By Eric Barker
August 2, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

We all want to know how to find happiness. And the internet is chock full of advice on how to get there — but most of it is based on studies done on a bunch of college sophomores.

Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t trust our 19 year-old selves when it comes to the most important thing in life…

So what produces happiness all around the world, among people young and old, across the most varied backgrounds imaginable? I figured I’d call an expert who knows the answer…

Robert Biswas-Diener is known as the “Indiana Jones” of psychology. He’s spent time studying happiness in India, Greenland, Spain, and Israel. He’s hung out with the Amish and the Masai of Kenya to see what produces smiles everywhere.

He’s an instructor at Portland State University and co-author of the book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.

Robert is going to explain how to find meaning in your work, what the biggest happiness mistake you make is, and the three words that are most likely to brighten your day (and they’re not “winning the lottery.”)

Let’s get to it…

AIM For Happiness

Taken literally that sounds like corny self-help talk. But AIM is an acronym. (Research is much easier to follow when you can actually remember it, right?)

A is for attention. Quite simply, you’ll be as happy as where your attention is directed. Focus on the good stuff, be optimistic, and you’ll feel good.

Focus on the bad stuff (that’s pretty much what we call “news” these days) and you’re going to feel worse. Here’s Robert:

The I in AIM is for interpretation. We tend to think that the way we see things right now is the only way to look at them. Wrong.

A promotion can feel like a good thing — or it can scare you because you don’t feel up to the new challenges. Losing your job can be awful, or if it was lousy job it can be the best thing to happen to you in years.

You can’t control the facts, but you do have control over how you interpret them. And it’s the latter that determines whether you’ll feel happy or not. Here’s Robert:

The M stands for memory. You don’t know what’s going to happen next in life, so thinking about the future can be fun or terrifying.

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Happy memories, however, are a safe bet. You can turn to those for a guaranteed boost when you need it. Take time to look back and savor those moments that made you smile. Here’s Robert:

(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, so AIM is a good way to remember some fundamental things that can keep you happy. But what should you actually do every day to build a happier life? (And, no, eating ice cream 24/7 is not an option.)

Is there a principle to guide your actions at work and at home that can make sure you get more pleasure out of most any task? Yes…

Use Your Strengths

The more you do things you’re good at, the happier you’ll be.

From Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth:

The projects you take on at work, the activities you engage in during your leisure time, the more they involve skills you’re uniquely good at, the better you’ll feel. And the research shows this is no small effect:

Now let’s get really science-y and look at a fancy chart:

The more you do what you’re good at, the more goodness you feel.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will keep that brain of yours happy, click here.)

So doing what you’re good at can even make the office more pleasurable. But given that work is called “work” and not called “unending fun” it’s often the source of a lot of stress.

And you don’t always get to use your strengths. So what can really imbue your 9-to-5 with meaning and make you feel better about your job? The answer is to not have a job at all…

Have A Calling

No, you don’t have to get a new job to find meaning in your work. Much like the “I” in AIM, it’s about how you see it.

When you think about the end result of your work, the benefit it provides to others, and feel like you’re on a mission — BOOM. That can turn most any job into a calling. Here’s Robert:

And the research shows this small perspective shift can have big results.

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When people who clean hospitals stopped thinking about emptying trash cans and instead saw themselves as contributing toward sick people getting better, emptying those same trash cans became engaging and meaningful.

Via Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness:

How does what you do contribute to helping others and making their lives better? That’s the perspective that provides meaning and joy. It’s not what you do. It’s how you think about what you do.

(To learn more about how to be happier at work, click here.)

So if you think about contributing to others will you finally get to that state of pure bliss, gliding on a cloud of never-ending joy? Will you be done ever having to think about happiness again? Hell, no.

And that’s what Robert says is one of the biggest mistakes we all make when trying to be happier…

Happiness Is A Process, Not A Place

Nobody is always happy. Nobody. Robert has studied very happy people and they get the blues too. Settling for nothing less than complete euphoria is a prescription for depression.

You’re never going to “get there” because there is no there there. We’re made happy by what we think and what we do every day. It’s an ongoing process.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.” Here’s Robert:

Here’s an interesting fact about happiness: frequency beats intensity. What’s that mean? Lots of little good things make you happier than a few big things.

Research shows that religious services and exercising both bring people a disproportionate amount of happiness. Why? Churches and gyms don’t have a lot in common (though both have made me sweat on occasion.)

The reason is they both give us frequent, regular boosts. So stop trying to get that one magic brass ring. It doesn’t exist. Scheduling frequent little things that make you happy is the real solution.

(To learn the 8 things the happiest people in the world have in common, click here.)

So I’ve thrown around the words “fun” and “meaning” in discussing happiness. But they’re not the same thing. In fact, how you achieve the two are often in direct opposition with one another. Um, that’s a problem. Here’s the solution…

Balance Pleasure Now With Meaning Later

Pleasure is, well, pleasurable. And that’s a totally legit form of happiness. But “live fast” is usually followed by “die young.” And “All work and no play” might get Jack promoted but it also makes him a very dull boy.

You need both pleasure and meaning. Here’s Robert:

Short-term fun and effort toward long-term goals: neither one produces an optimal life on its own. Like salty and sweet, you should alternate to get the most flavor.

(To learn more about how mindfulness can help you find happiness, click here.)

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Now balancing can be a tricky endeavor, so I made sure to ask Robert what the numero uno path to happiness was around the world. He didn’t hesitate to answer…

Focus On Relationships — But Don’t Compare

If you want to be happier, spend more time on your relationships. Robert found this to be true all around this crazy planet of ours. Support your friends, kiss your partner, hug your kids. Here’s Robert:

Now where relationships get us into trouble is when we start comparing ourselves to those who have more than we do. Bad. Wrong. Go no further. Be happy for what you have, not envious of what others do. Here’s Robert:

I would love to think you’re going to memorize this entire post and get the important parts tattooed on yourself as helpful reminders, but that’s not going to happen.

So I asked Robert, “If people forget everything you said about happiness except for one thing, what should they definitely remember?”

He said: “Invest in others.” Here’s Robert:

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips on how to get people to like you, click here.)

Alright, we’ve learned a lot from Robert. Let’s round it all up and find out the final tip that will make sure you — yes, you alone — will be happier tomorrow than you were today…

Sum Up

Here’s what Robert had to say about how to find happiness:

  • AIM for happiness: Attention to the good, interpret things positively, and enjoy happy memories.
  • Use your strengths: Whatever you’re doing, try to engage your unique skills.
  • Have a calling: How does your work contribute to the world? That’s how you find meaning.
  • Happiness is a process, not a place: No one thing will make you happy forever. But lots of little smiles will.
  • Balance pleasure now with meaning later: Have fun on the weekend. And work hard on Monday.
  • Focus on relationships, but don’t compare: If you remember nothing else: invest in others.

So how do you tailor this advice so it works for you? That’s easy. Don’t do it all. Yeah, I’m telling you to actively ignore some of the stuff you’ve just read.

Maybe using your strengths isn’t an option. Or you don’t feel your work contributes much to others. That’s okay. Robert says you should emphasize what you find works for you and double down on that.

Don’t force something that doesn’t click for you. But make sure to regularly do the things that show results. Happiness is not one-size-fits-all. Here’s Robert:

So, right now, get out your calendar and plan a recurring appointment to do something that you know makes you happy.

When I spoke to Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker she said time use studies show there’s a gap between how people want to spend their time and what they end up doing. They know what makes them happy — but they don’t do it enough.

Your calendar should not just be a list of obligations, interruptions and tedious errands. What are you trying to do? Inject dehydrated concentrate of depression right into your eyes?

Anticipation is powerful. Research shows it can actually be more pleasurable than the activity itself. So give yourself something to look forward to.

Find pleasure in that appointment on your calendar. Find meaning in your work. Find love in your friends. And all the sudden you’ll realize what you’ve really found is happiness in your life.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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