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13 Simple Ways to Be Happier

smileyface.jpgIt wasn’t long ago that researchers believed that every human being was born with a set “happiness point,” a fixed and unavoidable baseline level of happiness. On its face, the idea appears to have merit: Tsunami victims, amputees, and lottery winners alike eventually return to their previous emotional baselines. In other words, no matter what mega-high or ultra-low you find yourself riding, eventually your happiness will seek its own level.

In 1996, University of Minnesota researcher David Lykken went so far as to say that “trying to be happier” was as “futile as trying to be taller.”

But David Lykken was wrong.

In a 2005 Time Magazine interview, Lykken took it all back. “I made a dumb statement,” he said. “It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely, up or down.”

So what happened inbetween 1996 and 2005 that changed the way researchers think about happiness? New studies and new findings: that’s what happened. And this new research is a lot of good news for all of us because it proves that happiness is greatly affected by circumstances that we personally have the power to control or influence: friendships, romantic relationships, finances, careers, mental habits.

Yes, we do have an emotional baseline. Yes, our baseline is determined partly by genetics and other factors beyond our control. But no – and I cannot say this clearly or loudly enough – your happiness baseline is not carved in stone. You can learn to be happier. You can change your life. You can smile more, love more deeply, experience more peace, and feel more gladness.

If you’re looking for a way to optimize your happiness, you can start by reviewing the following 13 strategies: simple, actionable, and designed to boost your happiness in a big way.

Love and Relationships

1. Nurture Friends and Family Ties: A study conducted at the University of Illinois by Diener and Seligman found that happy people tend to have strong friendships and family ties. This comes as no surprise, since we are social creatures, and it’s natural for us to derive joy from the company of others. Cultivate your social skills. Make time for friends and family, especially if those relationships tend to be positive and uplifting. Host a backyard barbecue, a dinner party, or a movie night. Make a spontaneous phone call “just to chat.” In short, find ways to connect; you’ll be happier for it.

2. Make Time for Romance: If you’ve found the partner of your dreams, keep your relationship solid by demonstrating how much you care. Roses. Chocolates. A thoughtful card. A night out. A weekend retreat. An honest expression of gratitude. A helping hand. A gentle hug. I’m not foolish enough to believe that a box of chocolates can turn a bad relationship into a good one, but taking time to do the little things provides its own enjoyment and further cements whatever good thing you already have.

3. Join a Supportive Spiritual Group: According to a 2002 article in Time Magazine, “religious faith seems to genuinely lift the spirit, though it’s tough to tell whether it’s the God part or the community aspect that does the heavy lifting.” In reality, it’s a combination of things: the shared worldview, the support structure, the common goals and aspirations, the feeling of family and belonging, and the sense of purpose, to name a few.

4. Communicate Productively: Successful relationships require solid communication: use body language, appropriate tone of voice, and eye contact; be considerate of alternative viewpoints; persuade gently; above all else, listen. And whenever possible, be nice. The power of being nice is well documented; it appears that what goes around really does come around.

5. Be Charitable: Research has shown that boosting someone else’s happiness boosts your own too. Giving to others puts your own problems into perspective, provides purpose and meaning, and generally makes you feel good about your place in the world.

Money and Career

6. Ask Yourself Why: Why do you work? For most people, the obvious answer is “because I have bills to pay.” That’s a fine answer (we all have bills to pay), but if paying the bills is your only reason for working, explore other options. The transition from an uninspiring job to a personally meaningful vocation is hard work and doesn’t happen overnight, but if you keep asking yourself “why,” you just might goad yourself into finding a way to answer that question in a way that makes you happy. Meaning and purpose are central to a fulfilling work life.

7. Earn a Livable Wage: If you’re living below the poverty line by choice so you can pursue meaningful work, more power to you; otherwise, making at least a middle-class wage is a proven way to boost your happiness. Investigate your options. Strategize accordingly.

8. Save: Keep 3 to 6 months salary in an emergency fund, in case you lose your job or your car breaks down; don’t forget to put money aside for retirement. If you know your basic needs are covered, you’ll be happier, and actually having that money when you need it will do wonders for your peace of mind.

9. Live Below Your Means: Financial gurus suggest that total debt, excluding first mortgage, should not exceed 20% of take-home pay. Feel free to indulge occasionally, but mind the consequences, since living above your means is a thief of happiness, harbinger of despair, and robber of potential.

Positive Thought

10. Keep a Gratitude Journal: Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has found that taking time once a week to write down all the things you’re thankful for will, in fact, increase your happiness. If you don’t want to do a journal, try taking a few minutes during your morning commute to remind yourself of all the wonderful things in your life. As research has proven, an attitude of gratitude makes a difference.

11. Make a Gratitude Visit: Psychologist Martin Seligman says that the most effective way to turbo-charge your joy is to write a testimonial thanking a teacher, parent, or pastor – anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude – and then visit that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. This particular happiness booster has been shown to improve a person’s mood for up to a month.

12. Three Blessings: For a less powerful, but longer lasting happiness boost, Seligman says to take time everyday to write down three things that went well and why.

13. Positive Introspection: Take time to inventory the characteristics that make you valuable: skills, attitudes, generosity, capacity to love, and so forth. Be aware of all the wonderful abilities you bring to the table. Write them down if you have to. Everyone has something valuable to contribute.

In closing, your happiness baseline is affected as much by circumstances and attitudes as by genetic predisposition; that’s good news because it means that you can learn to be happier by affecting positive change in your relationships, career, and mental processes.

In other words, happiness is a lot less about who you are and a whole lot more about how you live your life.


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