Is happiness a choice? No… and yes. In The How of Happiness, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky says that 50 percent of happiness is genetically predetermined. In terms of happiness, you are what (half of) you are.
But that leaves 50 percent of your level of happiness largely within your control: Health, relationships, career, goals, activities…
Which means that even if you have an inborn tendency to skew to the gloomy side, you can still take scientifically proven steps that will make you happier:
1. Find ways to help other people.
While giving is usually considered unselfish, giving can also be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver: Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it.
Intuitively, we know that. It feels great to help someone in need. Not only is that fulfilling, it’s a reminder of how comparatively fortunate we are — which is a nice reminder of how thankful we should be for what we already have.
Plus, receiving is something you cannot control — if you need or want help, you can’t make other people help you. But you can always control whether you offer and provide help.
And that means you can always control, at least to a degree, how happy you are — because giving makes you happier.
2. Actively pursue goals.
Goals you don’t pursue aren’t goals, they’re dreams, and dreams make you happy only when you’re dreaming.
Pursuing goals, though, does make you happy. According to David Niven, author of 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life, “People who could identify a goal they were pursuing were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves.”
So be grateful for what you have, and then actively try to achieve more. If you’re pursuing a huge goal, make sure that every time you take a small step closer to achieving it, you pat yourself on the back.
But don’t compare where you are now with where you someday hope to be. Compare where you are now to where you were a few days ago. Then you’ll get dozens of bite-size chunks of fulfillment — and a never-ending supply of things to be thankful for.
3. Do what you do well more often.
You know the old cliché regarding the starving-yet-happy artist? Turns out it’s true: Artists are considerably more satisfied with their work than non-artists — even though the pay tends to be considerably lower than in other skilled fields.
Why? I’m no researcher, but clearly the more you enjoy what you do and the more fulfilled you feel by it, the happier you will be.
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that when volunteers picked “one of their signature strengths and used it in a new way each day for a week, they became significantly happier and less depressed.”
Of course it’s unreasonable to think you can simply do what you love. But you can find ways to do more of what you do best.
Delegate. Outsource. Shift the products and services you provide into areas that allow you to bring more of your strengths to bear. If you’re a great trainer, find ways to train more people. If you’re a great salesperson, find ways to streamline your administrative tasks and get in front of more customers.
Everyone has at least a few things they do incredibly well. Find ways to do those things more often.
You’ll be a lot happier. And probably a lot more successful (in whatever way you choose to define success.)
4. Make a few really good friends.
It’s easy to focus on building a professional network of partners, customers, employees, connections, etc., because there is (hopefully) a payoff.
But there’s a definite payoff to making real (not just professional or social-media) friends. Increasing your number of friends correlates to higher subjective well-being; doubling your number of friends is like increasing your income by 50 percent in terms of how happy you feel.
And if that’s not enough, people who don’t have strong social relationships are 50 percent less likely to survive at any given time than those who do. (That’s a scary thought for loners like me.)
Make friends outside of work. Make friends at work. Make friends everywhere.
Make real friends. You’ll live a longer, happier life.
5. Actively (and regularly) count your blessings.
According to one study, couples who expressed gratitude in their interactions with each other experienced increased relationship connection and satisfaction the next day — both for the person expressing thankfulness and (no big surprise) the person receiving it. (In fact, the authors of the study said gratitude was like a “booster shot” for relationships.)
Of course the same is true at work. Express gratitude for employees’ hard work, and you both feel better about yourselves.
Another easy method is to write down a few things you are grateful for every night. One study showed people who wrote down five things they were thankful for once a week were 25 percent happier after 10 weeks; in effect, they dramatically increased their chances of meeting their happiness set-point.
Happy people focus on what they have, not on what they don’t have. It’s motivating to want more in your career, relationships, bank account, etc., but thinking about what you already have, and expressing gratitude for it, will make you a lot happier.
It will also remind you that even if you still have huge dreams, you have already accomplished a lot — and should feel genuinely proud.
6. Embrace the fact that (more) money won’t make you happier.
Money is important. Money does a lot of things. (One of the most important is to create choices.)
But after a certain point, money doesn’t make people happier. After about $75,000 a year, money doesn’t buy more (or less) happiness. “Beyond $75,000…higher income is neither the road to experience happiness nor the road to relief of unhappiness or stress,” say two Princeton University researchers on the subject.
“Perhaps $75,000 is the threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure,” the researchers speculate.
And if you don’t buy that, here’s another take: “The materialistic drive and satisfaction with life are negatively related.” Or, in layman’s terms, “Chasing possessions tends to make you less happy.”
Think of it as the bigger house syndrome. You want a bigger house. You need a bigger house. (Not really, but it sure feels like you do.) So you buy it. Life is good…for a couple months, until your bigger house is just your house.
The new always becomes the new normal.
“Things” provide only momentary bursts of happiness. To be happier, don’t chase as many things.
Instead, chase more experiences.
And most importantly: Remember, fifty percent of how happy you are lies within your control.
See happiness as a choice — and start doing more of the things that make you happy.