How To Be Happy: 5 Secrets Backed By Research
We all wanna be happier, right?
Thing is, depression is at epic levels. More people are unhappy and they’re getting miserable at an even younger age.
In the United States, rates of depression are ten times higher today than they were in the 1960s, and the average age for the onset of depression is fourteen and a half compared to twenty-nine and a half in 1960.
You don’t want to be part of this trend. Neither do I. So I called an expert to get some answers…
Tal Ben-Shahar taught the most popular class at Harvard University — and it was all about happiness. He’s also the bestselling author of a number of books including Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.
Tal’s going to teach you and me what creates happiness in the big picture, what makes home and work more joyful, daily rituals you can use to boost good feelings, and the happiness mistakes you don’t even know you’re making.
Let’s get to it…
1) You Need Pleasure… And Meaning
Pleasure makes you happy. (Deep insight, huh?) Many of us just stop there, chasing things that feel good. But that’s only half the recipe.
The research shows we also need meaning. A purpose that has significance to us. When you combine pleasure and meaning, you’ve got happiness.
To experience a sense of purpose, the goals we set for ourselves need to be intrinsically meaningful. We could set ourselves the goal of scoring top grades in college or owning a large house, yet still feel empty. To live a meaningful life, we must have a self-generated purpose that possesses personal significance rather than one that is dictated by society’s standards and expectations.
(For more on how to find what is meaningful for you, click here.)
So what about happiness at work? To find the perfect career, you need to add one more thing: your strengths.
The perfect job for you is one that is pleasurable to do, has a purpose you believe in, and lets you do things you’re good at. Here’s Tal:
If I find both meaning and pleasure at work, that will contribute to my happiness, but that’s not enough for long-term satisfaction because we also want to feel confident. We also want to feel like we’re good at what we do. We also want to improve and get better. That’s part of our nature. If we think about our strengths, about what we’re good at, where our talents reside, and then find the overlap between those and what makes us happy, that’s the ideal scenario.
Sound like a tall order? Keep in mind that it’s all about your feelings, not what someone else thinks.
Research shows hospital cleaners found their jobs meaningful when they saw themselves as contributing to sick people getting better, not as a bunch of menial tasks.
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
Okay, so we know what makes a happy life… Now how can we use these ideas to get happier?
2) Map Your Life
Ever look down at the clock and get stunned by how much time you spend on email? Tal says we’re really bad at judging how we spend our time. And we’re even worse about doing what really makes us happy.
So the first step is to really keep track. Try writing down what you do every hour for a few days. Then ask yourself if those things were pleasurable, meaningful or let you use your strengths. Here’s Tal:
When you actually map your day, you write, “This is what I did between 11 and 12,” and then you evaluate what you did. Evaluate it on the dimension of meaning, evaluate on the dimension of pleasure, evaluate on the dimension of strength.
Now you can see which of your activities are contributing to your happiness, which are taking away from it and how much time you spend on each.
You might think the next step would be to go in and fix what’s broken. And you’d be wrong. You actually want to do the reverse.
It’s called, “appreciative inquiry.” Find the things that make you happy and first focus on doing them more. Later you can focus on doing the bad stuff less. Here’s Tal:
What appreciative inquiry says is that actually if you want to fulfill the potential, you need to start with appreciative questions, such as “What is working? What’s going well in your life?” Build on what is going well, then also deal with the things that are not going well.
Looking at how you really spend your time and maximizing the good moments sounds simple, but we usually trust our very fallible memories and don’t proactively try to increase the good on our calendars.
As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said:
Time-use may be the determinant of well-being that is the most susceptible to improvement.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happier, click here.)
So using your time the right way can make you happier. So what are you doing wrong that you need to change?
3) “No Pain, No Gain” Is A Myth
Many of us believe that anything that produces serious results has to be hard work. I have good news: Tal says that’s wrong.
We’re happiest when we do stuff that leads to good things but when we enjoy the process as well. You may have heard of this state: it’s called “flow.”
It’s when our skills and challenges are balanced and we become immersed in what we’re doing. Here’s Tal:
If you look at the most successful people, they work very hard, there’s no question about it. However, that hard work doesn’t need to be painful work. Once I have a goal, I can really focus on the here and now. I can focus on my practice, be in what the psychologists called “flow.”
The best goals are means and ends. Tal compares a “drowning” model to a “lovemaking” model. In the former we struggle with something and at the end we gasp for breath, feel better and mistake that for happiness.
In the lovemaking model, (without, um, getting too specific) we enjoy the process and the end result.
These are the types of activities we enjoy most and should seek out. Spend as much time as possible on your “want-to” list, and try to spend less time doing those awful “have-to” activities.
(To learn the 8 things the happiest people do every day, click here.)
This all sounds nice but how do we figure out the “want-to” activities that will engage us the most which are actually productive, and not merely obvious leisure?
4) What Would You Do If No One Would Judge You?
Imagine someone cast a spell on you so that no one would see what you were doing or the results of your efforts. What would you choose to do if you weren’t being judged?
Tal says answering this question can help you discover the activities you will truly find enjoyable in the moment and that can lead to “flow”:
From now on and for the rest of your life no one will know what you’re doing. No one will know about the amazing things that you do for others, no one will know about how rich you are, no one will know about how successful you are, how many people you reach, no one but you alone will know about the things you do. In such a world where a spell of anonymity has been cast on you, what would you do? The reason this exercise is important is because it helps us distill the essence of what truly matters to us independent of what other people think. It doesn’t mean that that is the way we need to lead our lives, but it can give us a sense of direction about what truly matters to us.
We spend so much time worried about what other people think and trying to impress them that we end up doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t really make us happy.
Step back for a second and think about what you really want to be doing with your time.
(To learn how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert, click here.)
Okay, all of the previous ideas have been big picture. What little things should we do every day to boost happiness?
5) Doing Beats Knowing – Use Rituals
Many people believe that if we know the right thing to do, we’ll do it. (These people have never been on a diet.)
Knowing is nice, but it’s doing that really matters. And here Tal says science can learn something from religion. Religions are big on rituals.
Believers know the prayers but it’s not enough to know them, you have to say them regularly. Anything we want to do to improve our life needs to be a ritual — a habit — if it’s really going to create change.
So what rituals does Tal recommend for happiness?
1 – Exercise
It doesn’t just keep you healthy and attractive. Studies show it’s as effective as antidepressants in keeping you smiling. Here’s Tal:
The research coming out on physical exercise is mind-boggling. Not just for physical health, we know that, but also for mental health. It’s as powerful as our most powerful psychiatric medication — without the side effects. When it comes to dealing with anxiety or depression or attention-deficit disorder, really more and more psychologists are calling physical exercise the wonder drug. We don’t need to do a lot of it. Even as little as three 30-minute sessions a week of running or brisk walking can help.
2 – Spend Time With Friends
The number one predictor of happiness is how much quality time you spend with the people you love. Here’s Tal:
The number one predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. Unfortunately, a thousand friends on Facebook are no substitute for that one BFF. We need that real intimate connection.
3 – Express Gratitude
Say thanks. Send “thank you” texts and emails. Don’t take things for granted that you are very lucky to have. Here’s Tal:
Expressing gratitude to others with a gratitude letter, but also just expressing gratitude to ourselves, being grateful for what we have, is vital.
4 – Meditate
Five minutes a day of just closing your eyes and breathing deeply or listening to your favorite music with your eyes closed, that can go a long way toward making you happier.
Don’t just read these things. Make them a habit. A daily ritual. As the poet John Dryden said:
We first make our habits and then our habits make us.
(To learn the 7 step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, let’s round all these ideas up and learn the final secret to a happier life…
Here’s what Tal had to say about how to be happy:
- You need pleasure and meaning. Feeling good is important but we also need a purpose.
- Map your life. Note where your time goes and ask if it’s making you happy. Then do more of the good stuff.
- “No pain, no gain” is a myth. We’re happiest doing things where we enjoy the process, not just the results.
- What would you do if no one would judge you? This question can point you in the right direction.
- Doing beats knowing. Use rituals. Don’t just read these ideas. Make them into habits.
Maybe you don’t feel so great right now. Tal says that’s okay. Do you dream of a perfect life that’s all ups, no downs? Never gonna happen. And that’s alright.
Be compassionate with yourself. Life is rich and varied. Give yourself permission to be human. Every day won’t be great but we can make more of them better if we try. Here’s Tal:
First, the foundation of a happy life is what I’ve come to call giving ourselves the permission to be human. To experience the full gamut of human emotions. That’s what a happy life is about. It’s a life where we have difficulties and dark places and hardships, and where we celebrate and express gratitude and love.
Start making one of these things into a habit right now: send someone a bit of gratitude. Send a “thank you” text or email to that person who did something nice for you recently.
Gratitude is the best habit to start out with because it’s easy and it’s very efficient…
You actually make two people happy.
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