You know what percentage of people are really happy? Not "oh, life is pretty good," I mean people who are flourishing. They feel their lives are fulfilling, meaningful, and brimming with potential.
Only 17 percent of the adult population is said to be flourishing, fulfilling their potential for happiness, success, and productivity.
Less than one in five. And the question that follows is, of course: How do I become one of those people?
I've been accumulating the research on happiness for a while. Good news is: There's a lot of it. Bad news is: Who can remember to do all that stuff?
Well, one expert finally put it together into a simple five-part formula.
Christine Carter is a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center which studies the psychology and neuroscience of well-being. She looked at the research and exhaustively compiled it into her book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.
So what's this formula to find your "sweet spot" of happiness — without completely overhauling your life?
Take recess + switch autopilot on + unshackle Yourself + cultivate relationships + tolerate some discomfort = The sweet spot
Okay, but what do we actually need to do?
Don't worry; it's pretty easy. Let's break it down:
1) Take recess
Most of what we do all day is "instrumental." What's that mean? It gets something done. It's practical. It achieves a goal.
But these days we seem to be doing more and more that's instrumental and a lot less that's just fun. We forget to play. Is that so bad?
Actually, you have no idea how bad it is. Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tried an experiment: He told people to just do instrumental activities all day long. No fun allowed, literally.
The old saying is "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." It's more accurate to say, "All work and no play gives Jack a clinical anxiety disorder in under 48 hours." Seriously.
Csikszentmihalyi unintentionally induced textbook cases of generalized anxiety disorder in people simply by instructing his subjects as follows: From the time you wake up until 9:00 p.m., he explained, "We would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is 'play' or 'non-instrumental.'" …Following these instructions for just 48 hours produced symptoms of serious anxiety in research subjects — restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension — all by eliminating flow and play from their lives. In other words, we get anxious when we aren't having any fun.
After two days he ended the experiment because of the extreme negative effects it was having on the test subjects.
So by trying to be so productive and get so much done you're probably stressing yourself out. What to do?
Schedule a little bit of fun every 90 minutes or so. Nothing productive allowed.
Today, take a good old-fashioned recess in the middle of the day. Go ahead and do your hardest or most dreaded work — or whatever you need to do — but after about 60 to 90 minutes of focused attention, honor your ultradian rhythms, and take a break. Rest… The only rule is that what you do during recess must be restful or playful; it can't be "instrumental" in any way.
You can actually get more done sometimes by being a bit of a slacker. Vacations make you more productive.
By working 60 hour weeks you can get a lot done. But when you work that hard for too long, your productivity drops off. After two months of 60 hours a week you'll actually accomplish less than if you'd only been working 40 hours a week.
One study, on construction projects, found that "where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week."
(For more on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
You might be worried that taking breaks will mean you still get less done. But we've got a solution for that.
2) Switch autopilot on
You spend 40 percent of the day on autopilot, engaging in habits, not actual decisions.
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions, but habits.
So start building better habits. You don't "decide" to brush your teeth, it's just something you do and it's not a struggle. With more habits like this you can get a lot more done in less time with little stress.
At first, just try little habits. Connect them to things that are already part of your routine.
"After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book."
"After I walk in my door from work, I will get out my workout clothes."
"After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day."
Another easy way to break in a new good habit is to use what happiness expert Shawn Achor calls the "20 second rule."
Anything you want to accomplish, find a way to make it 20 seconds easier to get started on (like putting your workout clothes next to the bed). Anything you want to stop doing, make it 20 seconds harder to start (hide the candy where it's hard to reach).
From my interview with Shawn:
If you can make the positive habit three to 20 seconds easier to start, you're likelihood of doing it rises dramatically. And you can do the same thing by flipping it for negative habits. Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20 second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch.
(For more on how to build good habits, click here.)
You're having more fun and becoming more efficient by turning routine tasks into habits. Great. What else will bring you more happiness. The answer is "less."
3) Unshackle yourself
Really, you can. Christine puts it pretty simply:
Decide on your five top priorities and say "no" to everything else.
We spend so much time reacting rather than following through with our goals.
Whenever I tell people they need to do less the reaction is pretty much like I told them to grow wings and fly: "That's impossible!"
But then I ask them four questions about a task and very, very rarely can they honestly answer "yes" to each one:
1. Does this thing really need to be done at all?
2. Do you absolutely have to be the one to do it?
3. Does it need to be done perfectly or will "pretty good" actually be enough?
4. Does it need to be done right now?
Like I said, very few tasks get a "yes" for all four. And that means you can either ignore it, delegate it, do it quickly, or make it one of tomorrow's top five.
You can do less. And less means less stress and more time for fun.
(For more on achieving work-life balance without driving yourself crazy, click here.)
So that means less on your plate. So what should you fill your plate with?
4) Cultivate relationships
Christine pulls a quote I love from the wonderful book Triumphs of Experience:
…there are two pillars of happiness revealed by the 75-year-old Grant Study…. One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.
If you ask psychology researchers, economists, insurance adjusters, and old people they will all agree on the single most important key to happiness: relationships.
That's not hard to believe. What is surprising is just how far that truth extends.
Researchers sent people into a Starbucks with $5 each to buy themselves a latte. Half were instructed to get their beverage as fast as they could, to "get in, get out, go on with the day." The other half were instructed to "have a genuine interaction with the cashier "— to smile and initiate a brief conversation. The folks who smiled at the barista left Starbucks feeling more cheerful. In the words of the study authors Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn: "Efficiency, it seems, is overrated."
So you can do that if you're a daily Starbucks drinker but just like with networking, the easiest way to work on relationships is to first strengthen the ones you already have.
Little cracks appear in our relationships all the time, and while we can certainly spend a lot of time and energy examining fissures and assigning blame — or pretending they aren't there or never happened — often the easiest thing is to just repair the crack. Without getting into it again, without raising past hurts, without projecting into the future. Often a hug and an "I love you" — or an apology and a heartfelt expression of gratitude — is all it takes.
You don't need to buy gifts or go out of your way. Just give your attention. Listen. Ask about the good things that have happened to them lately and be happy for them. It's that simple.
(For more on how to get people to like you, click here.)
Okay, last one coming up. And it's a bit ironic. Want life to be happier? Then make it a little harder…
5) Tolerate some discomfort
Many of us come home from work and think, "I just want to sit down and do nothing."
And that's understandable if you're overworked and burned out. But "doing nothing" is really not what will make you happier.
Sitting on the couch watching TV does not make your life better:
…heavy TV viewers, and in particular those with significant opportunity cost of time, report lower life satisfaction. Long TV hours are also linked to higher material aspirations and anxiety.
Research shows we're generally not inclined to do what makes us happiest, actually. We do what's easy.
Studies have found that American teenagers are two and a half times more likely to experience elevated enjoyment when engaged in a hobby than when watching TV, and three times more likely when playing a sport. And yet here's the paradox: These same teenagers spend four times as many hours watching TV as they do engaging in sports or hobbies. So what gives? Or, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it more eloquently, "Why would we spend four times more time doing something that has less than half the chance of making us feel good?" The answer is that we are drawn — powerfully, magnetically — to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. Active leisure is more enjoyable, but it almost always requires more initial effort — getting the bike out of the garage, driving to the museum, tuning the guitar, and so on.
Engaging in things you're good at has been shown to powerfully boost happiness. 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.
But how do you prevent this from becoming yet another stressful chore?
This isn't your boss forcing you to do something. This is you choosing to push yourself so you get better.
When we use our minds to "reappraise our stress response," as scientists call it, from stress to challenge, we can actually change the typical physiological response itself from a stress response to a challenge response… Researchers have found that when people reframe the meaning of their physiological response to stress as something that is improving their performance, they feel more confident and less anxious. Moreover, their physical response to the stress actually changes from one that is damaging to one that is helpful.
(For more on how to get better at anything, click here.)
Let's tie it all together into something simple that we can use.
Here's Christine's five step formula:
1. Take recess: Going two days without anything fun creates anxiety. Take breaks.
2. Switch autopilot on: Make unpleasant tasks into habits. Tie them to things you already do.
3. Unshackle yourself: Decide your five priorities for the day and say NO to everything else. Does it have to be done? Do you have to do it? Does it have to be done perfectly? Does it have to be done now? Probably not.
4. Cultivate relationships: They are the single biggest happiness booster. Celebrate the successes of those you love.
5. Tolerate some discomfort: Push to keep getting better. Mastery brings joy. Striving creates smiles.
One of the secrets of the happiest people isn't merely that their brains are wired that way, but they also engage in activities on a daily basis that keep them flourishing.
Try the above five things on a daily basis for a few weeks and see if they can make you happy. As Aristotle said:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
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