The simplest secret to happiness you'll ever find

On this one, science and clichés agree

Research has found about nine zillion things you can do to increase happiness. Of course, you're probably not doing any of them. To be fair, most people don't really do much to deliberately make their lives happier.

Researchers found that the majority of the subjects they studied were not able to identify anything they had done recently to try to increase their happiness or life satisfaction. [100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life]

So you want to start? You want something insanely easy to do that research has demonstrated over and over again works? Something that the happiest people in the world all do?

Here you go: Next time something good happens, stop whatever you are doing, give it a second, and appreciate that moment.

Old clichés like "stopping to smell the roses" and "it's the little things in life"? They're true. The happiness researchers call it "savoring." Here's how it works.

What is savoring?
We're busy. We're multitasking. And we think this makes things better because we get more done. But the problem is that means you're paying less attention to any one thing — and therefore you enjoy all of those things less. Do you watch TV while you eat? That means you'll enjoy your food less.

Savoring is all about attention. Focus on the bad, you'll feel bad. Focus on the good and… guess what happens?

The key component to effective savoring is focused attention. By taking the time and spending the effort to appreciate the positive, people are able to experience more well-being. [Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth]

People who take time to appreciate beauty around them really are happier.

Those who said they regularly took notice of something beautiful were 12 percent more likely to say they were satisfied with their lives. [100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life]

Research shows that the happiest people take the time to appreciate the little things in life. I know what you're thinking: correlation isn't causation. Maybe they're just wired that way. Nope. Wrong answer. Research shows it can work for anybody. Focusing on the positive and appreciating those things more leads to happiness increases in less than a week.

One group was told to focus on all the upbeat things they could find — sunshine, flowers, smiling pedestrians. Another was to look for negative stuff — graffiti, litter, frowning faces. The third group was instructed to walk just for the exercise. At the end of the week, when the walkers' well-being was tested again, those who had deliberately targeted positive cues were happier than before the experiment. The negatively focused subjects were less happy, and the just plain exercisers scored in between. The point, says Bryant, is that "you see what you look for. And you can train yourself to attend to the joy out there waiting to be had, instead of passively waiting for it to come to you." [Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life]

Impressive, huh? Okay, so what's the best way to start savoring?

Savoring 101
Stop. Just for a second. Stop checking texts when your friends are right in front of you. Stop watching TV while you eat. Don't surf the web while you're on the phone. Just do one thing at a time that you like, and don't hurry through it. Slow down and appreciate it.

Just doing that — that alone — caused significant decreases in depression and increases in happiness.

In one set of studies, depressed participants were invited to take a few minutes once a day to relish something that they usually hurry through (e.g., eating a meal, taking a shower, finishing the workday, or walking to the subway). When it was over, they were instructed to write down in what ways they had experienced the event differently as well as how that felt compared with the times when they rushed through it. In another study, healthy students and community members were instructed to savor two pleasurable experiences per day, by reflecting on each for two or three minutes and trying to make the pleasure last as long and as intensely as possible. In all these studies those participants prompted to practice savoring regularly showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression. [The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want]

In many ways time is key when it comes to savoring. Knowing something has limited days or hours helps you savor. When things will soon come to an end we don't take them for granted. We're grateful, we savor them, and we're happier.

Seek out those bittersweet moments because research shows they will help you appreciate things more.

When we are fully mindful of the transience of things — an impending return home from an overseas adventure, a graduation, our child boarding the school bus for the first day of kindergarten, a close colleague changing jobs, a move to a new city — we are more likely to appreciate and savor the remaining time that we do have. Although bittersweet experiences also make us sad, it is this sadness that prompts us, instead of taking it for granted, to come to appreciate the positive aspects of our vacation, colleague, or hometown; it's "now or never." [The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want]

This can really help you get more out of life. And here's the best part: You don't have to do it alone.

How savoring can improve your relationships
Sharing good news with your partner is a happiness double whammy. It helps you savor and improves your relationship.

Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been shown to be associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being. So, when you or your spouse or cousin or best friend wins an honor, congratulate him or her (and yourself ), and celebrate. Try to enjoy the occasion to the fullest. Passing on and rejoicing in good news leads you to relish and soak up the present moment, as well as to foster connections with others. [The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want]

But good news doesn't come along every day. Is there something you can do more regularly as a couple to savor?

Create rituals the two of you can engage in. Do a toast before drinking and look into each other's eyes. Or any little thing that slows the moment down for appreciation.

I spoke to Harvard professor Francesca Gino, author of Sidetracked, and she said rituals are a great way to promote savoring around a meal:

You can think about rituals that you yourself might engage in prior to consumption experiences. What they do, they make us a little bit more mindful about the consumption experience that we are about to have. Because of that, we end up savoring the food or whatever we are drinking more…

But what about when things aren't so great? Can we boost our happiness when there are no good things to savor right now? Yes, you can.

Savoring is also a time machine
Savoring doesn't just need to happen in the moment. Reminiscing about the past and anticipating the future are also powerful, proven ways to savor — and boost your mood.

People prone to joyful anticipation, skilled at obtaining pleasure from looking forward and imagining future happy events, are especially likely to be optimistic and to experience intense emotions. In contrast, those proficient at reminiscing about the past — looking back on happy times, rekindling joy from happy memories — are best able to buffer stress. [The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want]

Reminiscing about past good times with others is like sharing good news. It improves your relationship and makes both of you happier.

Researchers have found that mutual reminiscence — sharing memories with other people — is accompanied by abundant positive emotions, such as joy, accomplishment, amusement, contentment, and pride. [The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want]

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has a four point system that I love:

  1. Anticipate with pleasure,
  2. Savor the moment as I experience it,
  3. Express my happiness to myself or others, and
  4. Reflect on a happy memory.

How much simpler can being happier get?

Sum up
The clichés tell us to stop and smell the roses. The science agrees. And when you survey 1,200 people over 70 years old, who have had full lives, what advice do they offer?

I asked Karl Pillemer, author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Here's what they said:

… you should savor small, daily experiences and make the most of every day.

We all want to be happy and sometimes it seems so hard to get there. But the answer is simpler than we think and right in front of us.

(Hey, stop skimming. Slow down. Appreciate the words.)

Seriously: stop and smell the roses today. Enjoy the little things in life. Science shows us it really does make a difference.

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