine their level of accomplishment, which is a terrible approach. One big problem with that is that it’s very difficult to assess. What are the yardsticks for judging somebody on a particular dimension?
What happens in general is that people tend to gravitate toward less ambiguous–even if they’re not so relevant–yardsticks. People judge the best professors by the number of awards they get, or the salary that they get, or their profile in social media, or the kind of school that they are in, which might on the face of it seem like it’s a good yardstick for judging how good somebody is, but at the same time it’s not really relevant. In short, because they’re easier to measure, we start to chase money and recognition rather than mastery and impact, which is a sure recipe for dissatisfaction.
Those yardsticks are ones that we adapt to really quickly. So if you get a huge raise this month, you might be happy for a month, two months, maybe six months. But after that, you’re going to get used to it and you’re going to want another big bump. And you’ll want to keep getting those in order to sustain your happiness levels.
Why Chase mastery, not success?
How do you avoid this fate? Stop chasing external signs of success and turn your attention back to what you fundamentally need. That’s not a flash car or fancy job title; it’s mastery. Do that, and not only will you be happier happier, but you’ll also probably be more successful.
When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to others.The wisdom of the ages insists that money can’t buy happiness. At the same time, having to count every penny is stressful and often outright misery inducing, so clearly money can buy somelevel of life improvement. But how much? And when does chasing another dollar just make you a workaholic ?
So while there is not universal agreement on the money-happiness connection from a cause and effect perspective, the research studies seem to suggest money can be a contributor to happiness or well-being, but that spending it on time, experiences and other people tend to yield the best outcomes.
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