How to Find Happiness: 3 Secrets From Science

10 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

You’ve probably read a lot of stuff on the internet about how to find happiness… but you’re still not jumping for joy.

Some of the tips feel corny… so you don’t actually do them. Others stop working after a while so you stop following through.

What gives? Isn’t there a solution that really works and keeps working?

I’m with you. I want answers. Who has them? Sonja does. So I gave her a call.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor at University of California at Riverside and one of the leading experts on happiness. She’s the author of two great books on the subject:

  • The How of Happiness
  • The Myths of Happiness
  • Okay, let’s find out why all these tips we see again and again may not be working — and what will make you happier.


    What’s The Best Version Of You?

    A lot of what you read about becoming happier sounds downright corny. Counting your blessings, doing good for others… all those cliches your wise grandmother told you to do.

    But here’s the thing: the cliches are often true. Grandmom knows a lot. Here’s Sonja:

    Psychologists often have to confirm the obvious, or what your grandma might tell you. It happens to be the case that in most of what I study, the folk wisdom is correct. People who are randomly assigned to be grateful once a week for six weeks, they actually do become happier and their relationships are improved. People who do acts of kindness get various benefits.

    But if it feels corny — even if it works — you often don’t follow through. So what addresses that very real issue?

    Sonja says that the best method is the one that clicks for you. Maybe you’re already showing gratitude. Maybe you’re the most gratitudinous person on the planet. (Yeah, I made that word up.)

    But there’s an area of your life that could use a boost, something that will move the needle and that’s where to start. Here’s Sonja:

    You have to find the strategy that works for you. You pick one thing that you think you’ll feel natural doing, that you want to try, that you think you’ll enjoy. For me, it’s savoring. I don’t think I savor enough. So now when I’m with my kids I just enjoy being with them and try not think about what I have to do tomorrow. Everyone can choose something like that. For someone else it might be starting an exercise program. For another person, it might be trying to improve a friendship you’ve kind of let go; you haven’t really called that person in a while. Choose one goal and then just take small steps towards it.

    So don’t feel like you have to do something that sounds silly to you. But what is going to click for you?

    Ask: “What’s my vision of my best possible self?”

    When your life is perfect, what is it like? And that can tell you what’s really important to you and what your values are.

    Research shows that thinking about your best possible self doesn’t just clarify goals — it can also make you happier just by thinking about it. Here’s Sonja:

    Imagine your life in ten years and that your goals have been accomplished. You’re living your best possible life. Think about that in different domains. I did this once with students and they said to me, “I didn’t even know what my goals were.” So they were forced to articulate their goals. Some people said to me things like, “Yeah, I didn’t think my goals were feasible until I wrote about them,” and they realized there were concrete steps they could take.

    (For more on what makes the happiest people on Earth so happy, click here.)

    Great. But I have bad news. That happiness trick is going to stop working after a while.

    Huh? Why?!? Don’t worry: it’s not your fault…


    “Hedonic Adaptation”

    That’s just a fancy way of saying: You can take ANYTHING for granted.

    Yes, anything. Researchers looked at people who suffered terrible accidents and ended up in wheelchairs. Guess what? Eventually, they adapted and were happy again. Hooray!

    But researchers also looked at lottery winners… Yup, people eventually adapted to that too. Ugh.

    We all take things for granted. We never experience something and then BOOM — we’re happy for the rest of our lives.

    When we say “I’ll be happy when X happens” we’re just not telling the truth. That great job, that dream wedding, that beautiful baby — none of them is the final key to happiness we think it will be. Here’s Sonja:

    “I’m not happy now, but I’ll be happy when I have a baby, when I move to that city where I’ve always wanted to live, or when I get that job, when I have that career I want… then I’ll be happy.” Actually, our happiness really lies inside of us, and so people who aren’t happy at their current job probably won’t be happy at their next job either. We carry ourselves from one job to another. The idea is that most people are not really aware of the power of hedonic adaptation. Yes, that job or relationship or that move is going to make you happy… but it’s not going to make you happy for as long or as intensely as you think it will, because we adapt.

    (For more on what the most successful people have in common, click here.)

    Depressing, I know. But we ain’t done. Not by a long shot. Here’s what you can do about it…


    New! Different! Surprising!

    Habits are awesome for getting things done and they make our lives much more efficient.

    But because of hedonic adaptation, habits can be a big problem for happiness — you can get in a rut.

    But there’s a solution. Actually, there are three:

  • Novelty: Try a new angle. Watching Netflix on the couch feeling stale? Go to the movies.
  • Variety: Try different strategies. Gratitude isn’t doing it anymore? Try savoring.
  • Surprise: Not sure how something will turn out? Awesome. Grab that special someone and take tango lessons. Or sumo wrestling classes.
  • To beat hedonic adaptation, we need to keep things fresh. Here’s Sonja:

    Novelty, variety and surprise can prevent or slow down adaptation. So, with relationships, let’s say you get married and you get a happiness boost. Studies show that it takes about two years for people’s happiness levels to go back to what they were before the wedding. That doesn’t mean that you’re not happy with your marriage, but we get used to it to some extent. So we want to introduce some variety and novelty and surprise to the marriage in a positive way. Don’t watch Netflix every Friday night; mix it up. Do different things with your partner. The kind of things that can lead to more surprises, again in a positive way. Same thing with a job. Open yourself up to new opportunities, challenges, taking risks, learning new things, and meeting new people.

    When I talked to one of the leading experts on love, Arthur Aron, he said the same thing: doing something new and exciting has enormous power to spice up a relationship — and make you happier.

    I know, I know, you need a concrete answer of what to do. But you also need something tailored for you. Well, here’s a great way to find that:

    Ask yourself: “What would I do if this were my last month?”

    When you feel like good things are going to end, it dramatically shifts your perspective. You take advantage of opportunities. You do the things you know you love. You get off the couch and see those people who mean so much to you.

    And she’s done the research — answering this question has power. Here’s Sonja:

    We asked students at George Mason University in Virginia to pretend that it was their last month before they move far away. Every week they’re supposed to do something to savor their last time with friends or family. To go on that hike that they’ve always wanted to go on, to go to the restaurant again that they really love, etc. And they got happier. They increased in measures of flourishing, positive emotions, and well-being.

    (For more on how to stop being lazy, click here.)

    Okay, lots of stuff here and we don’t want this to be yet another internet happiness list that doesn’t produce results. Let’s round this up into something you can use…


    Sum Up

    Research-backed happiness wisdom from Sonja:

  • Ask “What’s the best version of me?“: This can tell you what you value and what’s missing in your life. Now you know what interests you and can get you closer to that perfect, happy life.
  • New! Different! Surprising!: You can and will take anything for granted. So spice up the things that make you happy by adding novelty, variety or surprise.
  • Ask “What would I do if this were my last month?”: If you felt you’d never be able to do that fun thing again or see that special someone again, you’d get off your butt. So ask the question — and then do that stuff.
  • Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated. Research shows simple things like hugs really do make us happier. And as Bil Keane once said:

    A hug is like a boomerang – you get it back right away.

    I’ll be sending out a PDF with more joy-inducing tips from Sonja in my next weekly email. (Including the answer to the one thing you do all the time that killshappiness.) To make sure you get it, sign up for my weekly email here.

    Join over 195,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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