HOW TO BE HAPPIER
So much psychology focuses on the negative: things that don't work, things that are wrong. In college I took a class on Positive Psychology, which examines what is working and how we can replicate it. This class blew my mind and impacted the way I see the world. Here are some of the happiness tips, studies, and facts I still think about today.
- •We all have a happiness set point determined by our genetics.Scientists think this accounts for around 50% of our happiness. 10% is affected by external circumstances beyond our control. But the other 40% is up for grabs and dependent on your behavior and mindset, and this is where you can make a difference.
- •Smiling actually makes you happier.This is because of something called the Facial Feedback Hypothesis -- if your smile muscles are engaged, it will trick your brain into thinking you're happy. One study showed that people who held a pen between their teeth (thus engaging their smile muscles) rated a cartoon funnier than people without a pen.
- •People create their own "good luck.""Lucky" people show similar traits. For example, a lot of lucky people take different routes to work rather than the same path every day -- this opens up your life to new opportunities and makes you more mindful, because you have to pay more attention to your surroundings.
- •Write people grateful notes.Write a different person a heartfelt grateful text, email, or letter once a day. This will help you feel happier even if you don't end up sending the letter, because it's reframing and refocusing your mind towards the positive.
- •You have a limited amount of self-discipline, so spend it wisely.In one study, one group of people waiting to take a test were told not to eat the cookies on the waiting room table. Another group of people were told not to eat beets. Those who used up their self-discipline on not eating cookies did worse on the test than people who did not use self-discipline up, cause no one cares about eating beets.
- •Journaling is very important.People who spend just 15-20 minutes journaling about an emotional upheaval every day experience incredible benefits: a 50% drop in doctor visits, immune system improvements, reduced anxiety. (This kind of thing has definitely worked for me -- for example, when I feel like I've been wronged, if I write down the things I'm angry about, my brain doesn't feel like it needs to hold on to them and remember them any more, because I have all the facts down in writing. I can let go of it.)
- •You can literally make people grow younger.In the 1980s, Ellen Langer did a study of elderly men in their 70s and 80s. She had them spend two weeks in an environment that was like traveling back in time to 1959. When the experiment was over, the men had shown dramatic positive changes, both mentally and physically: they were stronger and more flexible, their hearing and vision had improved, they were smarter on intelligence tests, their finger joints showed that their bodies were actually younger.
- •Exercise really does matter.People who regularly exercise experience dramatic improvements in overall well-being. Some people who exercise regularly experience the same improvements as those taking mood-regulating medications.
- •Hugs help.Try being involved in 8 hugs a day -- hugs and physical contact increase oxytocin.
- •Buy experiences, not possessions.When you're waiting for an experience, you'll feel happier and more excited than when you're awaiting a material item. And what's more, you're less likely to measure the value of your experiences by comparing them to those of others.
- •Be mindful and present in your environment.Here's an exercise we used to do in our class discussion section: go to a space you're very familiar with, and spend some time trying to discover five things you've never noticed before -- sights, smells, the way the tree hits gate just so, etc.
- •Be grateful.Establish a routine of expressing gratitude once or twice a day -- make sure you think about 3 to 5 new things you're grateful for every day, either out loud with a loved one, or in a journal. (And although you can mention them, the basics -- like food and shelter and your family -- don't count as part of the 3 to 5 things.)
- •Surround yourself with happy people.We all know people who are bad influences on us. Sometimes gossip and negativity is the best and most fun, but in the grand scheme of things, if you want to be happy, it's easier when you surround yourself with people who focus on the positive.
- •Happy people have better outcomes.One study on nuns showed that at age 85, 90% of the most cheerful quartile of nuns was still alive, compared with 34% of the least cheerful quartile.
- •If you're interested in learning more, I recommend books, articles, YouTube videos, and TED talks by the wonderful man who led my discussion section, Shawn Achor.