We all want to know how to find happiness. And the internet is chock full of advice on how to get there — but most of it is based on studies done on a bunch of college sophomores.
Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't trust our 19-year-old selves when it comes to the most important thing in life.
So what produces happiness all around the world, among people young and old, across the most varied backgrounds imaginable? I figured I'd call an expert who knows the answer.
Robert Biswas-Diener is known as the "Indiana Jones" of psychology. He's spent time studying happiness in India, Greenland, Spain, and Israel. He's hung out with the Amish and the Masai of Kenya to see what produces smiles everywhere.
He's an instructor at Portland State University and co-author of the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.
Robert is going to explain how to find meaning in your work, what the biggest happiness mistake you make is, and the three words that are most likely to brighten your day (and they're not "winning the lottery.")
Let's get to it.
AIM for happiness
Taken literally that sounds like corny self-help talk. But AIM is an acronym. (Research is much easier to follow when you can actually remember it, right?)
A is for attention. Quite simply, you'll be as happy as where your attention is directed. Focus on the good stuff, be optimistic, and you'll feel good.
Focus on the bad stuff (that's pretty much what we call "news" these days) and you're going to feel worse. Here's Robert:
What you pay attention to in the world is what you're going to end up knowing. Stuff will never get into your head if you don't look at it. If what you're paying attention to is bad news, if what you're paying attention to is all that goes wrong in the world, that's going to be what ends up cluttering your mind. Just keeping your visual horizon open in terms of "What am I looking at? If I can look at some good stuff, then that gives me the opportunity, in terms of my thinking, to be happy."
The I in AIM is for interpretation. We tend to think that the way we see things right now is the only way to look at them. Wrong.
A promotion can feel like a good thing — or it can scare you because you don't feel up to the new challenges. Losing your job can be awful, or if it was lousy job it can be the best thing to happen to you in years.
You can't control the facts, but you do have control over how you interpret them. And it's the latter that determines whether you'll feel happy or not. Here's Robert:
We all know people who can take the exact same piece of news and think it's bad or good. A lot of what goes on in our individual worlds is subject to interpretation. Is a promotion an opportunity to feel anxious or is it an exciting new time where I get to feel empowered? That's all the interpretation.
The M stands for memory. You don't know what's going to happen next in life, so thinking about the future can be fun or terrifying.
Happy memories, however, are a safe bet. You can turn to those for a guaranteed boost when you need it. Take time to look back and savor those moments that made you smile. Here's Robert:
Memory has to do with savoring: reliving the positive moments. This is a bit counterintuitive, but the past is in some ways a more secure repository of happiness than the future. We're always trying to make future decisions in the hope that it will make us happy, but your past has guaranteed points of happiness. I think that if you occasionally look back to the past, you can dredge some of those happy memories into the present and feel them with the same emotional resonance that you did at the time they occurred.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, so AIM is a good way to remember some fundamental things that can keep you happy. But what should you actually do every day to build a happier life? (And, no, eating ice cream 24/7 is not an option.)
Is there a principle to guide your actions at work and at home that can make sure you get more pleasure out of most any task? Yes.
Use your strengths
The more you do things you're good at, the happier you'll be.
The psychologically wealthy are characterized by the ability to see what is good in the world, but nevertheless to be grounded in reality. They are involved in activities they believe are meaningful and important, and they have found activities in which they can use their strengths.
The projects you take on at work, the activities you engage in during your leisure time, the more they involve skills you're uniquely good at, the better you'll feel. And the research shows this is no small effect:
Americans also gain a boost in positive emotions the more they use their strengths. The more hours per day adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect.
The more you do what you're good at, the more goodness you feel.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will keep that brain of yours happy, click here.)
So doing what you're good at can even make the office more pleasurable. But given that work is called "work" and not called "unending fun" it's often the source of a lot of stress.
And you don't always get to use your strengths. So what can really imbue your 9-to-5 with meaning and make you feel better about your job? The answer is to not have a job at all.
Have a calling
No, you don't have to get a new job to find meaning in your work. Much like the "I" in AIM, it's about how you see it.
When you think about the end result of your work, the benefit it provides to others, and feel like you're on a mission — BOOM. That can turn most any job into a calling. Here's Robert:
If you had 2 choices and one is feeling that your job was just a paycheck and you didn't think it was that worthwhile, versus you got the same paycheck, but you also thought that your job was somehow important or making a contribution, I think most people would agree that that second scenario sounds a bit more attractive. That is, in part, the product of just the way you think about your work. It doesn't matter if you're a lawyer or a bus driver, if you're blue collar or white collar. You still could feel like you're making a real strong contribution.
And the research shows this small perspective shift can have big results.
When people who clean hospitals stopped thinking about emptying trash cans and instead saw themselves as contributing toward sick people getting better, emptying those same trash cans became engaging and meaningful.
Wrzesniewski and Dutton followed a group of hospital cleaners, and found that some of the cleaners experienced their work as a job — as something they did solely for the paycheck — and described it as boring and meaningless. But another group perceived the same work as a calling — and experienced the hours they spent at work as engaging and meaningful. This second group of hospital cleaners did things differently from the first group. They engaged in more interactions with nurses, patients, and visitors, taking it upon themselves to make everyone they came in contact with feel better. Generally, they saw their work in its broader context: They were not merely cleaning the wards and removing the trash, but were contributing to the health of patients and the smooth functioning of the hospital.
How does what you do contribute to helping others and making their lives better? That's the perspective that provides meaning and joy. It's not what you do. It's how you think about what you do.
(To learn more about how to be happier at work, click here.)
So if you think about contributing to others will you finally get to that state of pure bliss, gliding on a cloud of never-ending joy? Will you be done ever having to think about happiness again? Hell, no.
And that's what Robert says is one of the biggest mistakes we all make when trying to be happier.
Happiness is a process, not a place
Nobody is always happy. Nobody. Robert has studied very happy people and they get the blues too. Settling for nothing less than complete euphoria is a prescription for depression.
You're never going to "get there" because there is no there there. We're made happy by what we think and what we do every day. It's an ongoing process.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, "You can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf." Here's Robert:
It is just so tempting for myself, for everyone, to think about happiness as something that happens on the other side of the finish line. "If I marry the right person, I get the right commute, I get the right job, I get that paycheck, I go on that vacation, I'm going to end up feeling happy." Happiness is a whole lot more like a roller coaster, with ups and downs that just continues and continues and continues. I can guarantee you that in your future, you will have moments of happiness and moments of unhappiness. Happiness, because it is a process that happens sometimes throughout the day and across the week and over the course of months; it's something that needs to be managed on an ongoing basis.
Here's an interesting fact about happiness: Frequency beats intensity. What's that mean? Lots of little good things make you happier than a few big things.
Research shows that religious services and exercising both bring people a disproportionate amount of happiness. Why? Churches and gyms don't have a lot in common (though both have made me sweat on occasion).
The reason is they both give us frequent, regular boosts. So stop trying to get that one magic brass ring. It doesn't exist. Scheduling frequent little things that make you happy is the real solution.
(To learn the 8 things the happiest people in the world have in common, click here.)
So I've thrown around the words "fun" and "meaning" in discussing happiness. But they're not the same thing. In fact, how you achieve the two are often in direct opposition with one another. Um, that's a problem. Here's the solution.
Balance pleasure now with meaning later
Pleasure is, well, pleasurable. And that's a totally legit form of happiness. But "live fast" is usually followed by "die young." And "All work and no play" might get Jack promoted but it also makes him a very dull boy.
You need both pleasure and meaning. Here's Robert:
Let's not knock pleasure. I think people enjoy bubble baths. They enjoy eating chocolate. They enjoy a lot of pleasurable stuff, but if all you do is hang out with your friends and focus on that pleasure, you're never going to delay gratification. You're never going to have the opportunity to study for the test or do some of those things that might be part of the work that's valuable to you in terms of achieving your long-term goals. That said, people who only focus on long-term goals and a driving sense of meaning sometimes sacrifice too much pleasure and they would probably do well to just enjoy the moment a little bit. There has to be some balance.
Short-term fun and effort toward long-term goals: Neither one produces an optimal life on its own. Like salty and sweet, you should alternate to get the most flavor.
(To learn more about how mindfulness can help you find happiness, click here.)
Now balancing can be a tricky endeavor, so I made sure to ask Robert what the numero uno path to happiness was around the world. He didn't hesitate to answer.
Focus on relationships — but don't compare
If you want to be happier, spend more time on your relationships. Robert found this to be true all around this crazy planet of ours. Support your friends, kiss your partner, hug your kids. Here's Robert:
There's basically no culture in the world where relationships aren't vital to our sense of well-being. To the extent that people feel that they are making some substantive contribution to their family, some substantive contribution to their workplace or to their community, they tend to feel that sense of meaning, and that sense of meaning is important for most people.
Now where relationships get us into trouble is when we start comparing ourselves to those who have more than we do. Bad. Wrong. Go no further. Be happy for what you have, not envious of what others do. Here's Robert:
If you get locked into that "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" phenomenon, and if you compare yourself to other people, it may leave you feeling a bit dissatisfied or inadequate. It turns out that the more you compare your situation to a better what-might-have-been, the less happy you're going to be.
I would love to think you're going to memorize this entire post and get the important parts tattooed on yourself as helpful reminders, but that's not going to happen.
So I asked Robert, "If people forget everything you said about happiness except for one thing, what should they definitely remember?"
He said: "Invest in others." Here's Robert:
We know that relationships buffer us against hard times, and also promote good times, and pleasantries become better when we share them with others. Taking the time to invest in others and invest in your relationships, whether that's more time with your friends or more time with your kids or what have you; I think that's the biggest bang for your buck.
To learn an FBI behavior expert's tips on how to get people to like you, click here.)
Alright, we've learned a lot from Robert. Let's round it all up and find out the final tip that will make sure you — yes, you alone — will be happier tomorrow than you were today.
Here's what Robert had to say about how to find happiness:
- AIM for happiness: Attention to the good, interpret things positively, and enjoy happy memories.
- Use your strengths: Whatever you're doing, try to engage your unique skills.
- Have a calling: How does your work contribute to the world? That's how you find meaning.
- Happiness is a process, not a place: No one thing will make you happy forever. But lots of little smiles will.
- Balance pleasure now with meaning later: Have fun on the weekend. And work hard on Monday.
- Focus on relationships, but don't compare: If you remember nothing else: Invest in others.
So how do you tailor this advice so it works for you? That's easy. Don't do it all. Yeah, I'm telling you to actively ignore some of the stuff you've just read.
Maybe using your strengths isn't an option. Or you don't feel your work contributes much to others. That's okay. Robert says you should emphasize what you find works for you and double down on that.
Don't force something that doesn't click for you. But make sure to regularly do the things that show results. Happiness is not one-size-fits-all. Here's Robert:
There's no single panacea. I like to empower people to go about the business of finding happiness their own way. Mindfulness meditation is going to drive some people crazy, or a gratitude journal is going to seem repetitive to others. It's okay to figure out what works for you. If yoga is great for you, awesome. If relationships are great for you, awesome. You should feel empowered, regardless of what the research says, or regardless of what a blog post says, to use the strategies that you know work in your life.
So, right now, get out your calendar and plan a recurring appointment to do something that you know makes you happy.
When I spoke to Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker she said time use studies show there's a gap between how people want to spend their time and what they end up doing. They know what makes them happy — but they don't do it enough.
Your calendar should not just be a list of obligations, interruptions and tedious errands. What are you trying to do? Inject dehydrated concentrate of depression right into your eyes?
Anticipation is powerful. Research shows it can actually be more pleasurable than the activity itself. So give yourself something to look forward to.
Find pleasure in that appointment on your calendar. Find meaning in your work. Find love in your friends. And all of the sudden you'll realize what you've really found is happiness in your life.
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