Meanwhile, my 94 year-old grandmother recently fell in the hallway of her house and broke her shoulder. I spoke to her on the phone, and she is as happy as a clam. She spoke about the nice day she had at church with her friends, and the visitors she had coming this week (there are many, we have a big family).
What’s wrong with this picture? Shouldn’t people at a waterpark be happy, and an old lady with a broken shoulder be sad?
Nope, that isn’t how it works. Happiness is the result of many factors combined – it is definitely not the result of what we are doing at this exact moment.
Yet, when we see our friends on Facebook on their honeymoon to South Africa, or the neighbors with their new trampoline, our immediate impulse is “I want that! That will make me happier!”
We logically know what will make us happy, yet we often don’t use this knowledge. We are like smokers – fully aware that cigarettes are bad for you, yet still smoking like a chimney.
There is a missing piece in the puzzle: Connecting our knowledge with the thoughts we have throughout our daily lives.
We have it all backwards!
Happiness Causes Fun
Fun (By Itself) Does Not Cause Happiness
When you achieve happiness, you can have fun just about anywhere. Some of my greatest memories are during times when I was in what are, on the surface, miserable environments. In Thailand with my wife, Cherise, we went hiking
through a dense forest which, little did we know, was littered with millions of leeches. Jumping around to escape the leeches with Cherise was a blast! And, it is a memory I won’t forget. Now, we say things like, “Love you times all of the leeches in Thailand” – An acknowledgement that this is essentially the largest multiplier in existence.
When I was traveling Europe, my mom and I went to Venice on a backpacking trip. The last bus dropped us off at the wrong location, and we had to hike through torrential rain in the middle of the night, on no sleep, for over an hour. Cars drenched us, and our massive backpacks, with buckets of water as they passed. And when we got to our campground/hostel, it was locked up for the night. This, among hundreds of others, is one of my favorite memories with my mom.
In both of these cases, I was happy and, as a result, had fun.
If we want to have fun and be happy, we need to focus on increasing our happiness, not on creating a ‘fun environment.’ Once you achieve happiness, the fun will naturally follow.
The building blocks of happiness
Jump into new experiences: Psychologist Richard Walker of Winston-Salem State University analyzed 30,000 event memories in 300 diaries and found that people who engage in fresh experiences are more likely to recall positive emotions and forget the negative ones.1
- Nurture close relationships: Building tight and meaningful relationships with those around you helps to create a sense of fulfillment and meaning in your life. Studies have repeatedly shown that relationships are one of the greatest contributors to happiness as a whole – if there is any one area to focus on for happiness results, this might be it.2
- Follow realistic goals: While many people are quick to say that ambition and far-reaching goals contribute to happiness by providing us with ‘something to aim for,’ science unfortunately does not back this up. By analysing participants in the Terman Life-Cycle study3 (which tracked over 1,000 participants starting in 1922, and throughout their lives), Timothy Judge, at the University of Notre Dame, found that high levels of ambition leads to minor levels of increased happiness, compared to those without significant ambition. There was an exception: If participants were highly ambitious and their achievements didn’t match their goals, they were less happy than those who didn’t have any major ambitions in the first place.4 The lesson here isn’t to throw your ambitions in the trash – it is to make sure they are reasonable and achievable (and will lead you to new experiences, which are proven to make you happier5).
Give yourself stability: Money may not directly buy you happiness, but having enough of it to live in a stable home environment helps. A 2010 Princeton study found that the more money you have, the happier you are – until you reach US$ 75,000 per year. After that, you can continue to generate more wealth but it doesn’t, on average, increase your happiness.6
- Appreciate and accept: appreciating and accepting what you have, rather than lusting after what you don’t have, provides a deep sense of happiness and calm. One trick is to imagine life without some of the things that you enjoy every day (like having a hot shower, 3 meals a day, or the ability to walk around your neighborhood block without worrying about being killed by a car bomb), then think about how grateful you are that you have these things.
- Exercise, sleep and eat healthy: The benefits of overall good health, including exercise, sleep and diet, are far beyond having a nice physique. Being healthy physically makes you happier. After all, happiness is a chemical reaction in our brains. By being healthy, you enable this chemical reaction and support a more balanced and mindful perspective on life.7
Foster a balanced perspective: A healthy, balanced perspective on life, and the events that happen throughout any given day, allows us to ‘roll with the punches’ more easily. By practicing mindfulness, we can more thoroughly understand why we are feeling the emotions we feel, and therefore better make decisions that work in our own best interest. Walter Mischel, designer of the famous ‘Mashmellow Test,’8 proposes a ‘fly on the wall’ approach to maintaining a balanced perspective on events. He proposes that we extract ourselves from being in the middle of challenging events and imagine ourselves as a ‘fly on the wall.’ 9This psychological distance allows us to recommend solutions to ourselves as if we were an outside observer – without all of the emotional complications.
- Try these happiness hacks: There are many small ‘hacks’ you can practice to produce increased levels of happiness. Do any of these on their own isn’t going to skyrocket your happiness levels, but adding them to a larger routine of good habits throughout your day will add icing on your happiness cake. These include:
Build these habits into your life
(the hard part)
It’s easy to get sidetracked by the day-to-day complications and hurries of life. When we try to implement change in our lives, it can seem like a momentous effort. The key is to focus on just one day at a time. It sounds cliché, but it works.
As Dale Carnegie says in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, try to live in ‘day-tight compartments,’ which will help limit your exposure to thoughts about yesterday and tomorrow (which are not very helpful when trying to change a habit today).
“The best kind of happiness is a habit you’re passionate about.”
― Shannon L. Alder
- Louis M. Terman; Robert R. Sears; Lee Cronbach; Pauline S. Sears; Albert Hastorf, 1990, “Terman Life Cycle Study of Children with High Ability, 1922–1986”, hdl:1902.1/00882 UNF:3:VYfuzUFRIZJg5iLltokMFQ== Murray Research Archive [Distributor] V3 [Version] ↩
- The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control↩
CC Images courtesy of Nico Aguilera, Zachary Collier, Andrey Naumov, ReySharks, The U.S. Army, Natasha Mileshina on Flickr