Humans can be surprisingly bad at findings ways to be happy. We have certain cognitive biases that lead us to systematically mispredict what will bring us happiness and we often fail to take into account how hedonic adaptation and framing effects will impact how much enjoyment we get from things.
Luckily, research in positive psychology has found many changes people can make that will increase their happiness. But before sharing some of those, I should start off by pointing out something else that has been discovered by happiness research which is that… just telling people about behaviors that increase happiness doesn’t improve their well-being! If you want to benefit from learning about this research, you’re going to have to put in the effort to deliberately change your behaviors and form new habits. Perhaps in the future I’ll do a post on some research on habit formation but for now a few general tips are:
- set goals and make them as specific as possible
- incorporate the behavior into your existing schedule and tie it to existing habits
- record your progress and keep track of steaks of good behavior
- give yourself notifications and reminders
- think about how your environment nudges you towards or away from the behavior
- consider finding ways to pre-commit to the behavior
- find a support network or try taking on the behavior with other people
- think carefully about other behaviors you tend to get sucked into and what makes them so addictive to see if you can replicate the effect
Keeping this in mind, let’s get on with the list.
1. Experiences Over Possessions
Believe or not, having fun experiences can actually make people happier.
But seriously, people can be quite bad at spending money on themselves to become happier and a specific mistake that they often make is spending too much money buying possessions relative to how much they spend to have experiences. While people tend to forecast that their money will be more well spent on material purchases, several weeks afterwards they tend to feel it was more well spent on experiential purchases. Additionally, people tend to report that the experiential purchase contributed more to their happiness, and this effect exists across income levels.
One potential explanation for this misprediction is that people’s enjoyment of durable goods that they buy for themselves (e.g. shoes, cars, home appliances, jewelry) tend to be especially susceptible to hedonic adaptation and people fail to take this into consideration when making their purchases. On the other hand, experiences like going hiking, out to see a show, or on a short vacation benefit from their brevity in that they do not fail prey to hedonic adaptation to the same extent (although adding variety and spacing events out can help even more). These kinds of experiences tend to benefit from being easier to share with others and less subject to social comparison as well, meaning they also act less like positional goods.
Savoring an experience is when you step outside of it to review it and appreciate it. It can be surprising how much more pleasure you can get out of an experience you were already having when your mind becomes fully focused on it and you remember to appreciate it. Some of the best ways to savor experiences are to share them with others or to talk about them with others afterwards. It can also help to think about how lucky you are to have the experience (while still believing that you are worthy of having it), be in a setting where you feel comfortable physically experiencing pleasure such as by laughing, and limit your attention to the experience and those you’re with.
Savoring can also be done through remembering. People were asked to replay happy memories in their minds for eight minutes every day for three days and to think about the events “as though you were rewinding a videotape and playing it back.” As you would imagine, this was a positive experience at the time but this led to surprisingly sustained effect with increased levels of positive emotions being observed four weeks later.
Closely related to savoring is gratitude. Being more grateful for what we have can significantly increase people’s happiness as well as have a host of other benefits.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to list five things that they were grateful for once a week for several weeks. By the end of the experiment the subjects not only reported thinking that their life as a whole was going better but they also predicted that their upcoming week would go better, reported increased relief from negative physical symptoms, and were even exercising more (about an hour extra a week). One of the ways for gratitude to have the strongest impact though is by expressing it directly to another person. Another study had people conduct “gratitude visits” where they would write a letter thanking someone who had been especially kind to them but they had never properly thanked and then they would deliver it in person. This one event led to increases in average happiness levels that were noticeable weeks later.
One tip from Spencer Greenberg for incorporating gratitude into your daily life is to finding a behavior that you already do multiple times a day and try to always think of one thing that you’re grateful for before engaging in it. The example he gave that I personally tried was trying to think of one thing you’re grateful for whenever you feel the urge to check social media. I don’t know of any studies that have been done on this specific method but anecdotally I can say that I am surprised by how effective it seems so far.
Being the receiver of gratefulness can also have very positive emotional effects and receiving gratitude can lead people to be more generous in the future. Unfortunately, not only do people underestimate how much happiness they’ll get from expressing gratitude but they also tend to underestimate how much happiness it will bring to those who receive it and they often overestimate how awkward expressing it will be. And speaking of tending overestimate awkwardness…
4. Social Connection
I probably don’t have to convince you that having regular interactions with the people you’re closest to such as family members, romantic partners, and close friends is good for you. But what you might find more surprising is that the number of interactions someone has with people they have weak ties with throughout the day is just as correlated with happiness as the number of interactions with strong ties.
There are some experiments showing good causal evidence of the benefits of interacting with strangers. People who take public transportation were asked to either have a conversation with someone sitting next to them, keep to themselves, or do whatever they would normally do. When people were asked to make predictions about each condition, they thought they would be happiest and most productive when they had to keep to themselves. However, they actually ended up being happier when they had to talk to someone else than when they were in either of the other conditions and they reported the trip as being equally productive. This effect of underestimating how much we will enjoy interacting with strangers has been replicated in a number of settings including coffee shops, cabs, and waiting rooms. Additionally, it tends to increase the other persons happiness as well and by more than the initiator predicted. In fact, simply making eye contact and smiling at people can increase your enjoyment when you’re in a public place.
As mentioned when discussing savoring, sharing experiences can be a great way to get more enjoyment out of them. While it’s no surprise that watching a movie or comedy show can be more enjoyable with friends or a significant other, this effect is more pervasive than many people appreciate. Even just being in the presence of others can significantly affect how much happiness you get from something. For example, when eating chocolate just being in the presence of a stranger who is also having some can make people rate the experience as being more enjoyable.
5&6. Exercise and Sleep
When it comes to things that people know are good for them but still don’t do nearly enough, it’s hard to top regularly exercising and getting enough sleep. I won’t devote too many words to these two because I presume most people are already aware of the benefits and just need to find better ways of creating habits out of those beliefs.
People suffering from major depression were either prescribed an antidepressant medication (Zoloft) for 16 weeks or made to exercise three times a week for 30 minutes for 16 weeks. The two groups were then measured ten weeks after the 16-week period. While a majority of people in both groups had recovered, the recovery rate was significantly higher for those who had received the exercise treatment. Exercise also increases happiness in people more generally, and the amount of exercise needed to make an impact seems to be relatively small. Additionally, regular exercise is correlated with better academic achievement in young adults and cognitive ability in older adults.
In the case of getting a sufficient amount of sleep (7-8 hours each night), it is also correlated with a host of positive outcomes including improved immune system functioning, decreased chance of being in an accident, better learning and creativity abilities, and lower risk for many health conditions such as cancer, obesity, and stroke. But most directly relevant, when subjects were made to sleep for a healthy amount of time (7.4 hours) they rated their mood as being significantly better and had fewer physical and emotional complaints compared to subjects who were made to sleep for around five hours a night.
Not only is there are a strong correlation between being happy and having a tendency to do kind behaviors but there is also good evidence of a causal relationship where increases in the number of kind or generous behaviors someone does leads to increases in happiness. For example, having people preform random act of kindnesses increases their happiness.
While most people are aware that it can feel good to help others they tend to underestimate how much they will enjoy spending their money on others relative to spending it on themselves. People on the street were given either $5 or $20 and then they were either told they had to spend that money on themselves or on someone else. When other people were presented with this scenario, they tended to predict that they would get more happiness from spending the money on themselves than on someone else. However, when the people in the experiment were surveyed later that day the ones who were told to spend the money on someone else reported a higher increase in their level of happiness. Since this study was conducted in the U.S., one might wonder if spending money on others only had a more positive effect because the returns to someone living in a wealthy country get by spending a relatively small amount of money on themselves are insignificant. However, this effect has been replicated across a range of cultural settings and with larger amounts of money.
We’ve already seen from savoring that it can be good for people to be more present and attentive to their sensory experiences rather than missing out on pleasure because of a wandering mind. People spend almost half of their time awake with their mind wandering and they tend to be less happy during this time than when they’re focused on the present moment. While being able to mentally remove ourselves from the present moment is an ability, we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to live without, it can be very nice to have the choice to not be carried off by your thoughts. This ability to recognize when we are becoming lost in our thoughts and allow them to pass in order to more fully experience the present moment can be cultivated through meditation.
People who practiced loving-kindness meditation reported increased levels of positive emotions as well as increased feelings of social closeness and implicit liking of strangers. Regular practice has also been shown to have a variety of other benefits ranging from increased gray matter to improved working memory.
9. Using Your Strengths
Psychologists Martin Seligman worked with Christopher Peterson on what was essentially intended to be a positive counterpart to the DSM. Their character strengths survey (which you can take here) tests people on 24 traits that are generally thought of positively and viewed as desirable by society (which include gratitude and kindness). The survey doesn’t provide values for each of the traits but rather a ranking of them. This allows people to see which traits they excel at the most, which are referred to as their signature strengths.
To test their relevance to happiness, researchers instructed people to take the survey and then use one of their signature strengths in a “new and different way every day for one week.” The study lasted over a six-month period and participant reports a sustained increase in happiness and fewer symptoms of depression throughout that time.
If you’re looking for a more efficient way of incorporating the use of your signature strengths into your life, then you may want to consider the frequency of their use as a factor when looking at potential jobs. It has been found that people who use their signature strengths more often at work tend to be more productive, have higher job satisfaction, report experiencing more positive emotions and engagement at work, and describe their job as a calling.
I would like to recommend the wonderful Coursera course The Science of Well-being which served as the source for most of the material in this post. Hopefully you feel like you got some useful advice for how to live a happier life, but remember, just knowing isn’t enough!