How to Become Truly Happy: A Quick Overview
We all want to be happy. But what is happiness anyway?
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, it is this: “The experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
No matter how you define happiness, it’s something that’s available to all of us. We just need to know how to get it.
Thankfully, there’s now more than enough scientific research telling us exactly how to do that.
In this article, I want to give you a quick overview of the science of happiness so that you’ll know exactly how to go about raising your own level of happiness.
Why Should You Even Bother About Happiness?
Why should you worry about boosting your level of happiness anyway? According to the research, being happy brings you tremendous benefits.
Happy people, for example, have been shown to enjoy greater health than their unhappy peers: They get sick less often, have lower blood pressure, and live longer lives.
Happy people also enjoy better relationships: They have more friends and are much more likely to have fulfilling marriages and intimate relationships.
Furthermore, happy people earn more money, are more productive at work, are more generous, cope better with stressful or traumatic events, and are more creative than unhappy people.
Shawn Achor, a famous happiness researcher, explains in one of his books that being happy literally primes our mind and body for peak performance:
“It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive. Yet in today’s world, we ironically sacrifice happiness for success only to lower our brain’s success rates.”
He goes on to explain that happiness is a necessary ingredient in becoming more successful:
“When we are happy – when our mindset and mood are positive – we are smarter, more motivated, and thus more successful. Happiness is the center, and success revolves around it.”
So, it’s definitely worth it to work on improving your level of happiness.
How Happiness Works in a Nutshell
Now that we know why improving your happiness is so critical, let’s turn to the how of actually doing it. Don’t worry, it’s pretty simple.
Happiness scientists use the following formula to explain all the different factors influencing your happiness:
Happiness = Genes (50%) + External Circumstances (10%) + Intentional Activities (40%)
In short, your happiness is determined by your genes, external circumstances, and intentional activities.
Out of the three variables, your genes have the biggest impact on your happiness – they account for a whopping 50 percent of the variance in your happiness. This means that 50 percent of your level of happiness is completely set and unchangeable. Some people are simply born happier than others. That’s natural. Some people are bigger, some smarter, some funnier, and some happier.
The good news is that the other 50 percent of your happiness are changeable and under your control.
Ten percent out of those remaining 50 percent are accounted for by the external circumstances in your life. Those are things like money, house, car, other material possessions, marriage, education, age, the city and country you live in, etc.
Most people spend a large part of their lives trying to improve those external circumstances. The narrative goes something like this: “When I get rich, own a big mansion, marry a Rockstar, and go to fancy parties… then I will be happy.”
Unfortunately, the research tells us that this doesn’t work. All those external circumstances together only explain 10 percent of the variance in your happiness. Whether you earn 5k or 50k or 500k per month, whether you live in a beautiful home or an old barn, whether you’re driving a fancy car or an old truck, whether you wear the newest clothes or worn out jeans… those things don’t make a big difference as far as your happiness is concerned.
You see, the reason why external circumstances account for so little is that they are subject to a powerful phenomenon called ‘hedonic adaptation’. It states that human beings adapt very quickly to new life circumstances. We quickly take good things for granted and overcome obstacles life throws in our way.
A fancy new car will make you happier for a few weeks, but then you will take it for granted and it will lose its happiness-boosting effect. Likewise, a pay cut will lower your happiness at first, but after a few weeks or months you’ll have adapted and it will feel like normal.
Even people who win the lottery don’t become lastingly happier. Within a year, these people tend to return to approximately the same level of happiness they’d experienced before winning the lottery. The same is true for people who become paraplegic. Within a year or so of being disabled, they return to their original happiness level.
The point is, your external circumstances have a surprisingly little effect on your happiness. Chasing more money, a faster car, a hotter wife, or a bigger house is pointless. You’re much better off focusing on the last variable in the happiness equation: Your intentional activities.
Your intentional activities – your behavior, thoughts, and actions – account for 40 percent of your happiness. If you want to become truly happy, this is where the gold is.
You see, when researchers compare happy individuals with unhappy individuals, they find that the main difference lies in these people’s daily behaviors. Happy people simply act and think differently. For example, they exercise regularly, spend a lot of time with family and friends, pursue meaningful goals, and think optimistically about the future.
If you want to raise your level of happiness, you need to act differently – you need to engage in more activities that make you happy. It’s really that simple.
So, here’s the thing I want you to take away from this section: If you want to be happier, you don’t need to change your circumstances (i.e. seek more money and faster cars), but you need to change your daily intentional activities – your thoughts and actions.
How to Become Lastingly Happier: The 40 Percent Solution
Let’s do a quick recap of how happiness works. The research tells us that our happiness is determined by our genes, our external circumstances, and our intentional activities:
Happiness = Genes (50%) + External Circumstances (10%) + Intentional Activities (40%)
Your genes have the biggest impact on your happiness. However, they’re not changeable and therefore useless in helping you become happier.
External circumstances are almost equally as useless in helping you become happier. They are often hard or impractical to change and only have a small impact on happiness anyway.
Intentional activities – the thoughts you think and actions you take – are the key to lastingly raising your level of happiness. They account for 40 percent of your overall happiness and are completely under your control.
You can choose, on a daily basis (!), whether you want to engage in activities that improve your happiness, or whether you want to engage in activities that lower your happiness.
If you get up early, go for a quick run outside, meditate for ten minutes, eat a healthy breakfast, go to a job that fulfills you, and then spend the night with your family… you’ll feel quite happy.
If, on the other hand, you hit the snooze button, grumpily crawl out of bed, spend your time at a job you hate, and then watch TV once you get home… you’ll feel rather unhappy.
It’s that simple. Your happiness lies in your daily activities.
Thankfully, research knows exactly which activities help you become happier and which don’t…
Proven Activities that Will Make You Happier
Over the last few months, I have been a bit obsessed with finding strategies that can make people lastingly happier. I have spent a lot of time reading books and articles on the subject until I’ve eventually come up with a list of 26 proven, science-based ways to become happier.
Here they are, in no particular order:
- Have a Rich Social Life and Nurture Social Relationships
- Let Go of Materialism
- Spend Your Money to Maximize Happiness (Hint: Spend it on experiences, not goods. And on other people, not yourself.)
- Make Happy Choices (Be a Satisficer, Not a Maximizer)
- Stop Overthinking
- Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People
- Practice Gratitude
- Learn to Cope with Negative Events or Chronic Problems
- Practice Forgiveness
- Cultivate Optimism
- Pursue Meaningful Life Goals
- Experience More “Flow”
- Savor the Good Things in Your Life
- Practice Mindfulness
- Exercise Regularly
- Act Like a Happy Person
- Practice Acts of Kindness
- Use Your Signature Strengths
- Find Something to Look Forward to
- Stop Watching the News
- Spend Time in Nature
- Write Your Way to Happiness
- Get a Pet
- Learn More About Happiness
- Just Try to Become Happier.
If you would like to see a complete breakdown and detailed explanations and instructions for all 26 strategies, feel free to check out my complete guide on happiness here: How to Be Happy: 26 Strategies Backed by Research.
Happiness isn’t achieved by changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) or changing our external circumstances (which is often hard and impractical), but in changing our behavior on a daily basis.
This is great news, because it means that your happiness really lies in your own hands. You have the power to make yourself happy or unhappy. You’re in the driver seat.
If you want more happiness, do the things that entitle you to greater happiness.
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below, and I’ll happily answer them.
This is a guest post by Nils Salzgeber. He is a lifestyle coach and co-founder of njlifehacks.com, a blog dedicated to helping people live a better life through relentless self-improvement. Nils is on his journey to becoming the greatest version of himself and loves sharing what he learns along the way.