This is a guest post by Kira Newman. She is a digital journalist and among other things, she also writes about happiness.
Why is it so hard to achieve happiness? Maybe we are thinking about it backwards.
In a TEDx talk, entrepreneur Nataly Kogan tells a familiar story: after growing up poor, she decided that she needed money and success to live a happy life.
She believed: If I get the things I want, I will be happy.
Nataly worked hard for 20 years until she was driving around in a fancy car, pushing her daughter in a fancy stroller, and living in a fancy house. She “had it all,” but she was unhappy and exhausted.
This was a shock to her, but it is not a shock to psychology researchers.
In the late 90s, a comprehensive review of happiness science found that circumstances account for only about 10% of our happiness.
Maybe we dream of moving to a more beautiful city, where the weather is nicer. We believe we’d be so much happier there, and we imagine long walks in the sun or cool afternoons in the shade.
But according to studies, climate has no effect on our happiness.
Maybe we dream of getting a better job and making more money. We think about eating out at gourmet restaurants and buying expensive toys for our kids.
But again, we are probably mistaken. One famous study revealed that after $75,000 a year, making more money does not make us happier.
Maybe we dream of being more beautiful, with shiny hair and dazzling eyes. Or we lament our aches and pains, our creaky knees and sore backs.
As hard as it is to believe, the science proves us wrong. Objective health and physical attractiveness have little effect on happiness.
How can this be? It is because of something called adaptation, the way we quickly get used to our life circumstances and start to take things for granted.
Studies have shown that we adapt to getting married within about two years and to winning the lottery within one. The initial glow of true love or a big jackpot wears off, and we return to our old happiness levels.
We start to get annoyed by life’s little hassles again.
In fact, psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a whole book about how terrible we are at predicting what will make us happy, called Stumbling on Happiness. “We seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become,” he wrote.
Psychology blogger Britt Reints is another great example. In her TEDx talk, she shares a similar story to Nataly’s. Years ago, she had a kind and generous husband, plenty of money in her bank account, and a strong community at her church.
But she was desperately unhappy, so unhappy that she thought she wanted to divorce her husband.
How did she overcome her struggle? It was not by finding a better husband or making more money. It was by changing her attitude.
Flipping Happiness Upside-Down
The main life change Britt made was deciding to live authentically.
She would no longer do what she was “supposed to” do; she would follow her heart and her values and live a life that was genuine.
She also started a gratitude practice, writing about her “happiness highlights” on her blog.
The science shows that practices like gratitude have a much bigger impact on happiness than our circumstances.
If circumstances account for 10% of our happiness and genetics account for 50%, voluntary practices and behaviors account for as much as 40%.
We spend all our time chasing after money and success, thinking it will bring fulfillment, when the real way to get happier is to change our thoughts and feelings. For example:
- Grateful people are happier: Practicing gratitude changes our perspective, so we are more likely to notice and focus on the positive things in our lives.
- Kind people are happier: We actually get more happiness out of spending a small amount of money on others rather than on ourselves.
- Mindful people are happier: We are happier when we are paying attention to the present rather than distracted by thoughts about the past or future, even if they are
- Forgiving people are happier: Learning to let go of past grudges and move on with our lives releases us from lingering negative emotions.
- Self-compassionate people are happier: We find more peace when we can drop the critical voice in our heads and show ourselves love and understanding.
When we become happier through gratitude, mindfulness, kindness, and other practices, then something funny happens. All those things we want – to have a great marriage, to lose weight, to get a promotion at work – are suddenly much more likely to happen.
Happy people are more likely to get married, have fulfilling and loving marriages, and not get divorced. Happy people have more social support and more friends. Maybe we do not need a relationship to make us happy; maybe getting happy will help us build better relationships.
Happy people actually have better health – less chronic pain, more active immune systems, and less chance of diabetes or a stroke. They even live longer, as much as seven years more. Grateful people sleep a half hour more every night and exercise 33% longer per week.
Maybe we do not need to lose weight to be happy; maybe we’ll be more motivated to lose weight once we are happy.
Happy people are more creative and productive. They have better job security, and they make more money than unhappy people.
The lesson? If we want a promotion to make us happy, stop waiting; get happy first, and then we might get that raise.
All of this is so counterintuitive because it goes against many of the things we hear from our parents and society.
We are taught to make more money, succeed, get married – and then we’ll have a good life. It is hard to believe that the happiness comes first, and hard to imagine happiness without all these things.
These findings are the reason why I created The Year of Happy, a free online course in the science of happiness.
It starts January 1 and pulls readings and videos from across the Internet so you can learn to be happier in a simple, low-commitment, fun way (2 hours a week). Each month focuses on a practice in the 40% category: things like optimism, gratitude, kindness, forgiveness, and savoring. I’d love for you to join, become happier – and then see all your wishes come true.
Over to You –
What is your idea about happiness? How do you try to be happier in life? Share in the comments.
Photo Credit: Mike Rastiello, FreeDigitalPhotos
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