Even in trying times, you have more control over your own happiness than you think.
What makes us happy
Having a bad day? A rough week? A not-your-year?
Past lessons teach us that we are surprisingly capable at weathering challenges that might at first seem overwhelming. We can’t control our circumstances—but we can control their effect on our well-being.
Experts attribute about 50% of a person’s happiness to genetic endowments and another 10% to circumstances—where we live, how much money we make, how healthy we are. That leaves 40% of our happiness in our control. Fortunately, science has much to say about how we can make the most of that 40%. Even small improvements in mood can have cascading effects. The trick is to pay attention to what strategies work best for you. Try these for starters.
1. Know what to want.
Most of us can’t predict what will make us happy in the future, and that inability often leads us down the wrong path.
“The average American moves more than 11 times, changes jobs more than 10 times, and marries more than once, suggesting that most of us are making more than a few poor choices,” notes Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, PhD, author of Stumbling on Happiness. One reason we so often guess wrong, he argues, is that we often imagine the future incorrectly. We forget how easily we adapt, even to painful circumstances. So when we picture what it would be like to be single again or to live in Seattle or to leave one job for another, we don’t factor in everything else—the new friends, the newly discovered interest in Cascade Mountains wildflowers—that might also affect our emotional well-being.
Unfortunately, Gilbert says, we can’t simply train ourselves to peer into the future with greater clarity. Instead, we should put more trust in other people’s experiences. “Start with the assumption that your reactions are a lot like other people’s,” Gilbert says. If you want to know whether to take a job at a new company, pay attention to the people around you when you’re there for an interview. Do they seem engaged and interested? That should count for a lot.
2. Savor mystery.
In a culture obsessed with the power of information, the fact that most of us are a little unnerved by uncertainty is hardly surprising.
Yet research suggests that a dash of mystery can make positive experiences last longer. In one study, University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson, PhD, and colleagues found that students who were given a $1 coin with little explanation reported feeling happier a few minutes later than those who were given either the same amount of money by a known source or no money at all. Wilson argues that those who didn't fully comprehend the reason for the gift spent more time mulling it over, extending their pleasure. "Once we've done the cognitive work to understand something, we kind of wrap it up in a little package and store it away and move on to other things," he explains.
It's not easy to stage surprises for yourself, but Wilson suggests a few tricks. Next time you're nearing the end of an engrossing book, save the final pages for a few days later. Or shop from catalogs so you won't know exactly when your purchases will arrive—if you're lucky, when they do you may have forgotten what you've ordered.
3. Diversify your good deeds.
Being kind and helpful makes most everyone feel good.
But just as the novelty of a new car or electronic gadget inevitably wears off, so does the warm glow that comes from doing the same good deed over and over. People who performed various small acts of kindness every week for 10 weeks—shoveling a friend’s sidewalk, giving pets a special treat, sending a birthday card—grew happier with each passing week, and the benefit lasted for at least another month, found a study by University of California, Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, and colleagues.
In contrast, people who performed the same kind act repeatedly became less happy after a few weeks, then reverted to their prior level of contentment. Try this: Do several good deeds in 1 day; researchers say your happiness boost will be greater than if you spread them out evenly over time.
4. Hope for small changes, not big ones.
Research shows that even major life events, such as winning the lottery, hardly nudge people’s overall sense of satisfaction.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your wellbeing. Recent research finds that the little things we do regularly, like exercising or attending religious services, can have a major impact on our happiness. In one study, Yale University psychologist Daniel Mochon, PhD, and colleagues at Harvard and Duke universities discovered that people leaving religious services felt slightly happier than those going in—and the more regularly people attended religious services, the happier they felt overall. The same is true for exercise—people not only feel happier after going to the gym or to a yoga class, but they also get a bigger boost the more often they go.
5. Invest in experiences, not stuff..
Doing things, not buying things, gives you the most bang for your buck.
Why? For one thing, says University of Colorado at Boulder social psychologist Leaf Van Boven, PhD, it’s easier to reinterpret experiences than to retool material purchases. If your new smart phone disappoints, you have to either shell out for a better one or lower your expectations. But if it rains on a hiking trip, you can recast the drenching experience in your memory as a character-building challenge.
Also, sharing life experiences with others helps satisfy our need for social connection— another known mood booster.
6. Shift your focus.
From work to relationships to health, we have choices about where to concentrate our attention.
When a snowstorm keeps you from getting to the office, do you choose to focus on how behind you’ll be by tomorrow or on the 8-hour gift of time you’ve just been given? When you paint your daughter’s bedroom, do you fret about how much you hate the drudgery or think ahead to how pleased she’ll be when she comes home for Christmas break? The answer to such questions has a big influence on your well-being, writes Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.
Studies show that focusing on positive emotions—curiosity instead of fear, compassion instead of anger—leads to broader, more flexible thinking, more playfulness and exploration, and richer social connections. Positive emotions also temper negative feelings’ corrosive physiological effects—especially their impact on the cardiovascular system. It’s not surprising, then, that people who habitually adopt an optimistic focus have fewer health problems and live longer than their more pessimistic counterparts.
7. Let your mind wander.
The flipside of focus is daydreaming
Although we spend up to one-third of our waking lives in this luscious state of “undirected thought,” we often dismiss daydreaming as a sign of procrastination and laziness. But recent brain-imaging research shows that when you’re daydreaming, your brain is actually working pretty hard. In one recent study, University of British Columbia psychologist Kalina Christoff, PhD, and colleagues found that people who allowed their minds to wander while doing simple tasks tapped into not only their “executive” brain network (source of logical thinking and problem solving) but also their “default network” that is the wellspring for creative thought and relaxed, introspective thinking.
To rev brainpower, Christoff suggests alternating deliberate, focused thinking with more spontaneous mind-wandering. Another strategy is to occasionally set aside time for uninterrupted daydreaming, like a stolen hour for a stroll in the park.
8. Give money away.
Once a person’s basic needs are met, having more money does little to boost happiness, studies show.
What matters more is how much you give away. In a survey of 632 Americans, University of British Columbia psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, and colleagues found that the money people spent on themselves was unrelated to general happiness, but the more money people gave away as gifts and donations, the happier they were.
In another study, the researchers gave people $5 or $20 with instructions to spend the money on themselves, on someone else, or to donate it. Those who gave the money away or spent it on others—no matter the amount—were happier than those who used it for themselves.
9. Chat up your spouse like a stranger.
No one wants to make a bad first impression, so we tend to put our best face forward, especially with people we don’t know.
And that turns out to be a good strategy for enhancing our own happiness. In one study, Dunn and colleagues learned, observers judged that people conversing with strangers tried harder to make good impressions than did people conversing with their romantic partners—and the more they did so, the happier they felt after the interaction was over.
Another experiment showed that people instructed to talk with their romantic partners as though they were trying to make a good impression (as they would with a stranger) felt happier after the experiment ended than those who were told to interact normally.
10. Settle for good enough.
We tend to equate choice with freedom—and what could be wrong with that?
Plenty, according to Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, PhD, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Faced with a vast array of options—whether among consumer products like blue jeans and toothpastes or more consequential services like prescription drug plans and retirement plans—many of us end up bewildered. We can’t stop worrying whether what we don’t choose might make us happier. One simple solution, Schwartz argues, is to opt out of the multiple-choice game by narrowing your pick to several “good enough” options—then choose randomly.
11. Know when to fold ’em.
Most of us are not very good at knowing when to walk away from circumstances that are just plain bad.
Economists and psychologists call this human foible “the fallacy of sunk costs.” We keep holding when we should be folding—sticking with bad jobs because of the months and years we’ve already sunk into them, or unhappy relationships that we can’t imagine extracting ourselves from, or sluggish supermarket lines we’ve stood in too long to abandon. Because we’re so averse to wasting money, time, effort, or emotional investment, we fail to see that staying the course won’t recoup what we’ve already lost, says Ohio State University psychologist Hal Arkes, PhD.
But this is a failure we can overcome by deliberately thinking through our choices as though we weren’t already invested in one course of action. The next time you’re faced with a problem that has gone from good to bad to worse, think to yourself: If I were coming into this situation right now, what would I do?
12. Make something.
Few activities are as reliably pleasurable as making things with our own hands.
In one study, Harvard University psychologist Michael Norton, PhD, and colleagues asked participants to make origami, then to bid on their artwork along with others. People were willing to pay more for their own amateurish work than for others’ attempts—and in many cases, they rated their creations as more valuable than origami made by professionals.
One catch: To get the boost in satisfaction that comes from making something—whether an origami crane or a new coffee table—you need to actually finish the job. (Alas, a lovely knitted sweater with one sleeve won’t give you the same emotional boost.)