I think a lot about happiness – how to maintain it, how to get it back when it’s gone on vacation, and generally how to maximize it.
Of course, I realize that happiness isn’t the only worthy goal in life (like every high schooler in America, I read Brave New World), and I appreciate that there are more important things than happiness. Being engaged citizens requires us to stay informed about what’s going on around us and, if something isn’t right, to get angry enough to change it.
But, even then, having the wherewithal to stay engaged and the belief we can change things requires a level of empowerment and confidence that is difficult to muster if you’re depressed and unhappy. There’s a strong correlation between happiness and success – and, no, that’s not because people are happy because they’re successful. Sure, reaching a goal can cause a momentary spike in happiness. But before long, we’ve reset our happiness meter and we’re back at our baseline level of contentment.
No, it turns out that happiness begets success, not the other way around. Happiness – and its first cousin, optimism – has a profound effect on our success. Operating from a place of happiness helps us learn and retain new information, stay resilient in the face of trauma, and generally improve our chances of success at whatever we’re doing.
I’ve always been an optimistic, happy person. Even when times have been tough (like that time when I got divorced and my mom died within a few months of each other), my fallback has been to stay positive. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I adopted my #OnlyJoy mantra, I had tapped into something that would both get me through a difficult time and lay the groundwork for all the good things that came after it: happiness.
I recently saw a talk by Shawn Achor, a positive psychologist, at Southern Methodist University’s Tate Lecture Series. I’m sure he’s not the first person to study the correlation between happiness and success, but he’s certainly the theory’s number one evangelist today. His TED Talk is one of the most popular (and, if you ask me, most entertaining) of all time.
You should definitely watch his talk, but the upshot of it is this: we need to stop seeing happiness as the byproduct of success. Happiness won’t come once we get the perfect job, find the perfect partner, reach the perfect weight, or accomplish some other arbitrary goal. Rather, by being happy, we can improve our chances of reaching those goals.
Achor recommends several daily actions that he says can significantly improve happiness:
1) Write down three new things you’re grateful for each day
2) Journal about a recent positive experience for two minutes a day
5) Write a quick, positive email thanking a friend or colleague, or compliment someone you admire on social media
Do these steps for 21 days, he says, and you’ll find yourself becoming more positive.
I already do some of these things on a regular basis – exercise, of course, and a spotty commitment to meditation. And I like to think I already live a life of gratitude, although I don’t consciously write down what I’m grateful for or journal about positive experiences.
I’m a devoted writer of thank-you notes already, for gifts concrete and abstract, so hopefully I already get credit for the last one.
Anyway, all this to say, I’m sure I can use some improvement in my positive actions, so I’ll happily give these a shot. There’s no such thing as too much happiness.
In addition to what Achor advises, here are some things that I have found keep me feeling positive:
Staying busy. I’ve never been good at sitting still, but on those rare occasions when I feel down, I’m always able to make myself feel better by getting busy. Fortunately, I love my job, so that keeps me hopping. But, as a homeowner, there’s never a shortage of work to do around the house. Reorganizing a closet, purging the garage, working in the yard – there’s always something to keep me busy. It turns out that research has shown that distraction is actually a great way to beat the blues, so I didn’t invent this approach. But I can sure confirm that it works.
Spending time with friends and family. I know I say this a lot, but there’s nothing like social connection to boost your mood. Close friends and family are great, but I’ve found that even great conversations with acquaintances and relative strangers can improve my mood. Humans are born to be with other humans, and we crave connection, whether we realize it or not. Granted, being around others can be hard when you’re feeling down. So if you don’t have the emotional strength to make yourself go to a card game, enter into a pact with a friend that she’ll make you go if you try to bail.
Sun: Our bodies need the sun to produce vitamin D, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression (and a host of other health problems). Most of us know this instinctively because we’re gloomier on rainy days. I try to make a conscious effort to get as much sun as possible (while, of course, using sensible sunscreen when it’s more than a few minutes). My newest passion, golf, has made this easy. It’s no wonder golfers are always smiling.
Nature: Just like we’re not supposed to be sedentary, neither are we supposed to spend all day, every day inside. Our brains, our eyes, and our souls all crave natural environments. A weekend at a mountain cabin or at the beach is, of course, the ideal way to do this. But even a quick jaunt outside to sit on a park bench in the middle of your work day can be enough to give you your nature fix.
Sleep: Everything’s better after a good night’s sleep, so if you’re not getting one on a regular basis, make that a priority.
Got some happiness tips of your own? Please share them in the comments section.