“I just want to be happy.” Happiness is the number one life goal for many of us, and the lack of it can be such a painful experience. If you’re suffering from depression then you’ll know first hand what I mean.
But do you actually know what will make you happier?
the satisfaction treadmill
Many of us when asked what would make us happy would say things like:
- a new job
- more money
- a nicer home
- more time
- a better relationship with your spouse
- not being single anymore
- loosing weight
- a cure from an illness
- a child
- a better relationship with your parents
- having better looks
- a new car or other materialistic item
And sure enough, those things might increase your happiness. But only for a while until you get used to them and then start to crave new things. It’s a process called hedonic adaptation: no matter how good something makes us feel, most of the time we drift back to where we started. To our happiness set-point.
Of course I’m not saying that changing your job if you absolutely hate it is a bad idea. And I’m not saying that you should stay in an unhealthy marriage. Or that you shouldn’t work on improving a painful health problem.
But you can change your job, find a new partner and improve your chronic health problem and yet still feel anything but happy.
Changing these external circumstances in our lives and acquiring new things are unlikely to lead to lasting happiness. It’s all very exciting at the beginning but we get used to the pleasure and end up on a “satisfaction treadmill”. Once we’ve reached our goal of what we think will make us happier, we will continue to shift our standards upward. We won’t just feel satisfied long-term but instead we’ll have to keep running.
HOW TO BE HAPPIER ACCORDING TO POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Positive psychology, the science of human flourishing, focuses a lot on that one question of how to be happier. Scores of books have been written about the subject, but there’s one that really stands out for me:
This book is filled with scientific research on how to increase your happiness level long-term. Lyubomirsky, herself a psychology professor, has come up with the pie chart theory of happiness. It shows the most important factors that determine your happiness:
She says, again backed up by research, that you are born with a set point for happiness. It’s similar to the set point for weight where some people easily maintain their weight without trying whereas others have to work extraordinarily hard to keep their weight at a desirable level. With your happiness set point, it’s your baseline or your potential for happiness to which you are bound to return to even after major setbacks in life. This set point makes up about 50% of your level of happiness.
Your circumstances, as she says herself a counterintuitive finding, makes up only about 10% of your happiness. So whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, seen as beautiful or less so, married or divorced… all these factors only make up about 10% of your happiness. That’a really not a lot, particularly given that we spend most of our happiness pursuits in this area. So your life circumstances, according to research, are not the keys to happiness.
Beside our genes and the situations we confront, there are the 40% that are left: our behaviour.
The 40% left are all about our intentional daily activities. And really, this is great news because so much of your happiness is actually within your control. It’s about what you do during the day and how you think.
how to be happier: focus on what you do and how you think
Becoming lastingly happier is no easy task and requires effort and commitment pretty much every day of your life. But it’s easier than changing your circumstances!
In her book, Lyubomirsky lists 12 happiness activities that research shows increase your level of happiness (the 40%) and they are:
In no way will you have to do all of these activities to increase your long-term happiness. Some of them will suit you more than others.
In my own journey of overcoming depression, I can now clearly see how certain activities made a huge difference to my wellbeing. For me, they were primarily expressing gratitude, nurturing social relationships, learning to forgive, and taking care of my body. These activities are still very much part of my life and I’ve now added others as well. Some unintentionally, others very much with clear intention.
Simply following some of these activities is unlikely to get you out of feeling depressed entirely, but I’d make them a powerful tool in your journey.
Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has demonstrated in a study that even the most severely depressed individuals can improve by doing a simple daily happiness-increasing exercise. The task was to list three things that went well each day and that simple activity made a real measurable difference for these people!
If you’re keen to read more about these 12 happiness activities, then I’d really encourage you to buy the book. Choose the activities you’d like to try (or do more of) and notice how these small changes day-to-day can make a real difference to your overall sense of wellbeing.