You've probably already seen the following video.
It got about seven gazillion views and for good reason — it's very funny.
It also sums up what the research says is the most powerful (and easy) way to become happier.
Louis C.K.? Scientific research? Jokes about rotary phones? Huh? Buckle in, I'll explain.
"Everything is amazing right now and nobody's happy."
Louis C.K. says that, then he drives it home with this anecdote:
I was on an airplane and there was internet — high speed internet — on the airplane. That's the newest thing that I know exists. And I'm sitting on the plane and they go, "Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet."
And it's fast and I'm watching YouTube clips — it's amazing — I'm in an airplane!
And then it breaks down. And they apologize, 'The internet's not working.' The guy next to me goes, 'This is bullshit.'
Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago. [YouTube]
The world is changing quickly. To succeed in a world like this you need to adapt to all that change — and fast. The problem is that while "adaptation" is a good thing, it's also pretty much the same as "taking things for granted."
Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude. And gratitude is one of the few things that nearly all the research shows is part of how to live a happy life. You want evidence? I've got gratitude studies for days: It will make you happier. It will improve your relationships.
Louis C.K. knows this. And your grandparents know this. They tried to tell you. You didn't listen.
"When I was a kid we didn't have…"
Growing up you complained about something trivial and heard a version of this story from Grandpa:
When I was your age we didn't have (fill in amazing modern thing). All we had was (really pathetic substitute that makes you feel guilty). We had to (short anecdote about how difficult life was that, frankly, you can't relate to at all). And we were happy!
All this story did was make you roll your eyes.
Grandpa's "we had to walk to school uphill, both ways" anecdote was a poor way of saying "show gratitude for what you have." Don't take it for granted.
And the research shows this is one of the reasons old people are happier.
An appreciation of remaining time leads older people to be more grateful for what they have, Carstensen and other researchers say. And being thankful is great for mental health. Studies by Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at UC Davis, show that people who focus on what they are grateful for have better emotional well-being, especially a positive mood, compared with people who focus on the negative or neutral information. [Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
Research shows taking time to feel gratitude can prevent you from taking things for granted:
Several studies support this notion, including one from our very own lab, which revealed that people who persist at appreciating a good turn in their lives are less likely to adapt to it... [The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn't, What Shouldn't Make You Happy, But Does]
So how do you work this into your busy life? It's frighteningly easy.
- Put a notepad and pen by the bed.
- Before you go to sleep each night, write down three things that happened that day which you're thankful for.
- Then write a sentence about why each happened.
That's it. Really. It takes a few minutes. And it works. This technique has been proven again and again and again. Here it is, explained by its originator, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman:
Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now. [Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being]
The military even teaches Seligman's gratitude techniques to soldiers. And it has worked for me.
I've tried it myself
Yes, it's kind of silly. (And before anyone goes in my bedroom you better believe I hide that notepad.) But after doing it for a few days it was obviously working. How did I know?
It's really the simplest thing in the world: I was devoting more time to thinking about things that make me happy. Yeah, you might do that occasionally too, but are you setting aside a time every day for it? Didn't think so. Research shows that savoring — really taking the time to appreciate good things — is one of the secrets of the happiest people.
Good things were just more accessible in my head because they were getting dedicated time every single night. It was like deliberate practice but for happiness. More importantly, I started to see patterns. Some things were always on the list, like seeing friends.
It was easy to take this list of good things from the past and make it a to-do list for things I should try to schedule for the future. I was basically teaching myself how to live a happy life.
Daniel Nettle jokingly refers to this as "Pleasant Activity Training" but research shows it works:
This staggeringly complex technique consists of determining which activities are pleasant, and doing them more often. [Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile]
Again, it's stupidly simple. But as Jennifer Aaker explained in my interview with her, people just don't consistently do it on their own:
…people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time. For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete) them, and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people." [Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
You need the list. And then you need to get it on the calendar:
Taking an inventory about where you're spending your time is revealing. And then once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical. When you put something on a calendar, you're more likely to actually do that activity — partly because you're less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it — because it's already on your calendar." [Barking Up The Wrong Tree]
Want to know how to live a happy life? Write down the three things every night. Give it a shot.
Here's more of the research on happiness, and for those of you who are really busy, here are seven things that can make you happier in seven seconds.
And keep listening to Louis. He knows what he's talking about. Show gratitude. Stop taking things for granted.
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