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March 1, 2016 8:00 AM EST
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all wanna be happier, right?

Thing is, depression is at epic levels. More people are unhappy and they’re getting miserable at an even younger age.

From Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment:

You don’t want to be part of this trend. Neither do I. So I called an expert to get some answers…

Tal Ben-Shahar taught the most popular class at Harvard University — and it was all about happiness. He’s also the bestselling author of a number of books including Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.

Tal’s going to teach you and I what creates happiness in the big picture, what makes home and work more joyful, daily rituals you can use to boost good feelings, and the happiness mistakes you don’t even know you’re making.

Let’s get to it…

1) You Need Pleasure… And Meaning

Pleasure makes you happy. (Deep insight, huh?) Many of us just stop there, chasing things that feel good. But that’s only half the recipe.

The research shows we also need meaning. A purpose that has significance to us. When you combine pleasure and meaning, you’ve got happiness.

From Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment:

So what about happiness at work? To find the perfect career, you need to add one more thing: your strengths.

The perfect job for you is one that is pleasurable to do, has a purpose you believe in, and lets you do things you’re good at. Here’s Tal:

Sound like a tall order? Keep in mind that it’s all about your feelings, not what someone else thinks.

Research shows hospital cleaners found their jobs meaningful when they saw themselves as contributing to sick people getting better, not as a bunch of menial tasks.

Okay, so we know what makes a happy life… Now how can we use these ideas to get happier?

2) Map Your Life

Ever look down at the clock and get stunned by how much time you spend on email? Tal says we’re really bad at judging how we spend our time. And we’re even worse about doing what really makes us happy.

So the first step is to really keep track. Try writing down what you do every hour for a few days. Then ask yourself if those things were pleasurable, meaningful or let you use your strengths. Here’s Tal:

Now you can see which of your activities are contributing to your happiness, which are taking away from it and how much time you spend on each.

You might think the next step would be to go in and fix what’s broken. And you’d be wrong. You actually want to do the reverse.

It’s called, “appreciative inquiry.” Find the things that make you happy and first focus on doing them more. Later you can focus on doing the bad stuff less. Here’s Tal:

Looking at how you really spend your time and maximizing the good moments sounds simple, but we usually trust our very fallible memories and don’t proactively try to increase the good on our calendars.

As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said:

So using your time the right way can make you happier. So what are you doing wrong that you need to change?

3) “No Pain, No Gain” Is A Myth

Many of us believe that anything that produces serious results has to be hard work. I have good news: Tal says that’s wrong.

We’re happiest when we do stuff that leads to good things but when we enjoy the process as well. You may have heard of this state: it’s called “flow.”

It’s when our skills and challenges are balanced and we become immersed in what we’re doing. Here’s Tal:

The best goals are means and ends. Tal compares a “drowning” model to a “lovemaking” model. In the former we struggle with something and at the end we gasp for breath, feel better and mistake that for happiness.

In the lovemaking model, (without, um, getting too specific) we enjoy the process and the end result.

These are the type of activities we enjoy most and should seek out. Spend as much time as possible on your “want-to” list, and try to spend less time doing those awful “have-to” activities.

This all sounds nice but how do we figure out the “want-to” activities that will engage us the most which are actually productive, and not merely obvious leisure?

4) What Would You Do If No One Would Judge You?

Imagine someone cast a spell on you so that no one would see what you were doing or the results of your efforts. What would you choose to do if you weren’t being judged?

Tal says answering this question can help you discover the activities you will truly find enjoyable in the moment and that can lead to “flow”:

We spend so much time worried about what other people think and trying to impress them that we end up doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t really make us happy.

Step back for a second and think about what you really want to be doing with your time.

Okay, all of the previous ideas have been big picture. What little things should we do every day to boost happiness?

5) Doing Beats Knowing – Use Rituals

Many people believe that if we know the right thing to do, we’ll do it. (These people have never been on a diet.)

Knowing is nice, but it’s doing that really matters. And here Tal says science can learn something from religion. Religions are big on rituals.

Believers know the prayers but it’s not enough to know them, you have to say them regularly. Anything we want to do to improve our life needs to be a ritual — a habit — if it’s really going to create change.

So what rituals does Tal recommend for happiness?

1 – Exercise

It doesn’t just keep you healthy and attractive. Studies show it’s as effective as antidepressants in keeping you smiling. Here’s Tal:

2 – Spend Time With Friends

The number one predictor of happiness is how much quality time you spend with the people you love. Here’s Tal:

3 – Express Gratitude

Say thanks. Send “thank you” texts and emails. Don’t take things for granted that you are very lucky to have. Here’s Tal:

4 – Meditate

No, you don’t have to sit on a mountaintop and say a mantra. Meditation and mindfulness are simple things we can do every day. Here’s Tal:

Don’t just read these things. Make them a habit. A daily ritual. As the poet John Dryden said:

Alright, let’s round all these ideas up and learn the final secret to a happier life…

Sum Up

Here’s what Tal had to say about how to be happy:

  • You need pleasure and meaning. Feeling good is important but we also need a purpose.
  • Map your life. Note where your time goes and ask if it’s making you happy. Then do more of the good stuff.
  • “No pain, no gain” is a myth. We’re happiest doing things where we enjoy the process, not just the results.
  • What would you do if no one would judge you? This question can point you in the right direction.
  • Doing beats knowing. Use rituals. Don’t just read these ideas. Make them into habits.

Maybe you don’t feel so great right now. Tal says that’s okay. Do you dream of a perfect life that’s all ups, no downs? Never gonna happen. And that’s alright.

Be compassionate with yourself. Life is rich and varied. Give yourself permission to be human. Every day won’t be great but we can make more of them better if we try. Here’s Tal:

Start making one of these things into a habit right now: send someone a bit of gratitude. Send a “thank you” text or email to that person who did something nice for you recently.

Gratitude is the best habit to start out with because it’s easy and it’s very efficient…

You actually make two people happy.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.


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