The Science of Happiness: What Actually Makes Us Happy
“The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” — Dalai Lama
We all want to be happy. Period. In fact, I would argue that nearly everything we do, whether it’s working, marrying, running, or even filing our taxes is done with an overarching purpose: To feel happier.
Now, it’s not that we particularly enjoy all of these activities for their own sake, even though we might (and for some, we certainly should), but that we want to create certain feelings: Passion, excitement, purpose, love, excitement, relief, or any other emotion that makes us, well, happy.
Sadly, most people fail in their quest for happiness for one simple reason: They seek it where there is nothing to be found. Empty success, shallow pleasures, and immediate gratification seem to dominate our culture more and more, and so it’s time to ask:
What actually makes us happy?
Luckily, researchers have found an answer to the question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years.
But before we get into that, there is one important concept you need to understand: Baseline Happiness
We all have a happiness baseline, which is our general long-term happiness. Now, there will always be good days (such as winning the lottery) and not-so-good days (like being paralyzed), and so our daily happiness constantly fluctuates around the baseline.
The important thing here is, happiness, always returns back to baseline. In fact, research by Dr. Happiness aka Ed Diener has found that even after such drastic life changes such as winning the lottery and being paralyzed, happiness will eventually return back to baseline.
So what if we want to become happier?
I’m glad you asked! Research by Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that we actually can raise our happiness baseline — if we know how.
So here it is:
H = S (Setpoint) + C (Circumstances) + V (Voluntary Activities)
Let’s take a closer look at them:
We all have a genetic predisposition for happiness that accounts for roughly 50% of your happiness. Researchers still argue over the exact numbers, but what matters is this: As is nearly everything, some people win the genetic lottery of life, and some people lose.
However, even if you are one of those unlucky people seemingly doomed for misery, don’t give up just yet! There’s still 50% of your happiness left.
These are our external circumstances, which we often tend to focus on the most: Money, status, jobs, cars, beautiful houses, and other external things that we chase in the pursuit of happiness.
Now, I hate to break it to you, but money won’t make you happy. At least according to the aforementioned Ed Diener, who was the first person to study happiness scientifically. Diener compared people on the Forbe’s list of wealthiest Americans with the general population, and found that they were only slightly happier than average, with 37% being less happy than the average American. Looks like we might have been chasing the wrong things.
Now, since we cannot control our genetics, and we can only in part control our external circumstances, there’s only one thing left to increase our happiness:
If you want to change your happiness baseline for good, there’s two ways to do that: Change your thoughts, or change your actions. Here’s a few examples:
- Keep a gratitude journal: Writing down three things you are grateful for in the morning is one of the best ways to start your day right.
- Forgive yourself and other people: Most people carry with them all their past failures, mistakes, pains, and fears. Learn to let go of what was, so you can focus your energy on what is. The past cannot be changed, but your future can.
- Learn to love yourself: The day I learned to love myself and all my flaws and shortcomings was probably the happiest day of my life. When you truly love yourself, happiness is not an option, it’s a must because you value yourself enough to know that you deserve only the best.
- Have goals: Pursuing goals is probably the most energizing and exciting thing in the world. Just think about it: When do you usually feel most alive? Chances are, it’s when you’re growing in the pursuit of a goal worth accomplishing.
- Meditate: From increasing happiness, concentration, health, and willpower to regulating moods and reducing stress, meditation is the medicine against everything. It’s hard in the beginning (and still is for me), but you get the benefits nevertheless.
- Exercise: Running, lifting, and biking, are some of the quickest ways to improve your mood and reduce stress.
“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.” — Jo Coulson, University of Bristol
- Get enough sleep: People often think they can get away with cheating on their sleep, but research has shown the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation: Bad moods, lower concentration, worse memory, and decreased performance. Do me the favor, and get in your sleep.
- Spend more time with friends: Robert Waldinger is the director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the largest studies on lifetime happiness every done. For over 75 years, he and his predecessors followed young kids throughout their whole lives, leading to one big takeaway: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.
- Laugh: There is a feedback loop between your brain and your body, meaning that whatever you do physically has effects on your mental state. Simply flashing a little smile and standing up straight makes you happier immediately. Just try it out!
- Money actually can buy happiness, if spent the right way: If you have $10, what should you do with it? If you want to be happy, research suggests you spend it on someone else. Buy some flowers for your wife, a toy for your kids, or dessert for your friend. You will thank yourself later.
Now, I hope this article got you thinking about what you actually want from life. We often look for happiness in the wrong places or blame bad luck in the genetic lottery for our misery, but through changing our thoughts and actions, we can all become happier.
Once you realize that, happiness becomes a choice. Are you willing to make it?
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