You know what percentage of people are really happy? Not “oh, life is pretty good”, I mean people who are flourishing. They feel their lives are fulfilling, meaningful and brimming with potential.
Less than one in five. And the question that follows is, of course: how do I become one of those people?
I’ve been accumulating the research on happiness for a while. Good news is: there’s a lot of it. Bad news is: who can remember to do all that stuff?
Well, one expert finally put it together into a simple 5-part formula.
Christine Carter is a sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center which studies the psychology and neuroscience of well-being. She looked at the research and exhaustively compiled it into her book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.
So what’s this formula to find your “sweet spot” of happiness — without completely overhauling your life?
Okay, but what do we actually need to do?
Don’t worry; it’s pretty easy. Let’s break it down:
1) Take Recess
Most of what we do all day is “instrumental.” What’s that mean? It gets something done. It’s practical. It achieves a goal.
But these days we seem to be doing more and more that’s instrumental and a lot less that’s just fun. We forget to play. Is that so bad?
Actually, you have no idea how bad it is. Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tried an experiment: he told people to just do instrumental activities all day long. No fun allowed, literally.
The old saying is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s more accurate to say, “All work and no play gives Jack a clinical anxiety disorder in under 48 hours.” Seriously.
After 2 days he ended the experiment because of the extreme negative effects it was having on the test subjects.
So by trying to be so productive and get so much done you’re probably stressing yourself out. What to do?
Schedule a little bit of fun every 90 minutes or so. Nothing productive allowed.
You can actually get more done sometimes by being a bit of a slacker. Vacations make you more productive.
By working 60 hour weeks you can get a lot done. But when you work that hard for too long, your productivity drops off. After 2 months of 60 hours a week you’ll actually accomplish less than if you’d only been working 40 hours a week.
(For more on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
You might be worried that taking breaks will mean you still get less done. But we’ve got a solution for that.
2) Switch Autopilot On
You spend 40% of the day on autopilot, engaging in habits, not actual decisions.
So start building better habits. You don’t “decide” to brush your teeth, it’s just something you do and it’s not a struggle. With more habits like this you can get a lot more done in less time with little stress.
At first, just try little habits. Connect them to things that are already part of your routine.
Another easy way to break in a new good habit is to use what happiness expert Shawn Achor calls the “20 second rule.”
Anything you want to accomplish, find a way to make it 20 seconds easier to get started on (like putting your workout clothes next to the bed). Anything you want to stop doing, make it 20 seconds harder to start (hide the candy where it’s hard to reach).
From my interview with Shawn:
(For more on how to build good habits, click here.)
You’re having more fun and becoming more efficient by turning routine tasks into habits. Great. What else will bring you more happiness. The answer is “less.”
3) Unshackle Yourself
Really, you can. Christine puts it pretty simply:
We spend so much time reacting rather than following through with our goals.
Whenever I tell people they need to do less the reaction is pretty much like I told them to grow wings and fly: “That’s impossible!”
But then I ask them 4 questions about a task and very, very rarely can they honestly answer “yes” to each one:
- Does this thing really need to be done at all?
- Do you absolutely have to be the one to do it?
- Does it need to be done perfectly or will “pretty good” actually be enough?
- Does it need to be done right now?
Like I said, very few tasks get a “yes” for all four. And that means you can either ignore it, delegate it, do it quickly or make it one of tomorrow’s top five.
You can do less. And less means less stress and more time for fun.
(For more on achieving work-life balance without driving yourself crazy, click here.)
So that means less on your plate. So what should you fill your plate with?
4) Cultivate Relationships
Christine pulls a quote I love from the wonderful book Triumphs of Experience:
If you ask psychology researchers, economists, insurance adjusters and old people they will all agree on the single most important key to happiness:relationships.
That’s not hard to believe. What is surprising is just how far that truth extends.
So you can do that if you’re a daily Starbucks drinker but just like with networking, the easiest way to work on relationships is to first strengthen the ones you already have.
You don’t need to buy gifts or go out of your way. Just give your attention. Listen. Ask about the good things that have happened to them lately and be happy for them. It’s that simple.
(For more on how to get people to like you, click here.)
Okay, last one coming up. And it’s a bit ironic. Want life to happier? Then make it a little harder…
5) Tolerate Some Discomfort
Many of us come home from work and think, “I just want to sit down and do nothing.”
And that’s understandable if you’re overworked and burned out. But “doing nothing” is really not what will make you happier.
Sitting on the couch watching TV does not make your life better:
Research shows we’re generally not inclined to do what makes us happiest, actually. We do what’s easy.
Engaging in things you’re good at has been shown to powerfully boost happiness. People who deliberately exercised their “signature strengths” on a daily basis became significantly happier for months.
But how do you prevent this from becoming yet another stressful chore?
This isn’t your boss forcing you to do something. This is you choosing to push yourself so you get better.
(For more on how to get better at anything, click here.)
Let’s tie it all together into something simple that we can use.
Here’s Christine’s five step formula:
- Take Recess: Going two days without anything fun creates anxiety. Take breaks.
- Switch Autopilot On: Make unpleasant tasks into habits. Tie them to things you already do.
- Unshackle Yourself: Decide your five priorities for the day and say NO to everything else. Does it have to be done? Do you have to do it? Does it have to be done perfectly? Does it have to be done now? Probably not.
- Cultivate Relationships: They are the single biggest happiness booster. Celebrate the successes of those you love.
- Tolerate Some Discomfort: Push to keep getting better. Mastery brings joy. Striving creates smiles.
One of the secrets of the happiest people isn’t merely that their brains are wired that way, but they also engage in activities on a daily basis that keep them flourishing.
Try the above five things on a daily basis for a few weeks and see if they can make you happy. As Aristotle said:
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