I've posted a lot about happiness. Looking back, what can we learn from the happiest people to make our own lives better?
1. Relationships, relationships, relationships
What happens when you look at the happiest people and scientifically analyze what they have in common? Researchers did just that. There was a clear answer to what differentiated these people from everyone else — and it wasn't money, smarts, age, gender, or race.
It was strong social relationships.
Turns out, there was one — and only one — characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. My empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result — social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race. In fact, the correlation between social support and happiness was 0.7. This may not sound like a big number, but for researchers it's huge — most psychology findings are considered significant when they hit 0.3. The point is, the more social support you have, the happier you are. [The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work]
The Grant Study (which followed a group of men for their entire lives) found that "the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty."
Vaillant's insight came from his seminal work on the Grant Study, an almost seventy-year (and ongoing) longitudinal investigation of the developmental trajectories of Harvard College graduates. (This study is also referred to as the Harvard Study.) In a study led by Derek Isaacowitz, we found that the capacity to love and be loved was the single strength most clearly associated with subjective well-being at age eighty. [Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being]
If you do one thing today to be happier, spend time with friends. Not spending more time with people we love is something we regret the most.
(More on the power of relationships here.)
2. Do more, not less
The happiest people are those that are very busy but don't feel rushed:
Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed.
I know, you're tired. You want a break. But doing nothing is not the answer. Too much time is a burden: Surveys "continue to show the least happy group to be those who quite often have excess time." Boredom, it seems, is burdensome.
So what do you need to be doing? Things you're good at.
"Signature strengths" are the things you are uniquely talented at — and using them brings you joy. People who deliberately exercised their signature strengths on a daily basis became significantly happier for months.
When 577 volunteers were encouraged to pick one of their signature strengths and use it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed than control groups. And these benefits lasted: Even after the experiment was over, their levels of happiness remained heightened a full month later. Studies have shown that the more you use your signature strengths in daily life, the happier you become.[The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work]
Signature strengths are the secret to experiencing more "flow" at work and in life. Exercising them is why starving artists are happier with their jobs. The old saw "those who do what they love never work a day in their life" seems true.
(More on the "more" theory of happiness here.)
3. Do not stay in a job you hate
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University interviewed nearly 1500 people age 70 to 100+ for his book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. What piece of advice were they more adamant about than any other? More adamant about than lessons regarding marriage, children, and happiness?
Do not stay in a job you dislike.
You know those nightmares where you are shouting a warning but no sound comes out? Well, that's the intensity with which the experts wanted to tell younger people that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake. There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful. Over and over they prefaced their comments with, "If there's one thing I want your readers to know it's . . ." From the vantage point of looking back over long experience, wasting around two thousand hours of irretrievable lifetime each year is pure idiocy. [30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans]
Take a lesson from people who have already seen most of what life has to offer: Do not waste time in a job you hate.
(More on what you can learn about happiness from older, wiser folks here.)
4. Plan your happiness
It's ironic that we treasure happiness so much yet often treat it as this random bit of alchemy we luck into. That's silly. Passively waiting for happiness is a losing proposition. Happiness needs regular appointments.
Schedule the things that make you happy.
Is this overly simple and obvious? Yes. Do you regularly do it? Probably not.
In my interview with Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker, author of The Dragonfly Effect, she explained:
…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… 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.
…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.
Look at the things that make you happy and plan them into your calendar and schedule. Do not wait for happiness. Game the system. Happiness card-counting. Happiness Moneyball. Refuse to leave it to chance.
(More on scheduling happiness here.)
5. Happiness isn't everything
No one confuses the type of happiness ice cream brings with the positive feelings one gets from raising a good kid. Happiness is a vague word. We need happy feelings but we also need meaning in our lives.
And research shows they are related but distinct:
Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one's stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker.
Researchers at Tohoku University in Japan did a seven year study of over 43,000 adults age 40 to 79 asking if they had ikigai (a Japanese term for meaning in life) and then tracked their health. People with ikigai were much more likely to be alive seven years later.
Even when likely confounds were taken into account, ikigai predicted who was still alive after seven years. Said another way, 95 percent of respondents who reported a sense of meaning in their lives were alive seven years after the initial survey versus about 83 percent of those who reported no sense of meaning in their lives. The lack of ikigai was in particular associated with death due to cardiovascular disease (usually stroke), but not death due to cancer. [Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology]
Running marathons is painful. Completing them is awesome. Studying is boring. Having a degree feels great. Happiness in the moment is not everything.
In his TED talk, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow discussed two different types of happiness that sound very similar to the distinction between happiness and meaning. The first is being happy in your life. It is happiness that you experience immediately and in the moment. The second is being happy about your life. It is the happiness that exists in memory when we talk about the past and the big picture. Stories are key here. This is closer to "meaning."
(More on how to lead a meaningful life here.)
6. Give — but not until it hurts
Giving makes us happier than receiving. In fact, it can create a feedback loop of happiness in your life. Helping others reach their goals brings joy. Doing nice things for others today can literally make you happier for the rest of the week.
However, being a martyr stresses you out and is bad for your health.
Research shows that on the job, people who engage in selfless giving end up feeling overloaded and stressed, as well as experiencing conflict between work and family. This is even true in marriages: In one study of married couples, people who failed to maintain an equilibrium between their own needs and their partner's needs became more depressed over the next six months. [Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success]
What to do? Do all your giving one day a week.
The chunkers achieved gains in happiness; the sprinklers didn't. Happiness increased when people performed all five giving acts in a single day, rather than doing one a day. Lyubomirsky and colleagues speculate that "spreading them over the course of a week might have diminished salience and power or made them less distinguishable from participants habitual kind of behavior." [Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success]
How much should you give? Remember The 100 Hour Rule. One hundred hours a year — in other words, two hours per week.
One hundred seems to be a magical number when it comes to giving. In a study of more than 2,000 Australian adults in their mid-60s, those who volunteered between 100 and 800 hours per year were happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who volunteered fewer than one hundred or more than eight hundred hours annually. In another study, American adults who volunteered at least one hundred hours in 1998 were more likely to be alive in 2000. There were no benefits of volunteering more than one hundred hours. This is the 100-hour rule of volunteering. It appears to be the range where giving is maximally energizing and minimally draining. [Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success]
A hundred hours a year breaks down to just two hours a week. Research shows that if people start volunteering two hours a week, their happiness, satisfaction, and self-esteem go up a year later.
(More on the power of giving here.)
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