Happiness doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but these expert tips can certainly help.How to Be Happy
If you are reading this, you are most likely longing for a life full of meaning, connection and bliss. In other words, you want to be happy. But instead, you may be in a personal crisis or feel overworked, underpaid, or all of the above. Perhaps the current political situation rattles your nerves, or the climate change worries you. Whatever it is, you want to know what you can do.
Happiness is a hot topic. There are thousands of studies on happiness; hundreds of articles and books written about it; colleges and universities now teach happiness courses; and on Instagram, #happiness and #happy have a combined 655 million mentions. The prescriptions for happiness are just as abundant: tips, hints and secrets, ready-to-manifest formulas that promise to help us attain a happier life. But does this all actually make us happy? And can looking for happiness actually lead to unhappiness?
“If you focus too much on your own happiness, just focusing too much on yourself in general, that can lead to unhappiness,” says happiness coach Tia Graham, founder of Arrive at Happy, in Los Angeles. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around happiness.”
One example is that kindness and gratitude can make you happier.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist, leading researcher on happiness and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, says that some happiness strategies can backfire: “Like expressing gratitude, which studies show might make some people feel awkward or it might make people feel guilty for not having repeated that kindness that you are grateful for, or for not having to thank the person; it might make you feel indebted.”
“Expressing gratitude, which studies show might make some people feel awkward or it might make people feel guilty for not having repeated that kindness that you are grateful for…it might make you feel indebted.”
Generosity and giving to others are also supposed to make you happier, but Lyubomirsky says her research shows that not all acts of kindness are appreciated or welcome, because “they can come off as patronizing or make a person feel vulnerable, or not self-sufficient.”
“People who are too generous often neglect their own self-care and focus too much on other people,” she explains. “[They] can be harmed by that, or feel that it’s a burden.”
Are we doomed? Is attaining happiness an impossible task? Is there actually a recipe for a happy life?
Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and best-selling author of Blue Zones of Happiness, studied happiness and longevity in the happiest places in the world for the past 15 years. He says that the happiest people don’t pursue happiness.
“About 40 percent of your happiness or lack thereof is dictated by genes, 15 percent dictated by chance and 40 to 50 percent is dictated by what you do with your life,” explains Buettner. “And I argue that the most important thing you can do if you want to maximize that 50 percent within your control is to shape your social surroundings, your work surroundings, your home, the place where you choose to live so you are more likely to be happy.”
In other words, there are things you can do to stack your deck in favor of happiness.
DEFINE YOUR OWN HAPPINESS
Happiness is an ephemeral thing and we often have a hard time recognizing it when we have it.
Do you know what happiness means to you? What do you want your life to look like? Graham defines happiness as acceptance of the journey and commitment to joy, and then poses a question: “What would you do if no one was watching, taking photos or even aware of you?”
Now, knowing this, what would you do differently?
CURATE YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE
Friends are important to your happiness. It’s no wonder the expression, “Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” is so widely used. But it’s not just about having friends you’ve accumulated through life, cautions Buettner. It’s about curating a group of friends. “They have to be people with whom you would trust to have a meaningful conversation, talk about your relationships, be vulnerable, talk about your struggles, not just happy face and fluffy talk. They have to be people you can call on a bad day and they’ll care. The type of people who’d loan you money when you hit rock bottom, and you actually have to like them.”
PRACTICE HAPPINESS DAILY
“Just like exercising your body leads to endorphins and builds muscle, exercising your brain creates new cells,” says Graham. Recent studies on neuroplasticity suggest that we can rewire the neural pathways that regulate our emotions, thoughts and reactions. But we have to practice it daily. So instead of feeling angry when you are in traffic, for example, you can consciously switch your attention to something joyful in your life or remind yourself of a moment that brought you joy. “Theory doesn’t make you happy, practice does,” teaches Graham and recommends creating rituals to help you on your own path to happiness.
RESPECT YOUR EMOTIONS
Who hasn’t felt guilty about feeling something you believe you shouldn’t be feeling? You can swap the habit of feeling guilty by simply observing your emotions or writing them down. “All emotions are acceptable and are part of being human,” reassures Graham. The challenge is that we judge difficult emotions by calling them “negative” instead of acknowledging them and watching them pass. Graham recommends asking yourself a question: “I would be even happier in my life if I was more fully honest with myself about…”
MOVE TO A HAPPY PLACE
“If happiness were a cake recipe and the ingredients would include you need enough money, you need food and shelter, and healthcare, you need some mobility and enough money to treat yourself once in a while; you want to have meaningful work and you want to have something to give back. These are all important ingredients, but the most important ingredient to happiness is where you live. We know if you live in an unhappy place, you are most likely to be unhappy,” says Buettner.
Buettner’s research followed immigrants from unhappy places like poorer countries in Eastern Europe to happy places (for a list of happy places to live, go to gallup.com) like Denmark, for example, and within a year with no other changes except for the move, they were reporting increased happiness levels in their adoptive homes.
LIVE YOUR LIFE AS IF YOU ARE A CHILD
Think back to when you were a kid, and remember the small things that got you excited and feeling happy. “I believe in the idea of awe and wonder, a perspective like ‘Wow, I’m alive and I wake up every single day, and noticing and savoring the small things in life.’ And when you take that time and look at everything that’s around you, it sounds so simple. I believe that’s also a path to happiness,ww too,” says Graham.
EVALUATE YOUR CHOICES
Lyubomirsky’s quest to find out why some people are happier than others led her to realize that the old cliché that happiness lies within us is actually supported by her research.
“Changes in our lives probably won’t make a huge difference in happiness, it’s really what’s inside, how we behave, how we think in our daily lives that’s going to matter,” she says. “Unless we are really bad off, like if we are in an abusive relationship, for example, getting out of that relationship will make you happier forever.”
LIVE AN ALIGNED LIFE
Do you know your top values? Do you know if the activities you do daily are aligned with your top values? “Your behavior needs to be aligned with your values,” says Graham. “If it doesn’t, you will be unhappy.”
“So often we mistaken the idea of something for the thing itself,” Graham cautions. “Ask yourself if you really like the thing you think you like, or you simply like the idea of it.”