Tell the truth, avoid narcissists, and stay focused on the future.
We all want to be happy. Our search leads us to seek advice from mental-health professionals, clergy, best-selling authors, and Buddhist monks.
But despite the wealth of available information, two constants remain: One, there is no recipe for happiness. We’re all unique with different biology, childhoods, life experiences, and support systems. Two, happiness is a habit—and that’s good news, because you can choose to be happier.
To make your happiness journey more attainable, here are 10 common themes that researchers have found which lead to happiness.
“Sometimes, you just have to throw away the map. A map is a life someone else already lived. It's more fun to make your own.” — Cora Carmack
1. Don’t expect happiness to come with a user’s manual.
Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell cites the food industry's pursuit of the perfect spaghetti sauce—half of people surveyed prefer chunky tomato while the other half prefer smooth—to settle a larger argument about the nature of choice and happiness. The concept of "everyone" does not exist when it comes to experiencing joy. You don’t do X, followed by Y, to find your Z(en). As a therapist, I appreciate this because the pursuit of happiness is not a passive process. Also, happiness is not a destination, but a fluid, ever-changing state of mind: Today’s satisfaction with chunky tomato sauce may switch to smooth sauce for next year.
“Money is not the point.” — Corbett Barr
2. Forget about chasing fame and money for the sake of chasing fame and money.
Continue to pursue your financial and success goals, but not at the expense of your value system. Not every CEO or millionaire is joyous. Research shows that lottery winners are no more happy a year after the initial money windfall. One study found that the overall happiness levels of lottery winners spiked when they won, but returned to pre-winning levels after just a few months. In terms of overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-winners. (But don’t let that stop you from playing Powerball to test the studies’ reliability and validity.)
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” — Helen Keller
3. Continue to sharpen your mind.
Humans are wired for challenges. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, doing stimulating activities which put you in a state of flow—whether via work, raising a family, or pursuing artistic passions—means you’re more likely to realize your goals, and stave off boredom.
"Your mind can be your strongest muscle or your worst enemy. Train it well." — Unknown
4. Train your brain.
Healthy mental and lifestyle habits are integral to life satisfaction. Activities such as meditation, mindfulness-based practice, and developing positive thoughts improves your mood and your physical and emotional states.
“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” — William Arthur Ward
5. Embrace gratitude.
Conventional wisdom says that happiness will make us grateful, but that’s not the case. The core of gratitude is counting your blessings, not your burdens. Professor of Psychology and researcher Robert Emmons examined the effect of a grateful outlook on one's well-being. His findings showed that an intentional focus on blessings improved moods, coping skills, and physical and emotional well-being.
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.” — Chinese Proverb
6. Be generous.
Giving is truly better than receiving. Social scientist Michael Norton researches how money can buy happiness—when you don't spend it on yourself. The key is social spending that benefits not just you, but other people.
“Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.” — H. Jackson Brown Jr.
If this one brings back unpleasant childhood memories of mom saying "Smile!" to snap you out of a bad mood, the truth is that she may have been on to something. Smiling decreases stress and anxiety. While it's not easy to keep smiling in stressful situations, studies report that doing exactly that has health benefits. When recovering from a stressful situation, study participants who were smiling had lower heart rates than those with a neutral expression.
“Self-love forever creeps out, like a snake, to sting anything which happens to stumble upon it.” — George Gordon Noel Byron
8. Steer clear of mean people.
One word: Narcissists. Studies suggest that empathy appears to be on the decrease, while narcissism has been increasing across different cultures for the past three decades, according to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI). If you find yourself in the desperate position of trying to co-parent with a narcissist,
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” — Buddha
9. Tell the truth.
One of the best therapy lessons I ever got was learning that the true goal in therapy is to help your clients understand and accept their truth. Lying expert Robert Feldman found that about 60 percent of people have a hard time getting through a 10-minute conversation without lying at least twice. Besides a lot of energy devoted to deceit, there's the byproduct of psychosocial stress. Discovering and embracing your true self reduces stress and increases authenticity.
"I may be a senior. But so what? I’m still hot.” — Betty White
10. Look forward to your golden years.
According to the experts, life is like sipping fine wine. "The good news is that with age comes happiness," says University of Chicago sociologist Yang Yang. "Life gets better in one's perception as one ages.” Yang found that a certain amount of distress in old age is inevitable—aches, pains and deaths of loved ones and friends. But older people generally have learned to be more content with what they have than younger adults. Cheers!