When I was in my twenties, I wrote a happiness list. I remember clearly writing the list and believing once I attained those things, I would feel content and free to enjoy life.
I’m embarrassed to tell you everything I put on the list. It seems so materialistic to me now. But let’s just say it included a particular type of car, a certain sized house, the decor to fill the rooms of the house, and other stuff I believed reflected success and happiness.
As time went on, I was able to check off many of the items on my list. For a short while, the attainment of one of these items brought me happiness. But over time, the shine and sparkle wore off, and I grew bored and restless again. I kept repeating this pattern, moving the bar of happiness farther and farther out in hopes that some “thing” or success would fulfill my longing.
Maybe you can relate to this. Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you thought, “Once I get married, then life really begins.” “Once I get a promotion, then I’ll feel happy.” “Once I make $100,000, then I’ve made it and can enjoy life.”
So here’s what happens: either you attain or achieve your desire and find, as I did, that happiness is fleeting. Or you are thwarted in reaching your goal and plunge into deeper unhappiness and longing. Life becomes a pattern of long stretches of boredom, restlessness, frustration, stress, and unhappiness, followed by short bursts of elation that quickly fade away.
One of the most common search terms for readers who land on my blog is “Why am I so unhappy?” When I search Google for the phrase “how to be happy,” I get 596,000,000 results. Every single person on the planet wants to know the answer. How can we be happy on a day-to-day basis? How can we sustain happiness, even when the circumstances of our lives don’t turn out exactly as we hoped?
Happiness researcher and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, has spent years studying what makes people happy — not just happy for a few days or weeks, but generally happy most of the time. She details her research results in her book, The How of Happiness. If you view happiness as a pie, half of the pie (50 percent) is genetic. That’s our happiness set point, and some of us are born with more optimistic personalities than others.
About 10 percent of the pie, just a sliver, relates to our life circumstances — like income, marriage, material things, etc. The rest of the pie, 40 percent, is in our control, and that’s a large enough slice of happiness pie to make a substantial difference in our life satisfaction. Dr. Lyubomirsky identified specific activities we can practice in order to take advantage of that 40 percent, and these activities don’t have anything to do with making more money, accumulating things, or impressing other people.
Here are 12 proven habits of happy people:
1. Get engaged in life.
Find more activities that deeply engage you, so that you experience that feeling of “flow” when time disappears. Think about a hobby, work project, or passion you’ve pursued in the past when you were completely absorbed. Usually these “flow” experiences involve just enough challenge to stretch you and inspire you to keep going.
Says renowned flow expert and author, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, in his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience, . . .
Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time appears distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
Seek out these activities in your personal and professional life, and intentionally practice more of them. Learn a new skill, take up a language, take a class — do something interesting that puts you in the flow state.
2. Savor simple joys. Practice mindfulness in your daily routine by paying attention to the small pleasures of life. Don’t rush through life blindly, wanting only to get to the next item on your list. Notice the way a warm cup of coffee or tea feels in your hands on a cold morning. Watch closely as your child focuses on drawing a picture. Look out the window and see how the sun reflects through the trees. When you have more present moment awareness of life, you expand time and create opportunities for happiness on a moment by moment basis. Dr. Lyubomirsky suggests you not only savor these events in the moment, but also you journal about them, share them with others, or even draw them. Do something tangible to reinforce the pleasure of the experience, even after it has passed.
3. Practice forgiveness. Learn to forgive others and yourself. Holding on to a grudge or feeling shame and guilt creates an emotional burden that will limit your happiness. As you replay events, frustrations, or feelings in your mind, you reinforce the strength and power of the negative thoughts. If you do this long enough, you will experience debilitating physical and emotional symptoms that undermine your happiness further. Make up your mind to forgive, even if the offending person hasn’t sought forgiveness. Take control of your own happiness by releasing anger, judgement, and resentment. Often it’s harder to forgive yourself than it is another person, but it is even more critical to your happiness that you do so. Make amends where necessary, acknowledge your mistakes, and then release yourself from the self-created bonds of regret. Write a letter of forgiveness to yourself, or keep a journal in which you practice letting go of anger and shame. If you notice angry or shaming thoughts arising, say out loud or to yourself, “I release this thought and free myself to let go and be happy.” If you want to stretch yourself further with forgiveness, close your eyes and send thoughts of love and compassion to yourself or the person who has harmed you.
4. Practice acts of kindness. This doesn’t mean you must save the world or make grand gestures of philanthropy. In your everyday life, find small ways to show kindness to the people you encounter. Of course it’s easy to show kindness to your loved ones, but extend your acts of kindness to the peripheral people in your life — the store clerk, the mailman, your neighbor, the person in line next to you. An act of kindness can be as simple as a warm smile, a helping hand, or a kind word. I’ve enjoyed performing anonymous acts of kindness by purchasing someone’s coffee or paying a toll fee for the car behind me. The more you practice kindness, the more powerful and fulfilling it becomes. Think about ways you can show kindness to others. Write these down in your journal, and find a way every day to act on these ideas.
5. Nurture your relationships. On their deathbeds, dying people cite their biggest regret in life as not spending enough quality time with their loved ones. Our relationships are the most important aspects of our lives. But relationships require loving attention and care. Whether it’s your spouse, your children, your friends, or family members, these relationships all need nurturing in order to thrive. Nurturing means connecting with these people, spending time with them, and being fully present when you are with them. It also means learning healthy ways of communicating, resolving conflict, and showing vulnerability. If you don’t live near one of the important people in your life, make the effort to connect frequently. If there are people from your past whom you’ve neglected, reach out to them and renew the relationship.
6. Cultivate optimism. Have you ever noticed people who are like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh? They are always glum and always see the glass as half empty? It’s hard to be around people like that, but it’s probably harder to feel like Eeyore much of the time. Negativity can become a bad habit, but optimism can be practiced and cultivated. Begin to notice how many negative, “glass-half-empty” thoughts and words you use every day. Simply the awareness that you are cultivating negativity will kickstart change. Actively change your thoughts and use positive, uplifting words — even if they feel false at first. Develop a sense of positive expectation in which you intend for the best to happen rather than fear the worst. The more you reinforce this through your thoughts, journaling, and the spoken word, the more optimistic you will legitimately feel.
7. Avoid comparisons and over-thinking. How many times have you looked at someone else and felt jealously, shame, longing, or resentment because they have something you don’t have? Comparing yourself to others is one of the worst things you can do when it comes to your happiness. It traps you in low self-esteem and inadequacy. Instead, measure yourself by your own personal goals and dreams. Remind yourself of these happiness habits that have nothing to do with what your neighbor owns or how beautiful your best friend might be. Don’t get stuck in mental looping, where you ruminate about what’s lacking in your life or what others have that you don’t. When you find yourself stuck in these thoughts, go do something engaging or uplifting instead.
8. Develop coping strategies. Even the happiest people encounter disappointments and difficulties. If these take us by surprise, we might be unprepared to handle them. They send us careening into despair, fear, and unhappiness. However, if you have coping strategies in place for these situations, you’ll have a built-in support plan that helps you land on your feet more quickly. Learn techniques for dealing with stress such as meditation, exercise, and counseling. Have a support system of friends and family who can be there for you when necessary. Learn how to put life difficulties into perspective by reminding yourself that “this too shall pass.” Life is constantly changing, and neither good nor bad situations last indefinitely.
9. Express gratitude. Sometimes in the rush of life and our longing for more, we forget how much we already have to be grateful for. Look around you at all of the people, experiences, things, and circumstances you enjoy. Go through each of these in your mind and feel grateful for them. If you have a hard time developing the feelings of gratitude, imagine how you’d feel without these things. What would it feel like to be without your best friend, your warm bed, your health? Keep a gratitude journal and write down a list of blessings you experience every day. Did someone bring you coffee? Did you get a warm hug? Is the sun shining? Did you get a good night’s sleep? Notice these things and feel deep and abiding gratitude for them.
10. Practice your religion or spirituality. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research shows people who regularly practice their faith or have some kind of spiritual practice are generally happier people. If you are a non-believer, take up a inner-life practice like meditation, walking in nature, or mindfulness rituals to enjoy the benefits of inner reflection and peace. Part of the happiness fostered by practicing one’s faith comes from interacting with a community. If you don’t belong to a faith community, join one or become a part of a group of like-minded people who share your beliefs.
11. Set and commit to goals. Have something important that you are always working toward. It can be a career or personal goal, but be sure it has measurable, attainable, actionable steps that you can work toward every day. When you have goals, you feel more positive, motivated, and in control of your life and your destiny. Without them, you’re floundering and confused about the direction of your life. This sense of uncertainty creates stress and unhappiness. If you don’t know what goals to set, begin with your relationships since they are such an important part of your life. Set specific goals for spending more time with someone, improving your communication skills, or learning conflict resolution. Health goals are also life-changing and critical to happiness. Set a goal to lose ten pounds, run two miles, or do twenty push-ups before bed. You can start with small goals, which will afford momentum to set more challenging goals.
12. Take care of your body. Your health and fitness have a huge impact on your happiness. If you are sedentary, overweight, or ill, it’s hard to experience life to the fullest. Study after study has shown that people who exercise regularly feel better mentally and physically. If you don’t have a diet or fitness plan, start small, making one change at a time or adding one small new habit to your routine. Add one more fresh vegetable to your daily menu. Go outside and walk for ten minutes. The more you practice and follow through on these healthy practices, the more you’ll want to practice positive health decisions in other areas of your life. It’s been proven people who start an exercise program are more motivated to eat healthier and create other positive habits. If you want to experience a happy life, you need to practice the habits of happy people. You can’t wait for happiness to find you or expect it to appear randomly. You must get up and take action to make it happen. As Dr. Luybomirsky reminds in her book . . .
If we observe genuinely happy people, we shall find that they do not just sit around being contented. They make things happen. They pursue new understandings, seek new achievements, and control their thoughts and feelings. In sum, our intentional effortful activities have a powerful effect on how happy we are, over and above the effect of our set points and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
You can identify actions that will make you happier and more content in life. I invite you to experiment with these habits to see how they impact your happiness on a daily basis. I would love to hear your experiences with happiness habits and how they have changed your life in the comments below.