You know the feeling: you’ve reached a milestone, achieved some success, hit a goal, and you’re happy – for a day. So you decide to reach higher – a promotion at work, a dream holiday, maybe a kitchen remodel. But all too soon you’re back to where you started – at least emotionally speaking. Happiness researchers know this pattern, too, dubbing it the ‘hedonic treadmill.’ So is lasting happiness possible?
It is, according to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside. As Sonja explains in her book The How of Happiness, half of your happiness level is determined at birth, while external circumstances account for only 10 per cent more. The remaining 40 per cent of your happiness, she says, is within your power to change.
How? By practising the habits of thought and action that separate happy people from the rest of us. Reams of research have shown how and why certain ways to happiness work. We highlight the top seven among the tried and true and show a new approach to each.
Spend more time in ‘flow activities’
A new approach: Spend more time in an activity in which you lose yourself, during which you don’t notice time passing. For some, it’s working with your hands, such as gardening or knitting. For others, it’s mental, like reading an absorbing novel or having a great conversation.
Why it works: Instead of dwelling on the past or fretting about tomorrow, you’re fully immersed in the present doing something you love. And unlike some activities that give you a mood lift, flow activities tend to be productive and controllable and don’t cause any guilt or other unwelcome side effects.
Keep in mind: Some things that draw you in just don’t put you in a state of flow. “Most of our leisure time we’re not engaged,” says Sonja. We do need some time to veg out, she says, but if you’re spending hours in front of the TV or on the Internet, ask yourself if you’re really enjoying yourself and what you could be doing instead that will bring you more satisfaction.
A new approach: Recognise that one person can change a relationship and seek out ways to invest in your marriage, family, and friendships.
Why it works: Solid relationships are a strong predictor of your happiness. The happier a person is, Sonja says, the more likely she is to have a large circle or friends or companions, a romantic partner, and ample social support, all of which helps in practical and emotional ways, especially in times of stress. And, of course, relationships go hand-in-hand with love, which feels good in and of itself.
“But what happens in marriage or friendship is you start taking these relationships for granted,” Sonja cautions, and that leads to relationship decline. Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can change yourself that impact your relationships. “The research shows that things like admiring the other person, expressing gratitude, and spending time together are very effective.” Sonja also has a hunch - which her lab is testing - that variety and surprise keep relationships from growing stale and unsatisfying.
Keep in mind: You’re surrounded by many people, so while your family is important, there are plenty of other relationships you can nurture.
A new approach: Start an optimism diary. First, imagine yourself in ten years as if all your dreams have come true. Then describe what this future looks and feels like and how you’ve gotten there.
Why it works: Writing about a positive future is not only pleasant - it also makes you clarify your goals and helps you see that they’re attainable. “Optimism motivates us and leads us to take initiative,” Sonja explains: if you think you’ll achieve your goals, you’ll invest more effort toward them and persevere even when you hit inevitable obstacles.
Keep in mind: Contrary to popular opinion, optimistic people aren’t unrealistic. While it’s true that the world can be a cruel place, it’s also true that it can be wonderful. Being an optimist or a pessimist is a matter of which side you choose.
A new approach: Find something personally significant to strive toward and go for it. Choose goals that are authentic and inherently rewarding, the kind you’d gladly pursue even on vacation. (The opposite, which don’t bring as much happiness, are goals you’d choose mainly for money, social status, and other external rewards.) After you’ve decided on your goals, figure out when, where, and how you’ll take steps to get there.
Why it works: If you’ve ever felt the let-down after attaining a goal you thought would make you happy, you know that the path toward a goal can be at least as satisfying as the destination. “It’s kind of a cliche, but you really have to enjoy the process of getting there,” says Sonja. Much of the joy of the process, she explains, has to do with the sense of meaning and purpose that goals give your life.
In reaching milestones along the way to major goals, you also feel joy and pride, no matter how briefly, and making progress gives you a sense of competence and control over your life. Not only that, committed goal pursuit forces you to manage your time and gives you something to look forward to in good times and bad. Finally, pursuing goals often involves other people, such as teachers and partners, and these relationships fulfil a deep-seated human need to belong.
Keep in mind: While perseverance is good, it’s best to stay flexible. Sometimes circumstances outside your control force you to give up on a goal, and recent research shows the benefits of doing that.
A new approach: Try something small that you don’t normally do: it might be giving money to a new charity, helping a work colleague with some chores, or just paying someone a compliment. “The things you normally do aren’t going to change your happiness level, but you can do small things that make you feel good and contribute to the world,” says Sonja.
Why it works: “Kindness has concrete consequences,” Sonja explains. Even a small act of kindness, like helping someone carry groceries across the street, can start a powerful cascade. It might boost your mood and make you feel better about yourself, which might make you more creative during a presentation, which might earn a compliment from your supervisor, which makes you better company during lunch with friends, which strengthens those friendships.
Keep in mind: Some forms of kindness - especially full-time caregiving or when you can’t say ‘no’ to anyone - can take a heavy toll, leaving you overwhelmed, unappreciated, and resentful. If you feel you’re already giving a lot of yourself, vary your acts of kindness.
A new approach: Write a letter thanking someone who’s made a difference in your life, such as a beloved relative, teacher, or mentor at work.
Why it works: We tend to get used to much of the good in our lives and take it for granted. Expressing appreciation forces you to do the opposite. Also, like many of the activities, appreciation starts an upward spiral of good effects. “‘If you’re genuinely grateful, people will react positively, you might strengthen friendships, and you’ll have a charitable perspective in general,” Sonja says.
Keep in mind: Your gratitude letter doesn’t have to be formal and sentimental. Like all the activities, do what feels natural to you. If a funny email is more your style, feel free to go with that.
A new approach: When you experience trauma or crisis - say, a car accident or bad health news - try problem-focused coping. Problem-focused coping typically means putting aside other activities, seeking advice, making a plan of action, and tackling the plan one step at a time.
Why it works: When trauma occurs, we can choose to respond by managing the situation or managing our emotional reaction. Women tend to favour emotional coping - that can be healthy, but even at its best it’s no substitute for fixing the car or getting medical treatment. People who use problem-focused coping get less depressed from stressful situations, says Sonja. What’s more, one study showed that women benefited more from learning problem-focused strategies, probably because they already practiced emotional coping.
Keep in mind: Not all traumatic events have a practical solution, so a problem-focused approach won’t always work. In those cases, reach for effective emotional coping tools.