Do you long to be happier? From the science of happiness to self-help books, there seems to be no end of suggestions for how to be happier. But does any of it really work long-term?
Michelle McQuaid is a best-selling author, workplace wellbeing teacher and playful change activator. With more than a decade of senior leadership experience in large organizations around the world, she’s passionate about translating cutting-edge research from positive psychology and neuroscience, into practical strategies for health, happiness, and business success.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
It was my childhood dream to grow up and finally be happy. So you can imagine my disappointment when, despite my best efforts, career achievements, financial security, and a loving community of family and friends, I still wasn’t consistently happy. Don’t get me wrong: There were many moments of real joy, contentment, and gratitude on my journey; they just never seemed to last very long.
So is it really possible to be happier?
“It’s easy to believe that you’re either born with happiness or not, or that life has dealt you happy circumstances or not,” said Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California, author of The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness, when I interviewed her recently. “But my research over the last 25 years has found that if you want to be happier, you can be happier, no matter what your circumstances.”
Whilst skeptics have long argued that our happiness levels are genetically determined and cannot be substantively changed, a 17-year longitudinal study found that 24 percent of participants showed substantive changes in their happiness over time. Lyubomirsky suggests that while individual differences in biology and circumstances combine to explain part of the happiness puzzle, these changes are also explained in part by the deliberate ways that people choose to think and behave in their daily lives.
Feeling happier has been found to have many advantages. A meta-analysis by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues of 225 studies found an abundance of evidence indicating that happiness is a precursor or source of positive outcomes such as having a happy marriage and successful career, living longer, earning more money, and having more friends. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that happiness may not only be a consequence of these successes in life, but also a cause.
The good news is that there is a growing body of positive activity interventions that have been scientifically found to make you happier, such as writing letters of gratitude, counting your blessings, practicing optimism, performing acts of kindness, using your strengths in a new way, and meditating on positive feelings towards yourself and others. Lyubomirsky suggests that, in particular, interventions to improve the quality of your social relationships are really critical for your happiness.
Of course, a short happiness intervention practiced for a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks, is unlikely to fuel endless amounts of happiness. Just like eating one piece of broccoli isn’t going to suddenly make you healthy, or going for one run instantly makes you fit. To have a lasting effect, intentionality and effort toward specifically designed happiness-increasing strategies are major contributors to their efficacy.
“While there are lots of benefits to being happier, and we continue to discover new positive activity interventions and the mechanisms likely to make them more effective, it’s also important to be aware that focusing on happiness can have its pitfalls,” Lyubomirsky cautions.
For example, studies have found that focusing too much on your happiness can make you less happy, as reality often falls short of your expectations. There are also situations where feeling happy could impair the way you show up in your relationships or at work – no one wants an overly optimistic pilot trying to land their plane. And of course, happiness can’t be forced on people; you need a sense of autonomy and control in how, when, and why you choose to be happy.
In fact, Lyubomirsky suggests that the goal for happiness-increasing strategies should not be to eliminate negative emotions altogether, but instead to serve as “daily emotional maintenance."
So how can you truly boost your happiness? Lyubomirsky shares three principles:
Finding the right activity fit. While a multitude of positive interventions have been found to improve people’s happiness, they won’t necessary all be right for you. For example, highly extraverted people may benefit more from positive activities that encourage them to interact with other people, and religious people may benefit more from activities with a spiritual component. The greatest gains in happiness will emerge from practicing positive activities when the specific intervention format matches your individual preferences and characteristics.
Try to choose happiness activities that feel enjoyable and interesting, that you can value and identify with, and that make sense for your situation, your resources, and your lifestyle. Experiment with a variety of approaches as well. Lyubomirsky suggests thinking of it like dieting or exercise: There are a lot of different approaches you could choose, and some may work for you while others may not, so it’s about finding the ones that match who you are as an individual.
Not waiting to be happy. It’s easy to think that you’ll be happy when you change something in your external circumstances – your job, where you live, more money, or a relationship. However, Lyubomirsky has found that life’s circumstances account for a relatively small part of your happiness, so no matter how positive or spectacular the changes may be, while they might make you feel better in the short term, they ultimately tend to have little impact on your long-term well-being.
Instead of trying to change your circumstance, look for ways to change your emotions, thoughts, and actions to meet your basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and connection. For example, looking for whatever you are grateful for in your current workplace, no matter how small, has been found to help you feel more engaged, more connected to others, and more energetic.
Be aware of hedonic adaptation. While changing your job, moving to a new city, or even winning the lottery may bring you happiness at first, research has found that it rarely lasts. This phenomenon is known as “hedonic adaptation,” and it explains why both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat abate with time.
What’s particularly fascinating about this phenomenon is that it’s most pronounced with respect to your happiest experiences, due to the creeping normalcy and constant ramping up of expectations that cause you to seek out more, more, and more. While the rate at which we adapt to happiness seems to vary between people and situations, there can be no doubt that our brains thrive on novelty, which is why happiness and well-being should never be the destination, but the journey.
Lyubomirsky has found that it is possible to train your brain to overcome, forestall, or at least slow down hedonic adaptation by practicing gratitude consistently, sprinkling a good dose of novelty across your well-being approaches, being clear on why happiness activities are important, even when they get a little boring, and avoiding social comparison that causes you to always want more, more, and more.