We are absolutely terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
We think winning the lottery and buying a fancy house is the quickest way to everlasting joy.
Dan Gilbert, Professor at Harvard and author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, has shown that this is entirely wrong.
On the flip side, we can also take heart in the fact that seemingly awful life circumstances (e.g. poverty, severe injury or disease) also have a surprisingly limited impact on our happiness over the long haul.
How then, can we design our lives to be happier? Is it even possible or is the pursuit of happiness a fool’s errand?
It’s not a fool’s errand. We can learn from the latest research in social and cognitive sciences, and our common sense when it comes to finding a better pathway to a life of joy.
I’ve spent the past three months diving deep into the science of happiness, reading books, research papers and going through the excellent Science of Happiness course by UC Berkley.
A few practical tips have stood out. Let’s take a look at the science-backed things we can practice every day as a mean of cultivating more happiness and meaning in our lives.
1. Be grateful for everything you have
Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. – Melody Beattie
According to the Greater Good Science Center at Berkley, “over the past two decades, studies have consistently found that people who practice gratitude report fewer symptoms of illness, including depression, more optimism, and happiness, stronger relationships, more generous behavior, any many other benefits.”
I find that gratitude, like any emotion, grows stronger the more I use it. I start and end my day by connecting to at least three things I’m grateful for in my life. It orients me in a positive direction. Want to be happier? Do the same.
2. Sincerely connect to people
Friends… they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams. – Henry David Thoreau
Again, we can learn from the synthesis of research done by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated.”
The quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality.
Skip Facebook for an evening and visit a bar or coffee shop instead. Strike up a conversation with new friends. Connect with old ones.
3. Show compassion for others
The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others. – Albert Schweitzer
If you were given a sum of money and could either spend it on yourself or give it to someone in need, what would you do? Which would make you happier?
Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton conducted such an experiment. At the end of the study, participants that had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those that had spent money on themselves. It’s true even for infants who were trained to either keep treats they were given or give them to someone else!
4. Forgive freely and often
It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody. – Maya Angelou
When you don’t forgive, you release all the chemicals associated with a stress response. One of the most comprehensive studies on forgiveness by the Stanford Forgiveness Project shows that forgiveness therapy elevates mood and increases optimism, while not forgiving is positively correlated with depression, anxiety, and hostility.
For a striking metaphor of what it’s like to harbor resentment and anger instead of forgiveness, check out the old story about two Zen monks, the lady and a river.
If you feel slighted or angry at the actions of someone else, find the courage to forgive them freely. You might not condone their actions, but you don’t need to carry the burden around with you.
5. Practice meditation and mindfulness
Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. – Alan Watts
There is a ton of research demonstrating the positive impact of meditation and mindfulness practice on the body, mind and overall well-being.
The only things stopping you from experiencing the benefits of meditation is starting. It’s truly the greatest life hack you aren’t using. So get going! Start with mindful awareness of the breath. Even better, connect with a local meditation group or teacher to learn alternative techniques.
6. Prioritize experiences over things
The only source of knowledge is experience. – Albert Einstein
In a landmark study, researchers Kahneman and Tversky discovered that money does buy happiness, but only to a point. Beyond $75,000 USD there is, diminishing returns to additional wealth.
Therefore, seek out experiences instead of material possessions. I prefer to travel and spend time outdoors. Meet new friends. Explore new cultures. Experience the wonder of walking down a road you’ve never explored.
7. Get in the flow by pursuing a worthy goal
Goals transform a random walk into a chase. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Neuroscientists have discovered that a cocktail of chemicals in the brain linked to pleasure, and heightened states of awareness are released when we are in pursuit of goals.
Flow states, aka “being in the zone,” are achieved when a goal is significant and challenging, yet within the realm of possibility. It’s during a feeling of flow that a sense of time and effort seems to disappear. Find a worthy goal that is intrinsically motivating to you. Pursue it with vigor.
The pursuit of happiness may seem like an elusive goal. Perhaps, as I wrote earlier, it is a dead end. However, we can rely on the latest social and neuroscience research to show us a different path to joy and contentment.
Instead of trying to be happy directly, we can seek instead to practice other behaviors that tend to result, collaterally, in an uplifting mood and spirit.
This article shows just a handful of the things we can practice daily to improve our well-being. If you have another practice to offer that works for you, let me know in the comments below.