Coronavirus. Quarantine. Layoffs. Protests. The last 6 months alone have been enough to depress anyone. Yet, while every other self-help book promises a formula for happiness, few deliver. Fortunately, behavioral science provides several insights into habits we might adopt to increase our joy and happiness—almost instantaneously.
Here are 7 of them:
- Nurture existing relationships rather than pursue happiness as a goal. Even if happiness is your ultimate desire, you should not spend every moment of your life saying, “I want to be happier”. That’s not a Jedi Mind trick. It’s much more simple. Pursuing happiness as some sort of blissful state is just self-serving. And scientists have found it can be counterproductive. For example, who you fail to see happiness materialize, you more dissatisfied with your situation. And when happiness becomes your idol, it fosters deep psychological problems. As an alternative, scientists suggest you nurture existing relationships. If you’ve a decent relationship with someone, for example, make it better. If you’ve a bad one, repair it. Indeed, the next habit on this list is remarkably helpful in repairing bad relationships, in particular.
- Learn to forgive. Many of us like waiting until someone who’s hurt us makes the first move towards reconciliation. Even if they do, we try to “punish” the malefactor by not forgiving them. Yet, the data suggests we’re only harming ourselves when we do this. Indeed, forgiveness is the single most powerful factor researchers have identified in acquiring happiness. Indeed, forgiveness even enhances our other emotional powers. For example, people who forgive are better able to control their anger. And they can more easily stave off disappointments. They also avoid depression and, more generally, acquire emotional stability in the process. In other words, by cultivating a habit of forgiveness, you can become the “emotional rock” of your family and friends. And, as I alluded to above, forgiveness aids repairing bad relationships. But what’s the first step in cultivating this powerful habit? Be at all times ready to say, “I forgive you” and “I’m sorry.”
- Sincerely wish others well. On top of the above habits, researchers have found taking a sincere interest in others can boost our mood. And get this: experiments suggest it can take effect in as little as 12 minutes! Yeah. Minutes after taking an interest in the challenges of others—be they people we know and love or strangers on the street—we gain more joy. Of course, one caveat here is getting too involved in someone else’s problems. Another is helping people who don’t ask for it. We must straddle these two extremes by merely being ready and willing to help with close attention.
- Express generosity—Don’t just feel it. A group of brain scientists showed recently that generosity breeds a feeling of happiness—instantly. And even more important, they found sincere generosity, actually demonstrated by our actions, leads to a lasting boost in mood. Most of us know this intuitively from the feelings we get in giving gifts at holiday times or on special occasions. We feel better even thinking about giving someone something we hope they’ll like. Nonetheless, there is an art to sincere generosity and gift-giving. If the aim is to make ourselves feel better, we’ve lost the plot. Rather, the aim must be to help the other person. Thus, when giving a gift, the habit to form involves paying attention to what that person wants to receive, NOT focusing on what we think he or she needs or lacks.
- Learn gratitude and contentment. The other side of the generosity coin is gratitude. For example, when someone gives us a gift, if we respond with ‘thankfulness and joy,’ we improve our own well-being. Indeed, George Mason academics have shown this is a pervasive scientific finding in their review of a number of happiness studies. Extending that work, they also found women and men differ in how gratitude boosts their happiness. Women benefit more than men in feeling greater changes in well-being. This could relate to socialization, leading men to hide their emotions, or because men are ungrateful wretches (just kidding). At the end of the day, gratitude and contentment never lose, regardless. Cultivating such habits is as easy as learning to say, “thank you.”
- Be open, curious and flexible. The George Mason academics also found several habits interact to increase happiness. For example, being open-minded, curious and flexible boosts happiness in long-lasting ways. To understand this, consider that open-mindedness means being willing to accept new ideas and new people. It means suspending preconceived notions and biases. Obviously, this smacks our typical social order in the face. In modern society, we often feel “there’s nothing wrong” with being guarded, critical and judgmental of new people or new ideas. Evolutionary psychologists even rationalize these feelings by opining they’re natural. Yet, the data suggests otherwise. Such negative dispositions are counter-productive. On the other hand, another trait, curiosity, leads to growth by way of open-mindedness and flexibility. That is, curious people are inquisitive and tend to investigate things. The curious and open-minded person investigates what she encounters in a fair way, testing its value and accepting contrary ideas that hold water. Flexibility, gives such a person wings. As a flexible person, she is willing to change her opinion in light of what she has found. Thus, an open, curious and flexible person, researchers have found, will grow. And growth will make her happier. Of course, only practice makes this combination of spectacular habits perfect.
- Live in the present moment. Many of us tend to engage in nostalgia, especially when it brings positive memories. Yet, while nostalgia seems harmless, according to science, it can breed unhappiness and even depression. It means we don’t accept the reality of change. At the same time, the internet is inundated with self-proclaimed thought leadership about the future. Such philosophy encourages undo expectations—positive or negative. Yet, the fact that no “futurist” predicted the pandemic and its ramifications suggests the effort is futile and potentially misleading. By contrast, living in the present is a better and scientifically supported approach. It joins with it, appreciating what we have and dealing with difficulties as they come. Living in the present moment is both realistic and psychologically more stable—enabling us to resist disruption and other challenges that might upset us. In any case, the habit to cultivate here involves battling thoughts. We should resist thoughts of the past or future—no matter how great or bad they were or seem to be.
Admittedly, even remembering 7 habits for obtaining happiness can be tough. Here’s a cheatsheet: Live everyday as it comes. Enter every situation, no matter how dark, as an opportunity to grow and learn. Be grateful for every person and situation you meet and see them and it assets on your life’s journey.