America ranked 19th in the U.N.’s most recent World Happiness Report, behind happier places like Finland (No. 1), Australia (No. 12) and Canada (No. 15). And yet, we Americans think that we know what would make us happy. Last week, a client told me, “I’m pretty happy now. But if I had the perfect partner and a beautiful home, I’d be even happier.” As a psychotherapist, I’ve been doing a lot of research on “how to be happier”. Here’s some of what I’ve discovered:
Take a few minutes and make a list of things you think would make you happier. They can be big things (a raise, moving to a new city, a new partner) or small (a new haircut). When you’ve finished your list, get ready for a surprise. Research has found that nearly everything you think will make you happier won’t, because – assuming that your basic life needs are taken care of – you are looking for a change in circumstances (more money, a different home or job or a great vacation) to make you happier.
Your mind tells you that if you just got those things, you’d be happier. But your mind is wrong. According to science, there are certain habits that are consistent among happy people, for example: Happy people devote time to family and friends. They practice gratitude, optimism and are physically active. They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment (as my meditation teacher has repeatedly told me).
“What about money?” you may ask. Research shows that once our basic needs are met, the relationship between money and happiness is purely theoretical. And isn’t it ironic that an abundance of money is considered a status symbol, while an abundance of time is considered shameful?
Research shows that happiness is a mind-set we can cultivate, not a condition we “achieve”. Why are self-help books, mindfulness classes and meditation retreats so popular? We think they’ll help us to “control” our happiness. If only that were true…
A lot of my clients think of happiness as a constant state of excitement. At the ripe old age of 67, I have found that lasting happiness is more like equanimity, contentment…a kind of quiet joy. It’s not like winning the lottery. It’s more like sitting quietly and noticing that your life is actually pretty damn good.
We are raised to think that happiness comes from big or transformative experiences, but we neglect how we can be happier ways on a daily basis. One study I read found that the best way to be happier is to spend a little money – say, $25 to $50 – on a time-saving service. For example, instead of fighting with your partner over whose turn it is to do the laundry: hire a laundry service. Replace that time arguing with making a meal together or going for a walk with someone you love.
Another study I read surveyed millionaires, asking them, “One a scale of one to ten, how much more money would you need to be a perfect ‘ten’ in happiness?” People with one million dollars said, “Three times as much.” However, people with three million dollars also said, “Three times as much.” It’s not how much money you have (or don’t have), it’s how you feel about it. If you have $100,000 in the bank, you can feel “I’m rich” or poor, e.g., “My friends make so much more than I do; what’s wrong with me?”
Want to be happier? Try these science-based suggestions:
- Every day, for the next week, write down at least five things you’re grateful for. These can be big things (your wonderful partner) or small things (your hair looks good today).
- The next time you feel unhappy, put down your phone. Two of the best rewards, happiness-wise: starting a conversation with a stranger and/or being more present in the moment.
- Meditating, sleeping at least seven hours a night – for a minimum of three nights in a row – and being responsible for a living creature (dog, cat or plant) have also shown to contribute to happiness.
Try some of the above happiness-related ideas and get ready for the happiest summer you’ve ever had!