No, winning the lottery isn’t on the list because, guess what? Most of the people who win the lottery end up losing all the money they won and generally end up being much more unhappy than they ever were before. That’s true. So how to join that group of people who are clapping their hands because they’re happy and they know it?
For starters, you have to stop thinking about happy as being the opposite of unhappiness, and abandon that image of the scales—the good stuff in life vs. the bad junk—and the whole idea of balance out of your head. Negative and positive affect are governed by different behavioral systems so they exist independently of each other; there’s no good thing offset for a bad one. Bad things affect us much more than the good things, thanks to evolutionary hardwiring which had our ancestors pay closer attention to possible dangers so as to better the chances of survival. So being happy is more about being skilled at dealing with the setbacks and disappointments which hit us harder and finding ways of sustaining happiness when we encounter it.
Here are some tips, all drawn from research
- Understand how happiness works
You probably think that happiness is lasting, right? And you’re used to thinking about being happier along these lines: “If I only had a better job, if I only had a more loving partner, if I only had a house and garden, if I only had a red Porsche, if I only had more money to travel…I’d be happy.” Well, the truth is that you wouldn’t be over time and the reason for that is what’s called the hedonic treadmill. The problem is that humans get used to the improvements and changes in their lives over time and eventually that splendid sports car that you anticipated would make you really happy for a long time just becomes the car in the driveway that needs expensive servicing. And that partner you thought would keep you perpetually in bliss is just another familiar figure in your life and no longer a guaranteed ticket to Happy Street. This is what the work of Daniel Gilbert makes clear, alas, and you can add in the fact that humans are notoriously lousy at anticipating how happy something—an event, a situation, a change in life—will make them. Why is that? Because we tend to oversimplify how we’ll feel in the future. So you are sure that getting your degree will make you enormously happy and you can’t wait until graduation day but you haven’t factored in that, along with that sense of achievement, you’re also going to be anxious about what’s next and the future.
- Work at managing your emotions
Positive feelings don’t need managing but negative emotions do and since they have a greater impact on us, how happy we feel largely depends on how well we deal when life is going south. If your way of dealing with unhappiness is to push off hard from those feelings—ignoring them or pushing them out of your head—the truth is that you are actively participating in prolonging your misery. Negative emotions need to be tackled, named, understood, and disarmed.
- Subtract your blessings
Yes, I know you’ve been told a zillion times to count your blessings because feeling grateful sustains happiness but the truth is that research shows that the effect of gratitude on feeling happy is pretty spotty. But there’s research that shows that subtracting your blessings actually makes you feel more grateful and focused on the good things and people in your life. The researchers were inspired by the scene in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life when George Bailey is about to commit suicide and Clarence the angel shows what the lives of other people would have been like had he not been born. So, rather than asking people to count their blessings, the researchers asked participants to subtract them and found that when people thought about their romantic partners and reflected on how they might never have met or how they might have missed being together, their positive affect was boosted—much more so than when they thought about how they met and got together. So if you want to feel happier about the people and circumstances of your life, subtract them and see what you see…
- Cull the toxic folks
If you’re on the fence about that certain someone who always makes you feel lousy about yourself and your life, just jump off! No need to get philosophical; just do it.
- Learn to savor
How do you eat an Oreo or an ice cream cone? Do you just bite into it or are you one of those people who has a method, leaving the best for last? The psychological term for maximizing pleasure in this way and prolonging happiness is savoring and those who savor get more of a happiness boost than the gobblers in life. Additionally, making something a treat or a relative rarity will make you happier for longer. So ration your chocolate and, generally speaking, look forward to things in life with a savoring stance, one dainty bite at a time.
Photograph by Jeremy Cai. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
Emmons, Robert A and Michael E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Bring in Daily Life. “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 86, no. 2 (2003), 377-389.
Koo, Minkyung, Sara B, Agoe, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert,” It’s a Wonderful Life; Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 95, no.5 (2008), 1217-1224.