It seems a grandiose notion to define happiness with research, doesn’t it?
Fear not, that’s not what I’ll be addressing here—instead, I simply feel that research is a great place to start when observing the patterns of happy people.
By looking at proven ways that have increased happiness for many people, we can begin with a gameplan to change or evaluate our own lives.
As Bruce Lee would say:
Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.
Below I’d like to go over some of my favorite studies on happiness in an attempt to showcase some things that might be useful to you!
A Note on Positive Psychology
I’ve been critical of some aspects of positive psychology in the past, because it’s a field that’s rife with a lot of hokum.
In all seriousness though, not all positive psychology is created equal.
Research has shown that there is a measurable effect on many of the techniques I’ll discuss below (of course, I only pick the good ones).
As usual, that means that these findings are reliable, but you need to understand that every person is different, so what research says will generally work for one, may not work for all.
With that disclaimer in place, let’s get crackin’.
1.) Think of Yourself Less
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
Thoughtful words from C.S. Lewis, but do they equate to real life happiness? Our self-esteem is a bit of a tricky topic, because current research on self-esteem paints a very inconsistent picture: it seems that high self-esteem is certainly related to happiness, but it can produce other problems with the ego.
For instance, a variety of research suggests that self-esteem that is bound to external success can be a fickle beast—certain students who tied their self-esteem to their grades experienced small boosts when they received an acceptance letter (grad school), but harsh drops in self-esteem when they were rejected.
Indeed, similar findings were reported for those who base their self-esteem on career success and appearance. Conversely, those who do not tie their self-esteem as strongly to external motivators tend to have less of a “roller coaster” of emotions to the things that happen to them, and are generally more happy as a result.
Perhaps the most insidious danger of high self-esteem is that it can lead to a focus on the avoidance of failure over the quest for success, which can cause a mindset that “protects” the self-esteem by self-handicapping so one isn’t ever seen as a failure.
(“Well, it doesn’t matter that I failed, because I wasn’t even trying…”)
Instead, find a happy middle ground by heeding the words of C.S. Lewis—don’t think less of yourself as a person, but think of yourself less, focusing more on betterment of yourself for the sake of those around you, rather than for your own ego.
2.) Be Busy, but Not Rushed
Easier said than done, right?
Quite true, because although the research shows that feeling “rushed” is a one-way street to stress and unhappiness, it also notes that less and less people can find that happy medium of being just busy enough.
It seems strange that being very productive would cause one to be happy, but studies suggest that balanced free time is key, as too much boredom can be burdensome—in other words, we should strive for a productive life at a comfortable pace (again, often easier said than done).
Often in finding this balance, you’ll have to find out how to say “no” to things.
Derek Sivers has a rule for things that you aren’t obligated to do: it either needs to be a “Hell Yeah!” or a simple “No.” That is, if an opportunity comes across your plate (and the more you branch out, the more things will), you need to either be gung-ho about the idea, or you’ll need to say ‘no’ to it.
3.) Have 5 Close Relationships
Relationships are perhaps the most important thing (without exaggeration) when it comes to overall life satisfaction, at least for most people.
I’m not telling you as your new-age life coach, I’m telling you because I’ve seen multiple studies that show having a close group of people in your life can keep you happy for life (it can also help you live longer).
The number is often debated, but remember that it’s not about debating the minutiae, it’s about the overall lesson. I chose 5 for this subheading because it seems to be a low-end average, as listed in books like Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement.
National surveys find that when someone claims to have 5 or more friends with whom they can discuss important problems, they are 60 percent more likely to say that they are ‘very happy’.
I’ve yet to see any compelling evidence that more friends = happier, because after all, the quality of the people in your life matters the most, just be sure to acknowledge that there are many friends to be made, and maintaining a small circle can go a long way in making you a happy person.
4.) Be Proactive About Your Relationships
This applies to all relationships, but especially with your significant other—I’m not here to be your relationship counselor, but I will tell you that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many relationships (especially marriages) decline over time.
So what can you do?
I found some interesting research from Northwester University that recommends a “21 minute” evaluation (I’ll forgive them since it’s an academic study) to use on a relationship.
While the study focused on marriages, one of the biggest takeaways for me can be applied more universally:
How would a neutral third party view your relationship recently?
In a small personal example, I looked at a friendship of mine and noticed that my friend was the one who always had the burden of calling me and making the plans. I hated that, so I made plans and called them for a change, so that the relationship didn’t feel one-sided.
The important thing here it so be proactive. Oftentimes a relationship can go sour if you let it go on autopilot, and there are few things worse for happiness than losing a close companion.
Here are two other bits of friendship advice that I’ve seen from the literature:
- Regularly check-in with good friends (around 2 weeks for very close friends).
- Celebrate the good things in their life; let them know through active and constructive listening (ie, not just saying “that’s great to hear!”).
- Don’t be a conversational narcissist. Studies show people love hearing themselves talk and talking about themselves, so let them.
You also need to remember that taking care of yourself is apart of taking care of others. In this way, your mutual dedication to improving yourself benefits both of you.
As Jim Rohn would say:
The greatest gift you can give somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, ‘If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.‘
5.) Move Beyond the Small Talk
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote has certainly made it’s rounds on many a Facebook feed, but is there any truth to it?
According to one study, small talk, instead of predicting your intelligence, may instead actually hinder your happiness.
To be fair, the researchers note that small talk is obviously important for smoothing into social conversations, especially with new acquaintances (“Nice to meet you, what’s your opinion on abortion?”).
In the long term, however, a happier life eschews trivial chatter in favor of longer, more thoughtful conversations. In general, talking with others is a good thing for our happiness, but when the conversation is always superficial, it begins to take a toll:
…the extent of small talk was negatively associated with happiness… [and] the extent of substantive talk was positively associated with happiness. So, happy people are socially engaged with others, and this engagement entails matters of substance.
Deep conversations are often those we reserve for close friends and family, which again explains why close relationships are so important for our happiness.
6.) Treat Yourself (the Small Pleasures Matter)
Jokes aside about treating yo’ self, surprisingly, the research has shown that you need to have small wins along the way in order to be truly happy—across many different domains, happiness is more strongly associated with the frequency than the intensity of people’s positive effective experiences.
This is confirmed by many studies dealing with SWLS (Satisfied With Life Scale), which shows that regular small pleasures had a bigger impact on happiness than fewer larger ones. Perhaps this is why it’s often so difficult to put off what we want now for what we want later, so beware of the trap here: tough accomplishments that have to be earned oftentimes result in a happier day-to-day (working hard to get a promotion, start a successful business, win an award, get in shape, etc.)
In what is one of the funniest excerpts I’ve ever stumbled on in a psychology book, Stumbling on Happiness shares this excerpt from a study that shows why the happiest people often only had 1 sexual partner in the past 12 months:
Why would people who have one partner be happier than people who have many? One reason is that multiple partners are occasionally thrilling, but regular partners are regularly enjoyable. A bi-weekly ride on a merry-go-round may be better than an annual ride on a roller coaster.
Well then… I might not put it that way, but I just want to reiterate that a little treat and consistency now and then can go a long way for your happiness while you make plans for your big goals.
7.) Plan Fun, and Spend Money on Experiences
While spontaneous fun is always a good thing, a variety of interesting research has shown that it’s the planning of future activities that often adds to the fun.
While the study above specifically looked at vacations (which may not occur often), additional research covered in Stumbling on Happiness shows that specifically planning a nice dinner can have the same effect. In fact, Gilbert (the author) notes how most participants would actively schedule their free dinner (which they won in the study) a week in advance, instead of the next night:
Why the self-imposed delay? Because by waiting a week, these people not only got to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Château Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look forward to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand.
Not only that, but these “experiential purchases” tend to make us happier, at least according to the research. In fact, a variety of research shows that most people are far more happy when buying experiences vs. buying material goods.
You’ve likely heard this before, but why is this the case?
According to the literature I’ve read, experiences trump material purchases (in general) for the 5 following reasons:
- Experiences improve over time: a great experience tends to age like a fine wine. While researchers have noted that physical items can get old quickly (“Ugh, my phone is 2 months out of date!”), experiences can be relieved and shared for years.
- People revisit experiences more often: going hand-in-hand with the above point, research shows that experiences tend to get recalled more often. You probably don’t reminisce about that first surfboard you bought, but it’s likely that you fondly remember your first surfing lesson.
- Experiences are more unique: say what you want, but people love comparing themselves, and they prefer to stand out if they’re able. Since purchases are often so common, researchers note that we are more likely to compare what we buy with others (which can result in buyer’s remorse). But experiences always have a bit of a unique twist to them, so we are far less likely to make comparisons, and simply enjoy them as they are, relishing in their unique nature.
- We adapt slowly to experiences: consumer research shows that another reason why experiences seem so awesome to us is that it takes our brain longer to get used to them. Have you ever felt really energized coming back from a great show/dinner/vacation? It’s less likely that a purchased item kept you excited for that long, and it’s because we are better able to adjust to material purchases.
- Experiences are social: human beings are social animals, that’s a fact. Did you know that true solitary confinement is often classified as “cruel and usual” punishment due to the detrimental effects it can have on the mind? Experiences get us out of our house (an epidemic in some countries) and sometimes out of our comfort zone, which is a fantastic way to kill habituation.
8.) Keep Your Eye on the Prize
You’ve likely heard of the marshmallow experiment, but a quick summary is that researchers found those children who were able to resist the temptation of eating a marshmallow immediately (vs. waiting for the researchers to come back) did notably better in some major areas of life, leaving some to conclude that delayed gratification is a solid predictor of future success.
The research has shown that there certainly seems to be some sort of connection between delayed gratification and overall life satisfaction. People with self-control seem to be happier with life.
Since delayed gratification has consistently been shown to be dependent on the “strategic allocation of attention,” it seems apparent to me that discipline in this regard is really dependent on creating systems to avoid the use of willpower.
Walter Mischel, leader researcher for the Stanford marshmallow experiment, had this to say about how people get discipline and willpower all wrong:
The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.
You should also know that the patient children did the opposite: instead of obsessing over the marshmallow, they distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire never seemingly left them, it was simply ignored and forgotten.
If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it.
If you recall my article on building good habits, you’ll find the research lines up quite nicely with this—the best way to make sure you stick to the straight and narrow path that you desire is to set up barriers to prevent you from going astray—akin to guard rails on a bowling lane.
Just like the kids in the experiment, you can get yourself a better payoff and live a more fulfilling life if you can avoid compulsive distractions, but you need to remember that the secret is in making them easy to avoid, not in powering through with willpower.
This means hiding the snacks out in a shelf in the garage, instead of in the kitchen cabinet you frequent most.
9.) Show Some Appreciation
Psychology doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, so it’s nice when a good deed lines up with a great personal benefit.
I was happy to find this study that showcased how showing gratitude for someone (or even for what you have) boosted happiness by a noticeable level. The researchers say 25%, but again, we’re debating minutiae, the important thing is that it worked.
How can this realistically be applied though?
Another study found that writing thank-you notes (or just a nice letter) was an effective method of increasing happiness and life satisfaction. There are a lot of fringe benefits to this as well—people rarely get handwritten notes much anymore, so they stand out over a “thnx” via text.
Handwritten letters are also a great way to start the process of reciprocity. Though you should be sending them out of sincere appreciation for someone, remember that true networking (not the slimy business card kind) is about helping and letting people know that they matter to you.
10.) Observe the Happiness of Others
This one was really interesting.
Most of us like to think we are unique snowflakes, but sometimes things are popular for a reason. In fact, research suggests that the best way to predict how much we will enjoy an experience is to see how much someone else enjoyed it.
In one study, researchers found that women were able to reduce the inaccuracy of predicting how much fun they’d have on a speed date by reading a rating left by a previous women. In other words, learning about someone else’s experience is a far better way for us to internally evaluate if we will enjoy it as well.
Try to use this when trying out new things. I can give a candid example—I’ve used detailed Yelp reviews to justify going to restaurants that I never would have stepped foot in otherwise. But when I saw how clearly people explained why they enjoyed it, I figured hey, all that fuss has to be about something.
11.) Change Your Perspective
This is the most trite advice you’ll ever see posted on this blog, but I’m here with the data to back it up.
In one study researchers found that the simple act of listing 3 good things that happened that day (no matter how small) increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms.
Furthermore, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes (and avoiding a pessimistic outlook) really can make you feel better about your situation. Perhaps most interestingly, a change in view can have a really big impact on your overall happiness.
…we prompted students to reinterpret their academic problems from a belief that they couldn’t cut it in college to the view that they simply needed to learn the ropes. The students who got this prompt—compared to a control group that didn’t—got better grades the next year and were less likely to drop out.
So the next time you hear advice that you should believe in yourself and appreciate what you have, know that it’s not as superficial as it might seem.
12.) Pick a Skill; Master It
Excellence in anything increases your potential in everything.
As it turns out, regularly engaging in your signature strengths (is that not the most stereotypical positive psychology term ever?) is a great way to feel better about yourself.
The long and short of it is that you should find something to excel in, and do it as often as you can.
I know, this is one of the more generic ones on this list, but I hope it serves as some food for thought for renaissance men and women—you can certainly still dabble in lots of things, but giving a single skill/task/achievement enough time for mastery may allow for an exceptional experience in itself.
You should also know the research has suggested that mastering a skill may be just as stressful as you might think—researchers found that although the process of becoming proficient at something took it’s toll on people in the form of stress, participants reported that these same activities made them feel happy and satisfied when they looked back on their day as a whole.
13.) Aim High and Fire Away
Recently, I ran across an interesting bit of information from the book Engineering Happiness:
In his studies, the psychologist Jonathan Freedman claimed that people with the ability to set objectives for themselves—both short-term and long-term—are happier.
I’ve read additional research (here and here) that seems to back up this finding—goals really do seem to add a sense of meaning, direction, and focus to life that can easily become absent if we don’t have anything we are currently striving for (“Life is a journey, not a destination,” so to speak).
Research by psychologist Richard Davidson would also suggest that making progress on a concrete goal doesn’t just activate positive feelings, but can also negative emotions, including fear and (non-clinical) depression.
According to another study, researchers found that setting ambitious goals tends to make people happier. You shouldn’t go too overboard (“I will become a trillionaire!”), but know that big goals are often an important element of getting people moving in the first place.
No verbose headline for this one because there is no getting around it—I don’t care how much you hate exercise, there are so many benefits for it (both physically and psychologically) that you should be doing it regularly in some form.
To add to the pile, research has also found that exercise is a proven strategy for feeling better, increasing your energy levels, and reducing tension. And to prove that you should get started today if you currently don’t exercise, one study showcased how self-image improved (even when body shape didn’t change) for participants just by exercising.
Yes, starting to exercise may suck at first, but even taking the first step with a 7-minute exercise may be enough—that research suggests that a high-intensity session for just 7 minutes can offer a slew of health benefits.
Not only that, those who are just getting started often see the biggest boost in happiness:
The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.
For the rest of us? Switching up routines and making exercise one of our regular habits is the key to lasting happiness. Also, dead lifts, many many dead lifts.
15.) Don’t Let Time Slip Away
This one is a bit less scientific, but I’d rate it as one of the most important on this list (the most important one is maintaining strong relationships, bar none).
If you’ve seen the notorious study on the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, you’ll recall that the number one regret was not being true to one’s own dreams:
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.
Perhaps the biggest wake-up call here is that these people didn’t mean for this to happen—one day blended into the next, and “someday” passed by, and a call to follow a specific dream went unanswered.
So here’s one last line of text that hopefully serves as a kick in the butt: that thing you want to do? Start now.
Hat tip to this exceptional article on Buffer by Belle Beth Cooper which inspired me to look into research on happiness (I recommend you read that piece too).
Last but not least, let me just say I hope that this article offered some inspiration, but simply that—research shouldn’t tell you how to live your life, but it can be a source of insight in creating the life you want to live.