Over a person’s lifetime, how much do you expect that their happiness will increase?
Most people I’ve asked seem to think that the answer is ‘A LOT’.
Sure, there’ll be tough times and the occasional sadness, but as they accomplish and accumulate, their happiness will go up and up and up.
Most people die a few percentage points happier than they were as children. Marriage, employment, friendship, growth… all it results in is a few percentage points of change.
No surprise. Happiness is counter-intuitive.
One study tracked the same individuals over the span of 20 years. At the end, most were just a small bit happier than they were at the start.
But there were exceptions! Their baseline level of happiness increase by 20, 30, even 50% over the course of those 20 years.
Those exceptions were few, with less than 5% of the people studied showing changes of that magnitude. But they existed.
You can choose to follow the whims of your desire. You can choose to follow the idealizations of your culture. You’ll end up like the 95% who ended up just a bit happier than they started.
Or you can follow the exceptions. Act with intention, informed by science. End up 50% happier.
Here are 54 things you can do to be more like them:
|(click on image to scroll to that strategy)|
|Exercise||Keep a Gratitude Journal||Spend More Time Socializing||Go To Church||Do Yoga|
|Have More Sex||Write a Gratitude Letter||Live Close to Work||Don’t Settle for Alcoholism||Spend on Experiences|
|Laugh||Respond Active Constructively||Get Good Sleep||Make Friends With Positive People||Do Mindfulness Meditation|
|Spend on Others||Reminisce||Don’t Ruminate||Reflect on Your Strengths and Victories||Volunteer|
|Do Compassion Meditation||Have Deep Conversations||Anticipate||Don’t Watch Porn||Think Counterfactually|
|Don’t Lose Your Ability to Savor||Don’t Vent Your Anger||Don’t Fantasize||Don’t Use Positive-Affirmations||Buy Many Small Things|
|Don’t Watch Hours of TV||Don’t Rely on Marriage||Sit Up Straight||Don’t Decide Where to Live Based on the Weather||Stop Complaining||Don’t Settle|
|Smile||Don’t Check Your Portfolio||Don’t Be Passive||Don’t Be Too Optimistic||Share Your Successes||Don’t Be a Pushover|
|Maybe Skip The Sugar||Maybe Eat Less Trans Fat||Maybe Skip The Diet||Maybe Spend Less Time on Facebook||Maybe Don’t Overinvest in Education||Maybe Spend Less Time Online|
|Maybe Don’t Rely on Kids||Maybe Don’t Get Botox||Maybe Consume Caffeine||Maybe Take Omega-3||Maybe Think Fast||Maybe Get a Standing Desk|
Inspiration for this post came from Tim Czechs upcoming book Happiness Hacks – 103 Scientifically-Supported Ways to Optimize Your Mind to Feel Bliss. Subscribe to my newsletter to find out when it comes out. It’s going to be great!
Cardio, strength training, or high intensity training – whatever your preference, exercise. Not for the sake of your health or your appearance, but for happiness.
Exercise is at the top of this list, and for a reason – it’s a wonder drug.
If you’ve been inactive, regular exercise will boost your long-term well-being by 10 to 15%.
In one study, after eight weeks of exercising for 30 minutes three times a week, folks reported a 12% increase in their well-being. Compare that with a cross-sectional survey of over 100,000 people across the globe, which found that doubling one’s income was associated with a 10% increase well-being.
The same effect on happiness, but exercise you can do today. Doubling your income will take a bit longer.
There are a number of additional studies confirming the powerful results of exercise, as well as a number of different explanations for why exercise is so powerful for improving mental health. From my own life, after exercising regularly for a few weeks, I found a dramatic increase in my levels of energy and mood. After I upped the frequency and intensity, I experienced a sustained mood bump.
One study found that exercise was just as effective as an anti-depressant for improving mood. More significantly, those in the exercise group were 5 times less likely to relapse than those given a drug.
There are three different explanations for where those benefits are coming from: the mastery hypothesis, the distraction hypothesis, and the chemical hypothesis.
The mastery hypothesis suggests that the increase in mood originates from the feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy that come from our being able to push our bodies beyond our preconceived limits.
The distraction hypothesis suggests that exercise is like meditation – a forced break from the stresses of life.
The chemical hypothesis suggests that exercise releases chemicals which reduce stress and improve mental functioning. Personally, my bet is on this hypothesis. For example, exercise causes a drop in levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, causes a rise in levels of happiness hormones, like endorphins, and increases levels of brain derived neuropathic growth factor, which improves the functioning of the brain.
One important caveat – you might feel worse at first. Many who are inactive but decide to start exercising feel worse during their first few sessions. Don’t worry, the dip is temporary, and will soon be reversed!
-Strength Training Effects on Subjective Well-Being and Physical Function in the Elderly
-Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being: A Population Study in Finland
-Physical Exercise and Depression
-Moderators of the Relationship between Exercise and Mood Changes: Gender, Exertion Level, and Workout Duration
-Getting Oﬀ the Hedonic Treadmill, One Step at a Time: The Impact of Regular Religious Practice and Exercise on Well-Being
Keep a Gratitude Journal
One a week, take a few moments to write down or verbalize three things which happened during the past seven days for which you’re grateful.
A five minute a week gratitude journal can change your life.
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In a series of well-replicated experiments, a gratitude journal was found to increase long-term well-being by more than 10%. In addition, keeping a gratitude journal was also found to improve quality of sleep, improve the functioning of the immune system, reduce stress, increase life satisfaction, and much more.
How can a five minute a week gratitude journal make us so much happier? Two things.
First, the brain is like a muscle. Every time you practice gratitude, you’re exercising the neural pathways responsible for finding reasons to be happy.
Second, the actual gratitude produced during those five minutes is small, but the emotions of gratitude felt during those five-minutes can be enough to trigger a grateful mood.
While in a grateful mood, further feelings of gratitude are more likely to trigger, even on their own, without conscious direction.
-HappierHuman, Benefits of Gratitude
-Positive Psychology Progress
-Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life
-Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need to Know
Spend More Time Socializing
Say yes instead of no. Turn off the TV and go make new friends. Finish reading the book or blog post later. Go to meetup.com and try something new.
Behind sex and drugs, social activity is the most pleasurable activity available to mankind.
click to tweet
Even for introverts like myself, our current state of social inactivity is unnatural and unhealthy. In one study, folks were randomly pinged through the day, asked what they were doing and how they felt. Out of the more than two dozen most common activities, social activity was reported on average as highly pleasurable, behind only sex.
In another study, those who were the happiest spent 25% less time alone, and 70% more time talking than the unhappiest participants.
Specifically, the unhappiest spent 76.8% of their time alone, while the happiest spent 58.6%. This was calculated by attaching discrete audio recorders to participants, and then seeing what percent of the time they were silent or part of a conversation.
There are several factors at play which cause us, myself included, to desire TV & internet rather than socializing, even though socializing brings more happiness.
TV & internet appeal strongly to our desire for novelty. There’s always something new going on. This is true as well with social contact – no two conversations are ever the same. The difference is that social activity requires effort, while watching TV and using the internet don’t. In an ancestral environment, information was like sugar – rare and valuable. In the modern world, information is also like sugar – abundant and more junk than value.
We’re told to listen to our bodies. That’s stupid advice. Sometimes our bodies know what’s best. Often, they don’t. Sugar is unhealthy. Likewise, social activity is one of the best predictors of well-being and happiness. Fight your desire to consume passive entertainment.
-Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations
-A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method
-Looking to happy tomorrows with friends: Best and close friendships as they predict happiness
Go To Church
As an atheist, I almost wish it was possible for me to believe in a God. As far as I can tell, considering the time and effort involved versus the benefits gained, going to church ranks as the #1 best strategy on this list.
In a survey of Americans between 1972 and 2008, 26% of those who don’t attend religious services reported being “very happy,” compared to 48% of those who attend services more than weekly. It’s crazy – half of those who regularly go to church report being very happy, compared to just one-fourth of us atheists and non-church goers.
Yes – it’s going to church that makes most of the difference, not being spiritual.
There are two things which going to church gives that being spiritual alone doesn’t – the most friendly and supportive social community with shared values you’re likely to find anywhere, and weekly micro-doses of happiness.
One study asked participants how happy there were right before they entered the church, and again after they exited. The average person reported a 4% mood bump. More significantly, these mood bumps were large enough to cause a change to participant’s baseline level of happiness.
For each week a person attended service over the past month, baseline happiness increased by 3.5%. For each additional visit after the four times a month Sunday service, baseline happiness increased by a further 1%. So the average person who went to church four times a month reported being 14% happier; the average person who went ten times reported being 20% happier.
Two other reasons attending church increases happiness is:
-because doing so increases feelings of gratitude and optimism, both of which themselves increase happiness, and
-because religion provides purpose and meaning to life.
-Huffington Post, Going To Church Linked With Better Mood, Study Finds
-USA Today, Study: Happiness is having friends at church
-Discovery, Why Are Religious People Happier?
-HappierHaman, Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
-Getting oﬀ the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being
-The Religion Paradox: If Religion Makes People Happy, Why Are So Many Dropping Out?
-Religiosity/Spirituality and Mortality
Yoga is a special kind of exercise. I’d avoid the hot kind – that’s dehydrating and increases your risk of injury with no apparent benefits. Otherwise, go stretch your body in weird ways!
In one study which examined strategies for countering the hedonic treadmill, the average yoga practitioner was 6% happier than the average gym buff and 15% happier than the average couch potato.
Similarly, the average person reported feeling 10% happier after leaving a yoga studio than before they entered it. Similar but smaller results were found for going to the gym – 7% after vs. before.
Why is yoga potentially more effective than exercise?
Is it the breathing in sync with your movements? The mental focus required to hold physically challenging poses? A result of exercising the entire body in slow sequence? Something to do with oxygen or CO2 levels?
Yogis will come up with all sorts of bogus explanations, mentioning imaginary concepts like chakra and oxygen infusion.
In truth, Western science is uncertain (not about chakra – that doesn’t exist). One hypothesis is that yoga exercises the nervous system. Certain yoga poses and activities stimulate the flight-or-fight response, while others stimulate the relaxation response. Switching back and forth between poses and activities that stimulate the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system potentially allows for deeper relaxation that just relaxation on its own.
Whether or not that hypothesis is true, yoga has nothing to do with oxygen and CO2. Our bodies are extremely good at regulating our breath and overall nervous system to optimize blood oxygen levels. Normal breathing provides arterial blood with 98-99% oxygen saturation. I’ve confirmed this several times in my life; even when I was stressed or breathing shallowly the finger pulse oximeter monitor reported back 98 or 99%.
The reason deep, rhythmic breathing brings benefits is that it stimulates the relaxation response and improves our heart rate variability.
Have More Sex
Don’t settle. Sex feels good. I’m sure you don’t need convincing that your frequency of sex has a strong correlation with your level of happiness.
I’ve been there before. You’ve been with the same person for a long time. The passion and lust has faded. The reduction in sex might be normal, but it’s costly – less sex equals less happiness.
From a recent study on the relationship between sex and well-being, “Respondents who reported having sex at least two to three times a month were 33 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness than those who reported having no sex during the previous 12 months.
The happiness effect appears to rise with frequency. Compared to those who had no sex in the previous year, those reporting a once-weekly frequency were 44 percent more likely to report a higher level of happiness, and those reporting having sex two to three times a week were 55 percent more likely.”
The best advice I can give, outside of the usual, is stop watching porn. Evolution has not prepared your brain for today’s internet porn. The cost, AND THERE IS ONE, is a reduced desire to have sex. As for what else to try, I’m no sex expert, although it would be nice if I was :).
-A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method
-Well-Being in its Natural Habitat: Orientations to Happiness and the Experience of Everyday Activities
-In sex, happiness hinges on keeping up with the Joneses, CU-Boulder study finds – See more at: http://www.colorado.edu/news/releases/2013/04/15/sex-happiness-hinges-keeping-joneses-cu-boulder-study-finds#sthash.8AkaAUYg.dpuf
Write a Gratitude Letter
Think of three reasons for which you’re grateful for a friend or acquaintance. Then go up to them and share. Or, think of someone who’s made a large impact on your life. Write down all the ways they’ve helped you, as well as the resulting positive impact that help has had on your life. Then go read the letter to them.
Besides the consumption of drugs or having good sex, I know of no other way to so quickly but strongly boost well-being.
Self-reliance can be counterproductive to happiness. Expressing your appreciation to others will bring joy – both to you and to the recipients. In addition, I’ve found those moments of sharing a gratitude letter to be some of the most vulnerable of my life. Vulnerability creates connection.
In one study, those who wrote and then sent a gratitude letter experienced, on average, an immediate 10% increase in happiness. One month later, half of that bump remained.
Why does expressing our appreciation make us so much happier? Americans interpret feelings of gratitude as weakness. In my experience, it’s the other way around – feelings of gratitude make you vulnerable. Embracing vulnerability requires strength.
Feelings of happiness come in many different shapes – joy, sensual pleasure, love, compassion, and so on.
One of those shapes is gratitude. That is, genuine feelings of gratitude are interpreted by our brain as feelings of happiness.
Live Close to Work
Thinking of purchasing a bigger house? Choose a place close to work instead, even if the place is smaller or in a poorer neighborhood.
“Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce.”
The location of your house is a trade-off, but not of the kind you’re thinking.
Because of the hedonic treadmill, many of the benefits you expect your new home to give you will quickly fizzle out. For example, assuming one’s not living in a closet, the size of one’s home has a small impact on one’s subjective wellbeing. Why? Because over time, the increased size becomes less novel and starts to be taken for granted.
Likewise with choosing a longer commute in order to save money – except for those living below the poverty line, disposable income has a smaller impact on life satisfaction than commute time. Happiness is not about accumulating accomplishments and material objects – happiness is about the quality of your day-to-day experience. A frustrating commute is frustrating every single day. Higher disposable income is unlikely to have an offsetting positive impact every single day. We quickly adapt to most of the goodies we purchase – do we adapt to a frustrating commute? No.
In one study, 1018 employed Americans were randomly pinged throughout the day, asking how they were feeling and what they were doing. The subjects consistently reported feeling the worst at two times of the day – during their commute to and from work. The subjects reported feeling happier even when working and doing housework.
If you care about your well-being and the well-being of your family, take the data seriously – a long commute truly does increase your risk of divorce. All that frustration is poisonous. You think you’ll manage, but after a few weeks or months, your patience will wear thin. When I was a consultant, I spent upwards of ten hours a week commuting – at first I managed, but then I started hating it.
The trade-off that I spoke of is between your well-being and the education of your children. For some of his life, my father had a commute of over 45 minutes. He made the sacrifice in order to put my sister and me in the best school district of NJ. My sister is now contributing to the fight against cancer, getting a PhD in cellular biology at Harvard University. My father is happy with the choice he made.
Don’t Settle for Alcoholism
7% of Americans are alcoholics. That’s one out of every 13 adults. Depression can lead to alcoholism, but the relationship is stronger the other way around.
Whether it’s because alcohol is neurotoxic, causing damage to the brain, because alcoholism triples your chances of divorce, or because of the financial and social stress it can cause, alcoholism significantly reduces life satisfaction and happiness.
If you’re a heavy drinker and you care about your happiness and the happiness of those around you, make dealing with your alcoholism a top priority. Don’t give up.
Spend Money on Experiences
Go skydiving. Purchase scuba lessons. Learn how to salsa. Go to Africa. Buy a nice dinner. Buy me a nice dinner. Whatever, anything – just get off your ass. Experience.
Think back over the past month. When were you the most happy? What were you doing? Asked to a nationwide sample of over a thousand Americans, the overwhelming answer was “creating an experience.”
The subjects were asked to think of two purchases over $100 that they had recently made with the purpose of increasing happiness – one a material purchase, and another an experiential purchase. Asked which purchase made them happier, the subjects were twice as likely to select the experiential purchase.
One reason experiences increase happiness more than objects do is that they’re usually more novel. Quoting Positive Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “Whereas cherry floorboards generally have the same size, shape, and color on the last day of the year as they did on the first, each session of a year-long cooking class is different from the one before.”
Why does that matter?
Novelty captures our attention. An engaged mind is usually a happy mind.
Also, experiences often involve socializing, and socializing is one of the most happiness boosting activities available to mankind.
In addition, shoppers are more likely to ruminate about unchosen options if it’s an object – should I have gotten that dress instead, maybe I should I have waited to get a better deal, etc… On the other hand, experiences are more likely to be enjoyed and less likely to be judged.
-NYTimes, The Right Way to Buy Happiness
-Afford Anything, The Shocking Secret to Happiness
-Ted Talks, How to buy happiness
-NYTimes, But Will it Make You Happy?
-Lifehacker, Spending on Experiences Instead of Possessions Results in More Satisfaction
Babies are said to laugh 10 to 50x more often than the typical adult. That’s sad, because laughter is powerful. The body cannot tell the difference between “fake” and “real” laughter.
Which do you think is “weirder”: releasing dopamine by laughing by yourself, or releasing dopamine by stroking yourself? If solo sex is socially acceptable, why not solo laughing?
I use to wake up every day and then laugh for 5 minutes – it was an amazing way to start the day. Now, I laugh quietly whenever I’m tired – it’s almost as effective as exercise, but doesn’t get me sweaty.
Laughter is a social tool. It exists to help us build relationships with other people. We like people who make us laugh, we like people who laugh at our jokes, and we like people who are laughing with us. Thank you biology – without my humor I probably wouldn’t have gotten as many dates
But now, let’s make laughter a happiness tool.
Comedy movies and humor websites are extremely popular. Most of us actively seek out non-social laughter on a weekly basis. I often can’t help but watch or read the funny things my friends share on facebook.
Okay. That’s a first step. But now it’s time to throw away our crutches.
Watching a 30-minute comedy show or browsing a humor website will net us, at best, a few minutes of laughter.
Instead of spending an hour to get 5-10 minutes of laughter … just laugh for 5-10 minutes.
Find a place where you can be alone. If you’re alone right now, that’s perfect. If not, keep this in mind for the next time you are.
Okay. Just laugh. Laughing on command is a skill. Luckily, it’s extremely easy to learn.
Just pretend a friend said something funny, or recall the last time you had a good laugh and replicate the experience. Yes, our bodies designed laughter to be our response to something funny. But it doesn’t have to be that way – we can break free from our biology.
Laughter is so powerful that there is no reason not to develop this skill:
- Laughter vaporizes stress – lowering levels of cortisol and epinephrine.
- Laughter increases our pain threshold – watching just 15 minutes of comedy makes us 10% more resistant to pain.
- Laughter improves our immunity and fights off disease – watching 60 minutes of comedy increases the volume and activity of our immune cells.
- Its mere anticipation immediately improves mood, reduces pain, and boosts our immune system. Yes, that’s right – just anticipating future laughter temporarily increases endorphin levels by 27%, and human growth hormone levels by 87%.
It doesn’t have to be loud. I’ve gotten good at quiet laughing.
Respond Active Constructively
When someone shares with you something positive that has happened in their life, do as much as you can to turn that unpopped kernel into a delicious piece of popcorn (excuse the popcorn metaphor, I LOVE popcorn).
“Strangely, marriage counseling usually consists of teaching partners to fight better. This may turn an insufferable relationship into a barely tolerable one. That’s not bad. Positive psychology, however, is more interested in how to turn a good relationship into an excellent one.”
79 couples were videotaped having a discussion. Two months later, they were asked to complete a few surveys.
Those couples which used active constructive responses were significantly more likely to still be together, and were significantly more likely to report higher satisfaction with their relationship.
Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, gives a good description of what active constructive responding is and isn’t. Say that your spouse comes home from work and says, “I received a promotion and a raise at work!” You can respond in one of four ways:
Passive and Destructive: “What’s for dinner?” Nonverbal: little to no eye contact, turning away, leaving the room.
This response is uncommon. If you recognize it happening in one of your relationships, you’ve got a problem.
Active and Destructive: “That sounds like a lot of responsibility to take on. Are you going to spend even fewer nights at home now?” Nonverbal: displays of negative emotion, such as frowning.
Don’t do this, no matter how valid your concern. There is a time for reasoned discussion. First hone in on the positive. It’ll make it more likely that your concerns are recognized, and soften the impact to your relationship.
Passive and Constructive: “That’s great! You deserve it.”
This is the most common response. I see it all around me, every day. It’s no surprise, as we were never taught this skill.
Active and Constructive: “That’s great! I’m so proud of you. I know how important that promotion was to you! Where were you when your boss told you? What did he say? How did you react? We should go out and celebrate!” Nonverbal: displays of positive emotion, touching, laughing, smiling.
This skill is social gold. You’re taking a moment of happiness and turning it into minutes or more of enthusiastic conversation. Not only will this make both you and the other person happier, it will make it more likely that people will like you and share their positive life events with you. Which would you rather have? Your friends sharing and talking about the positives in their life, or your friends complaining and commiserating about the negatives?
More advice from Seligman, “If you find you are not particularly good at this, plan ahead. Write down some concrete positive events that were reported to you recently. Write down how you should have responded. When you wake up in the morning, spend five minutes visualizing whom you will encounter today and what good things they are likely to tell you about themselves. Plan your active, constructive response.”
Having started working on this skill, I’ve noticed a change in my social interactions. Many people are passionate about the good things that happen to them, so get them started and you’ll end up with high energy conversations.
Get Good Sleep
Spend more time sleeping. Go to sleep at approximately the same time every day. Avoid caffeine in the evening. Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. Avoid TV and internet in the 20 minutes before sleep. You know what I’m talking about. Those who report getting less and worse quality sleep also report having lower life satisfaction.
“Getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for your daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.”
The allure is huge. There’s just so much more to do – watch another episode of Game of Thrones, read another book or blog post, answer a few more e-mails. The problem is that for now, it takes 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep to maximize health and well-being.
The link between happiness and sleep is complex but strong. Those who have more and better sleep report higher life satisfaction and happiness. Those who have less and poorer sleep are several times more likely to develop depression.
Depriving yourself of sleep during the weekdays and then catching up on weekends isn’t harmless. Likewise, for most folks with insomnia, their baseline level of happiness has gradually shifted to a significantly lower level.
Of course, getting more, high-quality sleep isn’t as easy as adding flossing to your routine. Think of it like a long-term project.
-The Associations Between Life Satisfaction and Health-related Quality of Life, Chronic Illness, and Health Behaviors among U.S. Community-dwelling Adults
-Sleep-Length and Life Satisfaction in a College Student Sample
-Annual Sleep in America Poll Exploring Connections with Communications Technology Use and Sleep
-Action spectrum for melatonin regulation in humans: evidence for a novel circadian photoreceptor
-Epidemiology of insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
-New research shows that treating insomnia can help treat depression.
-The link between sleep and mood
-Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night.
Make Friends With Positive People
Spend more time with your positive friends and spend less time with your negative friends. Seek out and make friends with happy people.
A friend of a friend of a friend, someone you don’t even know, has more influence on your level of happiness than the size of your TV.
Emotions are highly contagious. We know this intuitively. After talking to someone filled with joy, we just can’t help but feel a little better.
For twenty years, 4739 people with overlapping social networks were tracked and repeatedly surveyed. How happy are you? Who are your friends? The results:
You are 15% more likely to be happy if a directly connected friend is happy, 9.8% more likely if a friend of a friend is happy, and 5.6% more likely if a friend of a friend of a friend is happy.
How can a friend of a friend of a friend have such a large impact on your level of happiness? Think of it the other way around. I know one person who is responsible for thousands of people being much happier than they would have been otherwise. A fountain of joy, he has inspired and energized dozens of people. Each of these people in turn have inspired and energized dozens.
The quality of your social network is one of the most important determinants of your well-being. It may feel wrong to judge your friends, but you deserve the best.
More often than not, the limiting factor is laziness. Having become comfortable, most stop making the effort to make new friends. Don’t stop – it’s worth it.
Do Mindfulness Meditation
Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing. When you notice your thoughts drifting, gently refocus your attention back to your breath.
The ‘external’ path to conquering the hedonic treadmill is becoming more social. The ‘internal’ path is meditation.
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, is considered the happiest man alive. That title may or may not be accurate. Either way, evidence suggests that meditation rewires the brain for increased happiness.
Putting it another way, meditation is a collection of techniques developed over 2,000 years ago in order to self-generate positive emotion. The lore and philosophy involved can be ignored.
In one study, participants meditated for ten hours a week for eight weeks. Afterwards, they reported a 10% decrease in anxiety, were observed to have a significant increase in left-side anterior activation in their brain (associated with positive affect), and a stronger immune response after being given an influenza vaccine. In other words, they became less stressed, more joyful, and healthier.
Still, there is a lot left to be learnt about meditation – specifically, which kinds are most effective and their specific effects. For example, a meta-analysis of 813 meditation studies found that only 4% of meditation studies accounted for the placebo effect. Those 4% of studies suggested that after accounting for the placebo effect, meditation might me no more effective than other stress-reduction techniques, like yoga and relaxation training.
That doesn’t mean that meditation isn’t actually more helpful, only that short-term exposure to mindfulness meditation, which is what was tested in these studies, isn’t more helpful. We still have a lot to learn about meditation.
-Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness
-A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction
-Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research
Spend Money on Others
Get a coffee for a coworker. Buy a no-reason-just-felt-like-it gift for your romantic partner. Buy an extra apple from the grocery store, and then give it to the next homeless person you see.
Harvard researchers ran an experiment – would students get happier spending money on themselves or on spending on others?
They first measured how happy the students were in the morning. Then, the students were given either five or twenty dollars. Half the group was told to spend the money on themselves, while the other half was told to spend the money on others.
No surprise – both groups reported an increase in happiness. Who wouldn’t, having been given free money?
But the group who spent money on others reported a larger increase in happiness.
There are a number of other studies which suggest that spending on others (within reason!) creates more happiness than spending on oneself. For example, those who spend more of their year-end bonus on others report a larger, longer-lasting increase in well-being than those who spend more on themselves.
One reason this is true is that we sometimes underestimate the impact that social approval has on our levels of happiness. In one study, participants were put under an fMRI while either experiencing social rejection or social approval. Those experiencing social rejection were seen to activate some of the brain circuits involved with real, physical pain. Likewise, those experiencing social approval were seen to activate some of the brain circuits involved with real, physical pleasure.
Altruism is selfish. I still have years of conditioning to fight – I, like you, was born nice, but was told to be more selfish. Alas, those folks got selfish wrong. Selfish is doing what makes me happier, which counter-intuitively is more about helping others than about helping myself.
-To Buy Happiness, Spend Money on Others
-Ted Talks, How to Buy Happiness
-Why Spending Money on Others Promotes Your Happiness
-Money Can Buy Happiness If You Spend It On Others, Michael Norton Says
-There’s More to Life Than Happiness – But That Doesn’t Make Wanting It Stupid or Selfish
Take photos. Make an album. Collect souvenirs. Take a few moments to relive a positive experience, using photos or souvenirs to jog your memory.
The happiness that comes from reminiscence is as real as the happiness that comes from actual experience.
As a man firmly focused on the future, I never used to take time to reminisce. That was a mistake – I was missing out on an opportunity to create happiness as well as an opportunity to develop my sense of self.
Some people reminisce too much – they’re stuck in the past. Most people, however, are stuck in the present (e.g. attention absorbed by TV or work) or the future (e.g. planning and fantasizing).
In his book The New Psychology of Time, Philip Zimbardo makes the claim that those who frequently reminisce about positive life events are the most likely to be happy. Further, he found that the average American spent very little time reminiscing compared to other nationalities. Perhaps that is one reason why we don’t rank in top ten happiest countries, despite having the most wealth and power.
Here are some additional ideas for reminiscing: look through your high-school yearbook, make a scrapbook of your past mementoes, attend a traditional cultural event, call an old friend, write a gratitude letter, watch old movies, listen to old music, or start a diary and re-read occasionally.
If you find yourself ruminating, do whatever you can to escape. Focus your attention on more positive thoughts. Or, instead of replaying abstract worriers over and over again, get specific and focus on problem-solving.
Rumination increases negative thinking, reduces problem solving, in excess erodes social support, and increases your risk of developing depression. In the ancestral environment, rumination was useful. If you were hungry and started ruminating about your lack of food, you could then go hunting or trading.
Now, many of the things we ruminate about are outside of our control, making what was once a useful psychological response into a harmful one. Ruminating about last night’s date, about getting passed over for promotion, over your faux pas, over an upcoming presentation – it won’t help.
Rumination triggers a negative spiral, where ruminating will make you feel bad, which in turn will cause the mind to focus on anxieties and worries, which in turn makes you feel bad, and so on.
Take control of your rumination.
When I was 16, I was prescribed steroids for my fibromyalgia. I had to stop because of the side-effects – the drug was giving me extreme anxiety. Unfortunately, even after I discontinued the drug, I continued having problems with anxiety. Now, eight years later, anxiety is no longer a concern. Here are the three things I did:
One – I did what I could to make myself happier. Happiness is like a shield, which can protect you from the attacks of evil Mr. Anxiety and unrelenting Ms. Rumination.
Two – I cultivated mindfulness. I worked on recognizing when I was caught in a spiral of rumination. When I detected rumination, I asked myself if what I was doing was helpful. The answer is always no – my problem solving would be more effective if I wasn’t caught in a cycle of negative thoughts.
Three – I did what I could to re-gain control of my thoughts. Every time I detected a negative thought, I’d refocus my attention elsewhere. I’d do that again and again, until the anxiety which triggered the rumination passed. At first, this was difficult. But with months of practice, I can now banish most feelings of rumination which arise within me.
After my emotions are back under control, I’ll then address the concerns the rumination brought up. Effective problem-solving is a lot easier when you’re not under the influence of unhappiness.
Reflect on Your Strengths and Victories
Instead of stressing out or ruminating on a recent embarrassment or failure, reflect on your strengths or a past victory. If you’re not sure of your strengths, ask others to describe a time when you’ve been at your best, or take the StrengthsFinder test.
We tend to take things for granted. Not just others and their contributions, but also our own strengths.
If you find yourself lacking confidence and doubting your ability, instead of focusing in on the negatives, as our mind is likely to counter-productively do, focus on your positives – your persistence, social skills, intelligence, or one of other possible strengths all readers of this blog might have.
All humans are not equal. Some have more strengths than others. But by being here and reading this article, you’ve already demonstrated several strengths that many humans don’t have, like open-mindedness, curiosity, hope, and desire for change.
Most importantly, don’t use positive-affirmations, which involve repeating to yourself that you’re great when you don’t actually believe that you are (read the Don’t Use Positive-Affirmations strategy to learn why in the long-term this backfires). Instead, use self-affirmations, which involve reflecting on strengths and positive qualities you actually believe that you have. More on self-affirmations here.
Reflecting on how you’re incapable is likely to sap you of your energy and make you unhappy. Reflecting on how you’re capable is likely to energize you and make you happy. It’s not good to be overconfident and disconnected from reality, but underestimating your strengths is as disconnected as overestimating them.
Most humans are capable of more than they think. Likewise, most humans have already overcome many challenges. Living inside of our own brains, stuck watching life through the same pair of eyes, we fail to recognize that what is exciting or easy for us, is often challenging for many others.
If you’re not sure of your strengths, two great ways of figuring out what they are is to take the StrengthsFinder test, or to make a Reflect Best Self-Portrait. If you do know what your strengths are, but still lack confidence, when you notice your thoughts drifting to how you’re incapable, try to redirect them to the two cores of your foundation – times when you’ve overcome challenge, and the areas of your life where you posses strengths many others don’t.
Research shows that those who are aware of and focus on their strengths are more happy than those who aren’t and don’t. A powerful exercise you can try is to think about a strength that you know you have, and then take a few minutes to write about a time when you demonstrated that positive quality.
-Elevate your talents with the Clifton StrengthsFinder.
-List of Personal Strengths
-Your Reflected Best Self – Getting a Deeper Understanding of Your Strengths
-The Power of Affirming Your Values
-Benefits of Self-Affirmation
-Self-Control Instantly Replenished by Self-Affirmation
Mentor students. Serve food to the homeless. Collect money. Read to under-served kids. Clean up the local park. Visit the elderly. Walk shelter dogs. Volunteer.
Volunteer – not because you want to help others, but because you want to help yourself.
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Selfishness as it is usually imagined is stupid. Within reason, helping others brings, rather than takes away, happiness. That’s why volunteering is one of the most selfish things you can do.
There are many reasons volunteering is beneficial – it gives us a sense of meaning, it increases our social activity, it introduces us to novel and potentially exciting activity, and because volunteering gives us an opportunity to demonstrably improve the world, it increases our self-esteem.
Put together, this is the reason volunteering increases well-being, life-satisfaction, and in older adults, reduces mortality risk.
One important caveat is that folks who are happier are themselves more likely to volunteer. So although folks who volunteer are more likely to be happy, some of that difference is because folks who are already happier for other reasons are more likely to volunteer.
Taking this into account, longitudinal studies have found statistically significant but weaker relationships between volunteering and well-being. For example, rather than weekly volunteering increasing well-being by 20%, instead increasing well-being by 10%. But whether the true benefit is 10 or 20%, the data is clear – volunteering increases happiness.
Here are three tips to keep in mind when choosing the type of volunteer activities that you try.
1) In one study, authors tried to figure out what factors predicted whether or not volunteers would quit or continue. The two most predictive factors were engagement and meaning – when you are volunteering does time fly by, and do you think your contributions are making the world a better place?
Many of my high-school friends volunteered at the library. Why, I can’t imagine. Shelving books is neither interesting nor meaningful. You may have to experiment to find something you like.
I thought I’d really like walking dogs, but actually found it boring. On the other hand, I found coaching and mentoring kids to be far more interesting and rewarding than I expected.
2) Although I couldn’t find any studies to back up this tip, I feel confident in asserting that volunteering gives the most benefits when it’s done with a group and when you get to see the benefits of your actions.
3) For the men reading this, “altruism” is a courtship display. In one study, 300 women were shown dating profiles. Those profiles which included volunteering were more likely to be rated highly. That happened for two reasons. One, I think most of us prefer generosity over selfishness in a romantic partner. Second, volunteering is a status-signal. Those who volunteer are more likely to be happy, healthy, and have a stronger social network.
-Altruism as a courtship display: Some effects of third-party generosity on audience perceptions
-Effects of Volunteering on the Well-Being of Older Adults
-Formal Volunteering as a Protective Factor for Older Adults’ Psychological Well-Being
-Volunteer Work and Well-Being
Do Compassion Meditation
Focus on someone whom you care about. Reflect on their positive qualities and acts of kindness they have done you. Do whatever is most effective to generate feelings of love and compassion – visualize them at their best, repeat a mantra, or replay fond memories.
Love is happiness. Loving-Kindness meditation will bring you more happiness by training your ability to generate love.
A traditional Buddhist will learn and practice dozens of different kinds of meditations. Mindfulness meditation has become popular in the west because it is one of the most useful.
The science so far is preliminary, but suggests that loving-kindness meditation is potentially more effective in increasing well-being than mindfulness meditation. In one study, just seven minutes of this type of meditation increased mood by 10 to 20%.
More likely, both types of meditation are complementary – both reduce stress, but together, their power is even greater. Mindfulness meditation increases emotional awareness and helps you more easily focus on the present. Loving-Kindness meditation trains the ability to directly generate positive emotion, much like gratitude training.
In another study, for as long as subjects meditated at least once a week, the 10 to 20% boost in mood persisted. Likewise, the longer they continued their practice, the more permanent the change in their baseline level of happiness became. For example, they could skip several practice sessions in a row without a noticeable change in their mood.
In yet another study on loving-kindness meditation, “a significant correlation was found between the amount of meditation practice and innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress.” In other words, the subjects became healthier and more resilient.
-Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness
-Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources
-Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning
-Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress.
-The Science of Compassion
Engage in Deep Conversation
Skip the small talk. Ask atypical questions. Be more receptive to strange or personal questions.
The happiest people have twice as many deep conversations as the unhappiest. Ditch the small talk.
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Whether it’s because deep conversations facilitate bonding or because we all have an innate desire to talk about important things, there is a strong correlation between happiness and having meaningful conversation.
It’s possible that the correlation runs the other way – that happy people are simply more likely to engage in deep conversation. However, I think it goes both ways – being happy makes you more likely to talk about important things, and talking about important things makes you happy.
The study from which this idea was born was conducted in 2009. 79 people had discrete audio recorders attached to them for four days. Afterwards, the percentage of the time they spent alone, they spent talking, they spent in deep conversations, and they spent in small talk was calculated.
The happiest participants spent almost half of their social time in deep conversation. The unhappiest spent only 21.8% of their social time in deep conversation.
One of my friends has taken the results of this study to heart. Once a month, she organizes a conversation night. We come up with a list of meaningful topics we would like to discuss, break into pairs, and discuss a topic. Then we switch partners and talk about another topic. Participation requires sharing parts of yourself usually kept hidden – e.g. you can’t talk about what your greatest fears are without opening up.
Not only does having those conversations make me feel great, I feel I’ve learned more about some of the participants in two hours than in dozens of hours of small talk. If deep conversation doesn’t come easy, I recommend thinking up ahead of time interesting questions you can ask in place of the typical, “what do you do, where did you grow up, what’s your favorite color” nonsense. Google can help.
Here are some good prompts to get you started:
1. Imagine hosting the perfect dinner party. You can invite anyone who has ever lived. Whom would you ask?
2. When did you last talk to yourself?
3. Name two ways in which you consider yourself lucky.
4. Name something that you have always wanted to do and explain why you haven’t done it yet.
5. Imagine that your house or apartment catches fire. You can save only one object. What would it be?
6. Describe one of the happiest days of your life.
7. Imagine that you are going to become a close friend with me. What is the most important thing for me to know about you?
8. Describe one of the most embarrassing moments in your life.
9. Describe a personal problem, and ask your conversation partner’s advice on how best to handle it.
Pay now and consume later. Take a few moments to review upcoming events you’re looking forward to. Instead of reading the book all at once, read only one chapter at a time. Instead of playing that new game for ten hours straight, stop after an hour. Savor, anticipate, and then play some more.
The happiness that comes from anticipation is as real as the happiness that comes from actual experience.
The happiness that a positive event brings us is proportional to the amount of time we spend thinking about it. Being given an awesome gift will bring no happiness if we are too preoccupied worrying about work.
More happiness can be produced by that gift by anticipating the gift, savoring and focusing our attention on the gift when we receive it, and then reminiscing on the gift afterwards.
There is a part of our brain like a raging bull, that doesn’t care about our happiness and wants us to move forward as fast as possible. Tame that beast.
Anticipating is not the same thing as fantasizing. Fantasizing involves raising expectations – producing pleasure now at the expense of happiness during the actual experience. Anticipation involves being happy that a future event is about to occur, as it will actually occur, not as some idealized fantasy.
Research suggests that an organic method of increasing anticipation is to one – have a large social network (which results in being invited to more events and social interactions of which to anticipate) and two – have a high number of steps in place to achieve your goals (which results in more progress). However, there is one strategy you can implement immediately. Pay now and consume later.
It’s tough, and I often fail, but when I succeed, it’s always worth it. Not only do I get lots of happiness from the anticipation, I find that withholding something from myself, even after I’ve purchased it, has the effect of increasing my level of savoring when I do get around to consuming it. Examples from my own life include episodes of my favorite TV show, books, video games, and sweets.
From a study of vacation-goers, “The practical lesson for an individual is that you derive most of your happiness from anticipating the holiday trip.”
Don’t Watch Porn
Watching porn may seem harmless, but it’s not. I’m not moralizing – if porn was harmless, I’d be fapping off to pixels of beautiful women all the time.
Considering that relationship satisfaction is one of the strongest components of happiness, that’s concerning. I HIGHLY recommend folks read this article or watch this Ted Talk on the effects of regular porn consumption.
No really – I highly recommend reading this article or this Ted Talk. It’ll explain the idea better than I could. Although the science is still playing catch up, the underlying theory is sound – what’s your lover compared to a harem of double D beauties?
Yes – I know you know those double D beauties aren’t “real”. They’re porn actresses you’ll never be touching. But men are sexually stimulated by what we see – whether it’s “real” or not (e.g. why it’s possible for Japanese men to masturbate to naked cartoon characters).
As we masturbate to porn, we raise our subconscious standards, to which our real partners will never compare.
Think porn doesn’t have an effect? Then why do women shave their pubic hair?
I can speak from personal experience. The weeks I spend abstaining from porn, I have more energy, am more social, and have better sex. Instead of my mind wandering, I enjoy my partner for the goddess that she is.
-Ted Talks, The Great Porn Experiment
-Your Brain on Born, Doing What You Evolved To Do
-Ditch Porn – It’s Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids
-Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families
Think about something which brings you great happiness – your child, your health, your job, whatever. Now, either think of ways in which it’s surprising that you actually have this thing, or spend time visualizing an alternate world where this thing doesn’t exist or has been taken from you.
We most appreciate something after we’ve lost it. Lucky us, we can pretend to lose something.
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In which circumstance do you think a father will better appreciate his daughter – the norm, during which he awakens and takes her continued existence for granted, or after a nightmare in which she was run over by a truck?
The question is, is the happiness created by the better appreciation greater than the unhappiness created by imagining her death?
In the case of a nightmare, I can’t say. But in studies of counterfactual thinking, temporarily imagining loss has the long-term effect of increasing happiness.
The primary technique used by the Stoics to cultivate tranquility and happiness was exactly as I described above. By temporarily imagining deep loss, the rest of the day was spent with greater appreciation and joy.
In one study, couples were asked either to describe ways in which their being together was expected, or ways in which it was unexpected. Although couples expected describing ways in which their relationship was destined would increase their relationship satisfaction and temporarily boost their mood, the results came out the opposite.
Those who followed the below instructions saw a 10 to 20% increase in their relationship satisfaction and mood.
“Please describe ways that this thing or event might never have happened or might never have been part of your life,” and “Please describe ways in which it is SURPRISING that this thing or event is part of your life.”
This is why those who experience deep suffering, like myself in the case of my health, often rebound and experience great gratitude and happiness afterwards. When you realize you might not have had your amazing romantic partner – that is was only by crazy coincidence you were both at the party, gratitude (and therefore satisfaction and happiness), goes way up.
-It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts
-From What Might Have Been to What Must Have Been: Counterfactual Thinking Creates Meaning
Don’t Lose Your Ability to Savor
Stay present in the moment, anticipate, reminisce, share the experience with others, practice gratitude and counterfactual thinking. Indulge in moderation.
The impact of wealth on happiness is significantly smaller than we might expect – a doubling of income on average brings about only a 10% increase in well-being. One part of this is because of our amazing ability to get bored. We crave novelty – new toys stop being as exciting once they’re no longer new.
The other part is experience-stretching. There is a strong negative correlation between wealth and one’s ability to savor. This makes sense – a $6 glass of wine is no longer so impressive when one regularly indulges in $120 glasses; a stroll through the park is no longer so enjoyable when one regularly flies to the Bahamas; talking to a stranger in a bar is no longer so exciting when one regularly meets the rich and famous at exclusive parties.
A simplified but useful model of happiness is that it is a comparison between one’s reality and one’s expectations. As we earn more money and enjoy ever greater purchases, our expectations increase. The wealthy have a demonstrably more difficult time savoring and enjoying life’s more mundane pleasures. That’s a problem – not only for them, but also for us normal people.
As a society, our ability to savor has become terrible, to the point where we’ve limited our level of happiness. This is one reason why many people report being happier when they were children than as working adults. Our innocence has been taken away, and our expectations have risen far above what they were years ago.
In one study, subtly flashing images of money to participants was enough to cause them to eat chocolate faster and to report less enjoyment from the treat. Simply being exposed to images of money was enough to temporarily raise expectations and impair the ability to savor and enjoy.
There are two complementary strategies to use. The first is to limit what you purchase. If you don’t buy the newest, best thing, your expectations won’t have as much of an opportunity to increase.
The second is practice and improve your ability to savor. I recommend practicing mindfulness meditation and keeping a gratitude journal.
Don’t Vent Your Anger
|The next time a car cuts you off, don’t start screaming about their mother. That seemingly harmless behavior is both destructive and within your control. Likewise with other areas of your life, like getting angry at customer service or at your spouse.|
Although venting may feel good in the short-term, it is a myth that it actually works to “process” and lower your level of anger.
“Releasing sexual tension feels good. Throwing up when you are sick feels good. Finally getting to a restroom feels good. So, it seemed to follow, draining bad blood or driving out demons or siphoning away black bile to bring the body back into balance must be good medicine. Be it an exorcism or a laxative, the idea is the same: get the bad stuff out and you’ll return to normal.
It’s drug-like, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it.
Common sense says venting is an important way to ease tension, but common sense is wrong. Venting – catharsis – is pouring fuel into a fire.”
That quote was taken from this great article on venting. If you experience lots of anger, read the rest – it’s brilliant!
When we think about positive things, we become happy. When we think about negative things, we become unhappy. Likewise, when we act happy, perhaps by smiling, sitting up straight, or laughing, we become happier.
More generally, if we focus on positive thoughts and behaviors, we become happy. If we focus on unhappy thoughts and behaviors, we become unhappy.
So when studies show that venting by punching a pillow increases, rather than decreases levels of anger, the reason is clear – those people are re-focusing the brain’s attention on angry thoughts and angry actions, causing even more anger. The psychological concept of Freudian repression has been largely disproven.
That isn’t to say you should do nothing when you experience anger. Self-help did get one thing right – anger does need to be dealt with. There are simply more effective ways to do so than yelling or punching, like relaxation, empathizing, and quiet reflection.
To learn more about why venting is counter-productive, read the first article below.
-Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding
-Catharsis, Aggression and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies?
Fantasizing in excess has two negative effects – it makes you less likely to actually change your life, and it can raise your expectations in harmful ways.
The best illustration of how high expectations can harm happiness is this article – Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. The articles applies to everyone – as we acquire more in life, our fantasies get progressively more and more ambitious. Desire for improvement is good, but happiness is the difference between reality and our expectations.
If our expectations increase in tandem with reality, our level of happiness will stay unchanged. This is what usually happens, and is why happiness over a person’s lifetime looks more like a flat line rather than a constant march upwards. It’s called the hedonic treadmill.
One counter-attack is to spend less time fantasizing and more time living in the moment.
Another negative consequence of fantasizing is that it reduces goal attainment. Positive visualization feels good, but so too does cocaine. Neither is much good for long-term motivation.
The Law of Attraction is bogus. It’s effective at making you temporarily feel good, but at the cost of long-term action and well-being.
Read The Secret and you’ll be exposed to a series of selectively picked anecdotes, one after another. Do science, and the results will speak for themselves.
Positivity is healthy and productive. But raising expectations without corresponding action decreases long-term wellbeing. In tests, the average person who followed the Law of Attraction saw a reduction in goal attainment. On the flip side, those who followed mental contrasting, a process which involves some focus on negative thoughts, saw an increase in goal-attainment.
Lady Gaga suggests that images of success can take the place of actual action. Instead of going out and making it happen, we visualize in our heads, feel good, and then do nothing. The fantasy replaces the reality.
-Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions.
-Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children.
-When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII).
-Mental contrasting instigates goal pursuit by linking obstacles of reality with instrumental behavior.
-Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behavior.
-Mental contrasting and the self-regulation of helping relations.
-Self-regulation of commitment to reduce cigarette consumption: Mental contrasting of future with reality.
Don’t Use Positive-Affirmations
|A common recommendation by self-help books and TV shows for increasing self-esteem and happiness is to use positive-affirmations – to repeat to oneself positive self-statements. For example, “I am a lovable person, I am making the right choices, I have every bit as much brightness to offer the world as the next person.”|
Self-affirmations are effective. They involve writing or talking about personal qualities we know we have. Specifically, discussing how we tend to express those qualities, and why we think they’re important. More here.
On the other hand, positive-affirmations are a quack-job, quick-fix that don’t work.
Four common recommendations made by the self-help movement to increase self-esteem and happiness are to: keep a gratitude journal, repeat positive-affirmations, visualize success, and punch a pillow when unhappy. If these strategies actually worked, one would expect that after running a scientific experiment, a large, unequivocal effect would be seen.
And yet, a hundred experiments later, only one of those strategies reliably produces a positive effect – the gratitude journal. The Don’t Vent Your Anger strategy discusses why venting counter-intuitively prolongs rather than reduces anger, the Don’t Fantasize strategy discusses why visualizing success can often backfire, and below I discuss why positive-affirmations can decrease rather than increase self-esteem.
There are three reasons that positive-affirmations can and often do backfire.
The first is that thought suppression doesn’t work. For example, in one study, participants were told not to think about polar bears. Then, they were instructed to ring a bell every time thoughts of a polar bear intruded upon their brain. The results were clear and repeated with more real-world examples- asking someone to avoid thinking about something actually increases by an order of magnitude how frequently they think those thoughts.
So suggesting that someone should tell themselves, “I am beautiful” and should avoid thinking, “I am ugly” can have the opposite effect of increasing how likely they are to think to themselves that they are ugly.
The second is that our brains aren’t stupid. If you don’t actually think that you’re lovable, telling yourself that you’re lovable will bring to mind doubts that that isn’t actually true, which in turn will lower rather than increase your self-esteem. This is why studies suggest positive-affirmations increase happiness and self-esteem among those who already have high self-esteem. For them, “I am beautiful and I will succeed” is believable. For those with low self-esteem, it’s not, and so the affirmation actually decreases long-term self-esteem.
The third is that the use of positive-affirmations carries the assumption that it’s bad to think negative thoughts. Therefore, when a person does think negative thoughts, they will think worse of themselves – that only losers or unhappy people think negative thoughts. That’s false. Everyone thinks negative thoughts every now and again. Or they will think themselves a failure for being unable to follow the program and keep negative thoughts away. That’s unfortunate, because negative thoughts can’t be forced away with sheer force of will.
-Self-help books ‘can have the opposite effect’
-Should we re-think positive thinking?
-The Power of Affirming Your Values
-Benefits of Self-Affirmation
-Self-Control Instantly Replenished by Self-Affirmation
Buy Many Small Things
Instead of purchasing an expensive computer, house remodeling, or fast car, purchase many small things – a dozen romantic evenings out with your loved one, a weekly indulgence of fancy chocolate or massage, some nice candles, or some music for your iPhone.
“If we inevitably adapt to the greatest delights that money can buy, than it may be better to indulge in a variety of frequent, small pleasures.”
Imagine that you’re hungry, about to eat some pizza. The first slice will taste delicious – perhaps you’ve got a large appetite and will also enjoy slices two and three. But slices four and five? They’ll give you more stomach ache than pleasure. You’re adapting. Money works in a similar way.
Fulfill a basic need —> happiness.
So you need to get around town? Buy a car —> happiness.
Let’s say you return the car and then decide to splurge, purchasing something twice as expensive. Will you get twice as much happiness? No – once the basic need is met, everything on top has a diminishing impact. The luxury cushions and smoother acceleration are nice, but are not as valuable as the base ability to drive.
The extra money spent upgrading to a luxury car could have been spent purchasing a dozen weekend getaways. The research suggests those dozen getaways would produce at least twice as much happiness as the luxury car.
Here are a few examples, from the research. Folks reported a greater total increase in happiness from:
a) Experiencing two positive events at different times, rather than both at once.
b) Eating two 6oz cookies at different times, rather than one 12oz cookie at once.
c) Imagining themselves winning a $25 lottery, then a $50 lottery, rather than winning a $75 lottery all at once.
d) Listening to a song they enjoyed with a pause in the middle, rather than all at once.
Folks with more frequent positive emotions are more likely to report being happy than those with less frequent but more intense positive emotions. That’s good, because creating small mood bumps throughout the day is easier and much cheaper than creating one or two intense thrills.
-Happiness is the Frequency, Not the Intensity, of Positive Versus Negative Affect
-Preferences for separating or combining events.
-Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice
Don’t Spend Hours a Day Glued in Front of the Tube
Watching TV is fun. But does watching TV make us happy? Yes, but only in small amounts.
In one study, socializing was more enjoyable than watching TV as much as watching TV was more enjoyable than working. It’s that big of a difference.
Taking data from 42,000 people from 22 countries, it was found that excessive TV viewers have lower life satisfaction. No surprise. The average American watches almost 4 hours of TV a day. Every hour spent watching TV is an hour not spent socializing, exercising, building self-esteem, or having sex.
In addition, there is a correlation between time spent watching TV and both your level of anxiety and your level of material aspirations. The second is particularly worrisome. When reality doesn’t match up to the perfection, adventure, and romance that TV suggests our lives ought to have, unhappiness ensues.
How could 13th centuary peasants working 14 hours a day have actually been happy? They didn’t have a TV telling them that in comparison, their life sucks. We do.
As discussed in the strategy Devote More Time to Social Activity, information is a lot like sugar. Once, it was rare and valuable. Now, it’s abundant and more junk than value. So although we have a strong desire to watch TV, usually it’s doing other things that will make us happier.
Couples who keep a TV in the bedroom have 50% less sex than those that don’t.
Don’t Rely on Marriage
|Once you get married, you’ll be happy. Sure, there’ll be rough spots and arguments, but finally, you’ll be satisfied with your life. False.|
Sadly, most men aren’t archaeologists. Don’t rely on your spouse to make you lastingly happier – happily ever after is a dangerous myth. It takes a special kind of work to make that happen.
Newlyweds are the happiest humans on earth, but after two years, most revert back close to their pre-marriage levels of well-being. Based on a study tracking 15,268 people over 17 years, the average married person is 5% happier than the average single person.
Just because you feel the strength of your love is incomparable, just because the movies and romances novels say it will be so, just because your aunts and uncles put on a facade, doesn’t make it true. That doesn’t mean that for some, marriage can’t result in long-lasting increases in well-being. It can.
But those are the exceptions. If you want your marriage to be a long-lasting source of happiness, you can’t be like the average – the average married person is only a few percentage points happier than the average single person.
The two best ways to ensure your marriage remains a fountain of joy are to focus on improving yourself, and to keep things spicy.
Happiness is self-perpetuating. The husband who works on cultivating a more grateful personality will be more likely to appreciate the work put in by their partner. The wife who works on staying healthy will be less likely to come home cranky. Be happy with yourself, by yourself, and you’ll be more likely to automatically do those things which keep a relationship healthy.
Novelty is the spice of life. Several studies have found that couples who jointly try out a new activity experience a large and sustained increase in their relationship satisfaction. With routine comes stagnation and complacency. With something new comes excitement and appreciation.
I’d also recommend reading the Respond Active Constructively strategy.
Keep this in mind – for the average person, the quality of their marriage is the factor with the second highest correlation with their life satisfaction, behind only genetics. As of now, you can’t change your genetics. The quality of your marriage? You can.
-Reexamining Adaptation and The Set Point Model of Happiness: Reactions To Changes in Marital Status.
-Do People Really Adapt to Marriage?
-Does Marriage Make People Happy or Do Happy People Get Married?
-Marital Quality and Personal Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis
Sit Up Straight
Confident people with lots of self-esteem puff out their chests. The relationship isn’t one way. Puffing out your chest and sitting up straight can increase your self-esteem and levels of energy.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to write down both their best and worst qualities in one of two positions. In one position, their back was erect and their chest was pushed out. In the other, they slouched. Those sitting up straight reported significantly more confidence in what they had written down as their best qualities.
When I sit up straight, I definitely feel as though I have more energy and am in a better mood. Just like with the facial feedback hypothesis, described in the Don’t Get Botox hack, when you slouch, your brain actually thinks you’re tired or unsure of yourself.
Likewise, there is emerging research which suggests your posture affects your hormone levels.
Don’t Decide Where to Live Based on The Weather
Unless you’re an outdoorsy type, don’t pick the location of your home based primarily on the weather. It doesn’t matter as much as you might think.
A study of 1,993 Americans living in California, Michigan, and Ohio found no correlation between location and life satisfaction. That is, although people in the midwest complained about their poor weather, although they also said they would be happier if they lived under California’s bright sun, although Californian’s said that their bright sun makes them happier, midwesterners were just as happy as Californians.
Why is this true? There are two reasons. The first is called a focusing illusion. When deciding where to move, we focus on the weather. This is a mistake, because usually and for good reason, we’d don’t care much about the weather.
In the same survey mentioned above, folks were asked to rate how important they find certain aspects of their life. Weather came last. No surprise – which do you care more about? Weather, or your financial situation; weather or your personal safety; weather or your social life; weather or your job prospects, weather or your health; weather or you get the point. Weather has a tiny impact on the day-to-day experience of most people. Perhaps you walk to work and enjoy the morning sunshine. You’d be an exception.
The second reason weather has a smaller than expected impact on well-being is because of hedonic adaptation. A 2006 study found that the only time rising temperature was correlated with rising mood was in spring, when the memory of cold winter was still in mind. Likewise, humidity after a clear day is correlated with reduced vigor and happiness, and sunshine after a cloudy day is correlated with increased mood. Although nice weather is nice – it’s truly only appreciated when it’s novel and not taken for granted.
-HappierHuman, The Hedonic Treadmill – If Only Happiness Were As Easy As Marriage, a Big House, and Kids
-Forbes, Make Your Own Sunshine: Weather And Happiness Are Not Linked
-BBC, Does sunshine make us happier?
-Relationships between Weather and Mood
-The Effects of Weather on Daily Mood: A Multilevel Approach
-A multidimensional approach to the relationship between mood and weather
-Does Living in California Make People Happy?
-Happiness Is a Beach, Sometimes
Receiving social support and making your troubles understood feels great, but every time you complain, you’re spreading negativity, putting yourself into victim-mode, and improving your ability to find things to complain about in the future.
The brain has the unfortunate tendency of focusing on the negative. Complaining is almost never the most useful reaction to a circumstance – it is merely the most natural. For those who are the most happy, that tendency has been flipped around.
Holding things in is no good, but neither is dwelling on the negative.
A few forces converged around my life to make me a chronic uncomplainer. The result is that my bosses loved me. No, I’m not a pushover – I’ve simply replaced a usually negative response with one of two positive ones: I focus on the positive or I act to improve the situation. Dwelling on how much something sucks is a harmful, vestigial psychological response.
For example, when I was 13 I developed fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disease. At first I was a chronic complainer. I would think complaining thoughts to myself all the time, every day: my parents are so unhelpful, my doctors suck, my luck is so bad, why me? After two years of rock-bottom depression, I slowly realized that complaining wasn’t getting me anywhere. Yes, the social validation feels nice. But you know what feels even nicer? Being healthy.
Likewise, when something bad happens, I subconsciously compare it to when I was in terrible pain. In contrast, most “bad” things seem mild.
Of course, I can’t recommend you make yourself chronically ill in order to knock complaining out of your head. There’s an easier solution – keep a gratitude journal and practice mindfulness.
When acting out deeply engrained habits, most people have no conscious idea of what they’re doing. Make a habit of routinely checking in with yourself, to see if you’re complaining or not. Or have a friend point it out to you.
The next step is to acknowledge your desire to complain, but then to focus on something else. With time, your habit of complaining will be over-written with more healthy behavior.
In too many areas of our lives, after we’ve made enough progress to become comfortable, we stop learning, growing, and making changes. That’s unfortunate.
Most often, the focus of our change is in places that don’t have a long-term impact – continuously switching careers or romantic partners, or buying new things, over and over again. That kind of behavior is based on compensation and novelty replacement.
At first, the object or the job or the person provides lots of novelty and joy. As time progresses, the novelty and consequently the joy decreases. To compensate, a new job or object or person is found. Bang, the novelty returns. Over time, the novelty decreases. To compensate, a new job or object or person is found. And so on, again and again.
This kind of behavior leads to stagnation. Instead, the focus of change ought to be in places where progress is cumulative, rather than replacement.
Having two close friends brings more happiness than having one close friend. Being in a romantic relationship with someone who is compassionate, zestful, and grateful as well as being attractive, will bring more happiness than being in a romantic relationship with someone who is not those things but attractive.
Adding 30 minutes of exercise or meditation to your routine will increase your happiness for as long as you continue the practice.
At work, what defines the expert is not some innate strength or intelligence that most lack. Rather, it is an insatiable desire to continue learning and improving, well past the point most would have felt comfortable and stopped. With happiness, it is the same. What defines the expert self-improver is an insatiable desire to continue making improvements to their life, well past the point most would have felt comfortable and stopped.
But remember, aim for cumulative improvement rather than novelty replacement. Although earning more money in order to purchase a larger house might seem like a cumulative improvement, psychologically, the impact is more of novelty replacement.
Finding another romantic partner because of loss of interest is novelty replacement. Investing in good relationship or attraction habits is cumulative improvement.
One five year study of mid-level managers found that those who switched jobs frequently were on average less satisfied than those who stayed at the same company. Although these switchers experienced a boost of satisfaction and enjoyment for the first few months of each new job, they subsequently experienced a large drop. Rather than finding ways of coping and improving the environment, they did the only thing they knew how – they switched to another job.
Smile. If you’re sad, it’s a bad idea to pretend that you’re happy. Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings backfires. But if you’re not sad or angry…
According to the facial feedback hypothesis, it isn’t only that being happy or sad will make you smile or frown, respectively, but that smiling or frowning will make you happy or sad. Research suggests that this hypothesis, with a few caveats, is true.
In one study, participants were asked to hold a pencil in their mouth in a way which either activated the muscles involved with smiling, or which prevented those muscles from being activated. After being exposed to a happy video clip, those with the “forced smile” reported a temporary increase in mood four times larger than those without the “forced smile”.
Likewise, those who’ve been given botox sometimes report a reduction in their baseline level of mood. This is because some of the facial muscles required to a form a smile have been blocked.
To learn more about the facial feedback hypothesis, read the notes section of the Maybe Avoid Botox strategy.
However, faking a smile when unhappy may backfire, causing an increase in negative emotion. Luckily, most of the time we are affect neutral – neither happy or unhappy.
-Duchenne smile, emotional experience, and autonomic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis.
-The Voluntary Facial Action Technique: A Method to Test the Facial Feedback Hypothesis
Don’t Check Your Portfolio All The Time
|Unless you’re a Wall Street trader with ultra-low latency direct market access and an army of analysts or a patient genius like Warren Buffet, active investing is a negative-sum game.|
The folks who are beating the index fund are well-resourced, obsessive hedge fund managers and caffeine fueled overworked Wall Street analysts, not your 5 hours a week hobbyist.
Frequently checking your stock portfolio will also decrease your well-being.
There are three ways in which frequently checking your portfolio can hurt.
First, we like to feel in control. We don’t have control over stock prices – if we did, we’d be billionaires. What draws us to checking, over and over again, is the allure of novelty. We have a vestigial desire to acquire as much information as possible, even if it’s not actually helpful.
Second, we feel our losses more strongly than we feel our gains. They’ll be stronger in intensity and will last longer. For example, if a friend calls us beautiful, we’re likely to be extra happy for a few minutes or hours. On the other hand, if a friend calls us ugly, it’s likely to affect us for the whole day, perhaps even longer.
On average, the value of a stock will increase by a few percentage points each year. The value investor who invests and then checks back a few years later is likely to see an increase. But this long-term increase is composed of tens of thousands of small bumps and jumps – both up and down. Because we feel losses more strongly than gains, and because there will be almost as many decreases as increases, for many the net impact on their emotions will be negative. Almost like an addiction.
Third, we get addicted to random rewards. If we knew exactly when we were going to get a new important e-mail, we would check it at only those times. But we don’t, so we check and check, over and over again. Likewise with the stock market – stock prices are unpredictable. Sometimes the price goes down, sometimes it goes up. Because we don’t know when it’s going to go up, we check all the time, over and over again.
Don’t Be Passive
Make new friends. Try new things. Go to new places.
There are three ways in which you can meet new people. One is if someone introduces you. Another is if someone walks up to you. The third is if you walk up to someone. The first two are largely out of your control. The third isn’t.
After graduating from NYU, I didn’t have to worry much about my social life. Working in the city, I regularly received invitations from friends made during college. But then I moved cross-country to San Francisco.
I put in lots of effort and made a few friends. I went to as many social events as possible (for an introvert). But then I got comfortable, settled, and went back to being passive. Most people live life on passive mode – keeping the same friends, doing the same things, thinking the same thoughts.
If you want to live an awesome life, you’ve got to be active. Don’t count on luck to meet your future spouse or life calling.
Some people complain that they don’t have any passions in their life. When I ask them what they’re trying, the response is usually “nothing”. Don’t let that be you – don’t rely on luck to fill your life with awesomeness.
Don’t Be Too Optimistic
|One critique of positive psychology is that it encourages reckless optimism, so much so that it might have encouraged the financial crisis. That’s silly – the message of optimism is for those who lack it, like stay at home moms with low self-esteem, not for those who already have it, like full of themselves stock brokers. Nevertheless, I find that for those who have optimism, a hard dose of reality can be helpful.|
More often than not, I wouldn’t be. Curtsey of The Center for Applied Rationality, I’ve discovered and now frequently use a technique which helps me judge whether or not I’m being unreasonably optimistic.
Bring to mind a goal you’re currently working towards – finishing a project by a certain deadline, implementing a new habit, whatever. Now consider that the deadline has been reached – let’s say four weeks have passed. You’ve failed to complete your goal.
Are you surprised?
On the one hand, I have feelings of enthusiasm and self-confidence. On the other, I have a surprisingly strong history of failure – of going well past the deadline. So when I consider in this hypothetical future that I’ve failed, it’s no surprise, “Oh, I’ve failed, just like before.”
The cost of this unreasonable optimism is a lack of preparation. If you think you’re likely to succeed, you’re unlikely to spend extra time gathering the resources necessary to ensure actual success. In most cases, this translates into ignoring goal achievement advice and assuming it’s not necessary (e.g. not finding an accountability partner, not creating a commitment contract, not using implementation intentions, not energizing).
Taking this exercise a step further – assuming you’ve reached the deadline and failed, think of the reasons why you messed up. Then, do what you can to address those risks or deficiencies. Until failure would surprise you, you haven’t spent enough time preparing.
Share Your Successes
When something good happens, tell people. Sharing both the good and the bad are two paths to deepening a relationship. But people like being vicariously happy more than being vicariously depressed. If good things don’t happen to you that often, remember that life is subjective.
Finding things to identify as good is a skill. Work on it by sharing successes as often as possible.
Remember how Active Constructive Responding is one of the keys to turning a good relationship into a great one? Active Constructive Responding is impossible if someone doesn’t first share something positive.
Conversationally, humans are lazy. When asked how they’ve been, humans are more likely to share what’s top of mind, rather than what’s most important or most likely to improve the conversation. Because of our biological programming, one of the things that is most likely to be top of mind are the things that have gone wrong.
Complaining can be useful for soliciting support and validation, but is rarely the most useful response to a situation. When you share your successes and the good things that have happened to you, so long as you aren’t an arrogant prick, you’re raising the mood of the room.
Although we don’t usually realize it, many good things are happening to us all of the time.
Don’t Be a Pushover
Communicate your preferences. Ask for what you want. Set boundaries. Be neither passive nor aggressive – be assertive.
Assertiveness increases self-esteem, lets you have your needs better met, is correlated with relationship satisfaction, and reduces levels of stress. It should come as no surprise that assertiveness can lead to more happiness.
Nevertheless, most people are not as assertive as they would optimally be.
Whether that’s because we were taught in school to shut up and be good sheep, or because we think we’re doing the world a favor by being a pushover, assertiveness is uncommon. That’s unfortunate, because assertiveness is honesty – to ourselves and to others.
In two studies, those with less assertiveness reported lower relationship satisfaction.
Assertiveness can mean one of many things, such as giving your opinion, actively disagreeing, making a request, saying no to a request, interrupting someone, setting a boundary, or being decisive.
I grew up a pushover. My father was a pushover, he was my role model, so I too was a pushover. I thought I was being nice.
It would take me until my late teens and early 20s to start practicing assertiveness. I still have a long way to go, but have already seen many improvements. Most notably, the honesty that assertiveness brings to a relationship has been beautiful.
-Facets of extraversion related to life satisfaction
-An Investigation of Assertiveness and Satisfaction with Life among Malaysian Secondary School Students
-Effect of assertiveness training on levels of stress and assertiveness experienced by nurses in Taiwan, Republic of China.
-Relationship satisfaction in women: a longitudinal case-control study about the role of breast cancer, personal assertiveness, and partners’ relationship-focused coping.
Maybe Skip The Sugar
Water instead of soda. Fat instead of sugar. Apples instead of cookies.
There are a number of different reasons to suggest that sugar lowers long-term mood.
First, sugar can cause energy spikes, which for a while will feel great, but will then lead to a crash. Feeling sluggish and tired is a surefire way to get unhappy.
Second, large quantities of sugar are unhealthy, and can cause certain chronic diseases, like diabetes.
Third, like porn sugar is addictive, and so can cause down-regulation of dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical of desire and excitement. Thinking about an upcoming party or something you want to do will cause you to release dopamine. Dopamine is what gets you off of your bed, giving you the desire to go to work, hang out with friends, and learn new things.
Sugar is different. Like porn, sugar causes a mega-splurt of dopamine – something far in excess of normal. This mega-splurt builds your desire, so you consume again – bam – another mega-splurt, so you consume again, and again, and again. To maintain homeostasis, your brain decreases its response to sugar, so that you need to eat more and more to get the same response. With this now reduced response, it’s possible that the person who eats only one or two sweets a week is getting an overall larger effect than the person who eats six every day.
The reason why I put maybe in front of this strategy is because there are easier strategies available and because nutrition science is a mess. For example, in the study mentioned above, income is not controlled for. Why does that matter?
The folks most likely to drink lots of soda are those who are poor. Those who are poor are more likely to be unhappy and develop depression, for reasons that have nothing to do with their diet and consumption of sugar, like being unemployed or raising a child on their own.
Maybe Eat Less Trans Fat
|Avoid eating large amounts of french fries, fried or battered food, margarine, cake, frozen food, fast food, and snack foods. Yes, eating trans fat makes it more likely you’ll die, but more important, trans fat could make you less happy.|
Forget about developing depression (although from personal experience, I can tell you – it sucks more than almost anything else in the world) – if trans fat can increase your risk of developing depression, it’s likely making you less happy.
A ten year study of 12,059 participants looked at two things – what people were eating, and whether or not they developed depression. After adjusting for potential confounds, like exercise frequency, BMI, total energy intake, and age, those who ate the largest quantities of trans fat were 48% more likely to be diagnosed with depression within the next ten years.
Notably, consuming large amounts of other types of fat, like saturated fat, had a much smaller effect.
Here’s why I stuck a maybe in front of this strategy. Nutrition science is a mess. The crap that comes out of that field is mind boggling. A quick look at the food pyramid should make that obvious – we’re supposed to get the majority of our calories from nutrient zero, insulin spiking carbohydrates? No.
Here’s the problem – nutrition science often gets two things wrong:
1) It mixes up correlation with causation. For example, cholesterol is a symptom, not a cause of heart disease itself. More here.
2) It often has poor controls.
In the case of this study, income is not controlled for. Why does this matter so much?
The folks most likely to eat trans fat (e.g. cheap fast food) are those who are poor. Those who are poor are more likely to be unhappy and develop depression, for reasons that have nothing to do with their diet, like being unemployed or raising a child on their own.
However, it’s not controversial to suggest that fast food, frozen food, and snack foods are unhealthy. But… it’s not at all certain that taking trans-fat out of your diet will actually increase your levels of happiness.
Maybe Skip The Diet
Successful dieting can increase well-being. The difficulty is that over the long-term, most diets fail.
Sustained weight loss is a lot like creating a sustained increase in happiness, in that it requires a persistent change in the form of sustained changes to your day-to-day actions.
Once-off events have a marginal long-term impact on happiness. Likewise with dieting.
I’m not trying to discourage you, just hoping that you’ll apply effort where it’s easier to make progress.
In most studies of dieters, those on a diet report higher well-being at the end. But in follow-ups months or years later, most report having re-gained the lost weight and therefore having lost their increased self-esteem and happiness.
When considering the effort required for successful, sustained weight-loss, dieting is no low-hanging fruit. In one study, combining data from five surveys across two countries and thousands of subjects, those identified as beautiful were 7% happier than those identified as ugly. Why so small a difference?
Growing up, my older sister always told me to work-out. Eventually I did. After all, who doesn’t want to look good? With looks comes self-esteem, social approval, and attractive girlfriends.
Sure, having a hot partner is nice, but after a few months you’ll get used to the beauty and start taking it for granted. It’s no fault of yours – without special training, that’s just how we humans are. How often do you think about how hot you or your partner is and then crack a smile? We know from surveys actually asking hot people – not much at all. Speaking from experience, I’d say that’s true – the happiness I’ve gotten from my romantic partners has had little to do with how hot they were or weren’t.
If not for the happiness impact of exercise, I’m not sure I’d work out.
-Predictors and Effects of Long-term Dieting on Mental Well-being and Weight Loss in Obese Women
-The effect of weight-loss dieting on cognitive performance and psychological well-being in overweight women
-Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness
Maybe Spend Less Time on Facebook
Check just once a day. Press the x button after 10, rather than 30 minutes. Stalk two, rather than ten people.
The average American spends almost 90 minutes a day on social networks. Having a tool which makes socializing easier is great. However, overconsumption of social networking is correlated with depression, lower life satisfaction, and envy.
There are a few reasons excess use of facebook can be harmful. The largest is that time spent on facebook is less time spent socializing, face-to-face. Talking to someone in person causes the release of a number of positive chemicals, creating feelings of happiness and reducing stress. The effect of communication through facebook on releasing those happy chemicals is muted.
Likewise, facebook envy is real. On facebook, people generally post pictures of themselves at their best – smiling at a party, relaxing on the beach, sharing some happy news, and so on. One might think seeing all this awesomeness would be uplifting, but often, it isn’t. One reason being rich can have such a small impact on happiness is because happiness equals reality minus expectations.
Our expectations are mostly defined by our social group. If all of our friends are rich, we expect that we too should be rich. On facebook, because we share mostly the positives of our lives, we create unreasonable expectations for others to live up to. This is why one-third of facebook users report feeling one or more negative emotions after a session of using facebook.
Unfortunately, facebook is addicting. Our brains judge social information as extremely valuable. At one time, when said information was scarce, it was. Now it’s not. Nevertheless, the desire to get as much social information as possible remains.
Try to resist.
-Huffington Post, Facebook Envy: How Cruising Can Kill Self Esteem
-Facebook Envy: How The Social Network Affects Our Self-Esteem
-Huffington Post, Facebook Study Says Envy Is Rampant On The Social Network
-‘They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am’: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives
-The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families
-Envy on Facebook: A Hidden Threat to Users’ Life Satisfaction?
-“Facebook Depression?” Social Networking Site Use and Depression in Older Adolescents
-Social Networking Eats Up 3+ Hours Per Day For The Average American User
Maybe Don’t Over-Invest In Your Education
|Learn, but for the sake acquiring power or satisfying your curiosity. My parents were the stereotypical Asian tiger – anything less than an A+ was completely unacceptable. They assumed that prioritizing academic education over social and emotional education was the key to having a good life. They were wrong.|
Provided you can get a job, on average educational attainment has almost no impact on happiness.
In one survey of 2,727 Americans, those with a high level of education were almost twice as likely as those with a low level of education to report being very happy (a 4 out of 5, on their scale). On the other hand, those with a low level of education were twice as likely as those with a high level of education to report being happiest (a 5 out 5, on their scale).
Knowledge is power. No one said that power is happiness. Knowledge teases, with the hope of the grand things our lives can be, but also with the despair of the grand things our lives are not.
A meta-analysis of eight surveys collectively measuring the responses of over 100,000 people found similar results.
Likewise, a study of identical twins raised apart found that educational attainment explained less than 1.5% of the difference in happiness between each half of each pair.
“One faculty member used to chide proud PhD students by saying, “I don’t see why you think it’s such a great accomplishment — all my friends have a Ph.D!”"
Just keep in mind, you need enough education to get a job – those who drop out of high-school are less happy and less satisfied with their lives than those that finish. Why? Dropouts have a hard time finding and keeping employment.
On the other hand, I’m an education addict – always trying to learn as much as possible. For some things, I’m willing to sacrifice some happiness.
-HappierHuman, The Hedonic Treadmill – If Only Happiness Were As Easy As Marriage, a Big House, and Kids
-PsyBlog, Is Happier Always Better? Socially Yes, Financially No
-ABC, Higher Education Does Not Equal Happiness
Maybe Spend Less Time Online
Read one, rather than ten articles. Watch one, rather than three episodes of your new favorite TV series. Play that internet game for 30, rather than 90 minutes. Spend less time online.
What happens when you deflower an internet virgin? One study tracked 170 people during their first two years online, “greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants’ communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness.”
Another study found that the impact of internet use depended on how it was used.
Extraverts were likely to use the internet as a tool to strengthen the quantity and quality of their relationships. As a result, a year after getting internet access, they reported being happier, more socially connected, and less lonely.
On the other hand, introverts given access to the internet were likely to spend less, rather than more time socializing – rather than instant messaging or e-mailing, they read articles or played online games. As a result, they reported being less happy, more lonely, less socially connected, and less confidant.
Across both of these studies, heavy use of the internet was correlated with an increase in levels of stress, perhaps because time spent online took away from time required for other things, like work.
The internet is an amazing tool. I love it. But I know I would be happier if I spent some of the time I spend online instead in face-to-face socializing. That’s why I’ve cut back my internet usage by 1 hour per day for the past two weeks. Spending time online leaves me feeling…. normal, whereas spending time socializing usually leaves me feeling happy.
When scientists randomly pinged people throughout the day and asked them what they were doing and how they were feeling, socializing ranked #2, behind only sex.
And if you use the internet as a tool to become a more informed citizen… well, do so in moderation. If you value your imaginary ability to affect national politics more than your happiness, go ahead and spend hours a day reading the news. Some people actually create change, but for the 99% who don’t, a few tid-bits of information are enough to get by. (this is a public service announcement for my sister, who spends 2 hours every day reading the news)
-nternet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being?
-Internet Paradox Revisited
-A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method”
Maybe Don’t Rely on Kids
|If your goal is an increase in your level of life satisfaction or mood, don’t rely on having kids to do that for you. Maybe they will. On average, they don’t.|
Positive psychology is the study of the exceptions, in figuring out what makes those outliers who are happier than the rest so different, and then applying those findings to us normal folk.
The couple who experiences significantly higher levels of mood because they had children is the outlier and exception. Parents report being less happy than non-parents. That doesn’t mean I won’t have children. There’s more to life than maximizing the amount of positive emotion that I experience.
Likewise, positive psychology is starting to offer suggestions on how to become the outlier – the extra joyous parent.
But if your hope for having children is that doing so will bring you much more joy than stress, unless you’re exceptional – exceptionally loving, exceptionally patient, or exceptionally stable, that hope is misplaced.
If you want more positive emotion and life satisfaction, there are better approaches to consider. Being a parent is hard; being a parent and becoming significantly happier for it is even harder.
But babies really are too cute.
As I wrote in my article The Hot Mess of Measuring Happiness, surveys are not entirely accurate – they miss many nuances and details. That’s why different studies will often report different results.
3 studies of several tens of thousands of American parents have found a small but significant negative correlation between having children and self reported well-being, with each additional child further decreasing self-reported well-being.
3 other studies reported a small but significant positive correlation.
What’s the take-away? On average, have children probably has no long-term impact on life satisfaction.
How could that be true? I recommend reading Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The basic idea is that when we think of having children, we are more likely to focus on the few moments of joy they will bring us, rather than the hours of stress and frustration. Therefore, we expect having children to increase our mood.
However, reality contains thousands of dirty diapers and midnight awakenings.
-Does having kids really make you happy? Really? Are you sure?
-NY Mag, All Joy and No Fun – Why parents hate parenting.
-Parents Are Unhappy. But Why? And Should We Care?
-Is Parenthood Linked to Greater Joy and Meaning or Misery? Science Speaks
-Children Make You Happier, If Someone Else Does Most of the Work
-Well-Being in Panels
-The Macroeconomics of Happiness
-Inequality And Happiness: Are Europeans And Americans Different?
-Is Parenthood Linked to Greater Joy and Meaning or Misery? Science Speaks
Maybe Avoid Botox
If you want to look pretty, there are safer forms of plastic surgery. Avoid botox.
According to the facial feedback hypothesis, it isn’t only that being happy or sad will make you smile or frown, respectively, but that smiling or frowning will make you happy or sad. Research suggests that with a caveat, this hypothesis is true.
Botox impairs your ability to contract your facial muscles. This has two effects.
In one study, those who had been injected with botox exhibited less empathy. One route through which we deduce the emotional state of those we’re talking to is by subtly copying their facial expressions. For example, if the person we’re talking to is angry, certain muscles will be more contracted than others. This may not be consciously observable. However, by subconsciously mimicking their facial expressions, their emotional state can be deduced. For those with botox, for many emotions, this mimicking is no longer possible, as certain facial muscles can no longer be contracted.
In another study, those who had been injected with botox exhibited muted emotional responses to happy and sad clips compared to those without botox. Why? The facial feedback hypothesis. For example: our spouse tells us that they love us –> emotion center A in the brain tells our facial muscles to form a smile –> our facial muscles form a smile –> emotion center B reads our face and sees a smile and generates positive emotion. With botox preventing certain facial muscles from activating, emotion center B assumes you are less happy or sad than you actually are.
In another study, an fMRI scan was done of participants before and after they received a Botox injection. After the injection, participants showed less brain activation in the brain regions involved in emotional processing and experiencing.
-Embodied emotion perception: Amplifying and dampening facial feedback modulates emotion perception accuracy
-The Effects of BOTOX® Injections on Emotional Experience
-Cosmetic use of botulinum toxin-A affects processing of emotional language
-The link between facial feedback and neural activity within central circuitries of emotion–new insights from botulinum toxin-induced denervation of frown muscles.
Maybe Consume Caffeine
|Caffeine equals happiness. It gives us energy, is used by those with depression as over the counter medication, and boosts our mood. But the counter-intuitive findings of certain research studies is that caffeine tolerance is so complete, that the jolt we get from coffee #3 comes from satisfying our withdrawal.|
People respond differently to caffeine. For that reason, many who consume caffeine in moderation experience net total benefits. But the research suggests most heavy consumers are getting little or even a negative benefit.
Negative benefit? How could that be possible? Tolerance.
Caffeine increases mood and levels of energy. In order to maintain homeostasis, the body will counter those effects by reducing mood and reducing levels of energy. In this way, although a foreign, potentially harmful substance is entering the body and influencing the brain, the body can maintain control over the situation.
In this case, it would be better if the brain didn’t maintain balance – zero tolerance and easy energy would be great. But it does. Studies find that among those who consume large quantities of caffeine, like two venti coffees a day, their tolerance and adaptation to coffee consumption is so large that on average, their baseline level of happiness has decreased.
On the other hand, for those who consume in moderation – say two sodas a day or one coffee in the morning, there is tolerance and adaptation, but net, their level of happiness will be on average higher than if they weren’t consuming.
I self-track. Several times a day, on a scale of 1 to 10, I write down how happy I am, and how much energy I have. I know from experimentation that a single starbucks coffee once a day increases my average level of happiness by 15%. On the other hand, because of the anxiety higher doses of caffeine give me, when I consume two starbucks coffees my average level of happiness declines by 10%.
A meta analysis of studies of caffeine taken with l-theanine, a component of tea, found a statistically significant increase in mood, greater than similar amounts of caffeine without the l-theanine.
-Cognitive and psychomotor performance, mood, and pressor effects of caffeine after 4, 6 and 8 h caffeine abstinence.
-Cognitive and mood improvements of caffeine in habitual consumers and habitual non-consumers of caffeine.
-Caffeine withdrawal, acute effects, tolerance, and absence of net beneficial effects of chronic administration: cerebral blood flow velocity, quantitative EEG, and subjective effects.
-Central and peripheral effects of sustained caffeine use: tolerance is incomplete.
-A comparison of the effects of caffeine following abstinence and normal caffeine use
-Psychological effects of dietary components of tea: caffeine and L-theanine.
Maybe Take Omega-3 Supplements
|Eat more fish or purchase some omega-3 supplementation. I personally love the taste of omega-3 gummy bears. Nevertheless, I’d focus on other happiness hacks.|
Several large studies have found that those who consume less fish, that is those who get less omega-3, are more likely to develop depression. On the other hand, a recent meta-analysis of almost 100 omega-3 studies found that having subjects increase their intake of omega-3 did nothing to increase their levels of happiness or reduce their risk of developing depression.
What’s going on? Why do some studies show that omega-3 increases happiness, while others show no effect? Two things.
One, there is a scientific phenomenon called publication bias. Let’s say in one study, a research lab gives some people omega-3 supplements. Two months later, those people report being happier. That’s interesting. Therefore, that study is likely to get accepted by a research journal. Later, a journalist reads that research journal and writes an article with the bold headline, “Omega 3 Makes People Happy”.
Let’s say in another study, the same procedure is followed, but two months later, the research participants report no change in their level of happiness. That’s a boring result, therefore, it doesn’t get accepted by a research journal. Because it doesn’t get accepted, journalists don’t hear about it. Therefore, there’s no corresponding article which suggests that maybe, omega-3 doesn’t actually have a significant effect on happiness.
When looking at all omega-3 studies – not just those accepted by research journals, it becomes clear that the advertised effects of omega-3 are not as great as those otherwise suggested.
But still – those who are observed to consume more omega-3 are significantly less likely to get depression. Why can’t studies experimentally replicate this observational effect?
There are three guesses why. One, folks who eat more fish are also more likely to do other things which contribute to happiness, like exercise, eat less trans fat, or spend more time socializing (not an unreasonable assumption, when one considers the types of cultures which promote fish-eating). Two, omega-3 supplements are somehow different than eating actual fish. Three, those who are genetically less likely to develop depression have a greater need for (and therefore consumption of) omega-3 fatty acids.
Whichever of these three hypotheses is actually are true, the underlying result is clear. Fish is healthy and useful to eat. Omega-3 supplements for the sake of uplifting mood? Not so much.
(The evidence that omega-3 promotes heart health is much stronger).
Maybe Think Fast
Drink some caffeine, turn on some fast music, and then put on your game face. Speed up. Read twice as fast as you normally would, get your work done as quickly as possible, brainstorm more ideas than you normally would – whatever it takes – think fast.
Being happy speeds up your brain. The relationship work both ways – speeding up your brain will make you happy.
Those moments when we’re tired we usually feel the worst. Likewise, those moments when energy is abundant, desire is high, and work seems effortless are when we usually feel the best. Energy is happiness. This is why cold showers, exercise, caffeine, and excitement usually make us happy – they give us energy.
A series of four experiments showed that each of four different ways of inducing fast thought, either by making participants read fast, make quick decisions, brainstorm quickly, or watch TV that had been sped up, caused participants to feel happier.
It’s unclear why artificially thinking fast causes an increase in mood. It could be because thinking fast causes the release of dopamine, the desire chemical, because we enjoy thinking fast, or because thinking fast tricks a part of our brain into thinking we’ve got lots of energy, which in turn causes happiness (why thinking we have lots of energy causes happiness can be explained by the broaden-and-build hypothesis).
Theorizing aside, there are additional studies which suggest that fast thinking causes increased mood. For a review of those studies and more, read this review article.
It’s difficult to sustain artificial fast thinking. However, these is some good news. First, many forms of inducing fast thinking cause changes which can last for several hours, like exercise, drinking caffeine, and listening to fast music. Second, fast thinking can trigger increased mood, which in turn can trigger fast thinking. In other words, fast thinking can trigger a positive cycle.
Indeed, that is the case for most of the hacks on this page – being happy increases the likelihood of engaging in actions which will cause future happiness, like working harder or being friendlier.
-Thought Speed, Mood, and the Experience of Mental Motion
-The Effect of Mental Progression on Mood
-Psychological effects of thought acceleration
-Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood.
Maybe Get a Standing Desk
|There’s been a lot of hype recently surrounding the standing desk. I made one, and I love it. But here’s the reality – more than 95% of the folks who get a standing desk stop using it after a few weeks.|
Using a standing desk will make you happier. The first few days will be like hell – your legs will hurt, and then hurt some more. But as long you stand in moderation, say use your standing desk half the day, and sit down during the rest, you’ll be okay.
More than okay – the increased energy that comes from standing will improve your mood (although there’s no science to back that up). Likewise, I and others I’ve spoken to have reported improved sleep after spending several hours a day standing. Improved sleep equals happiness. Again, there’s no science to back that up. All the science does know is that using a standing desk in moderation will improve your lifespan by a few months or even years.
But who cares? I know a few dozen folks who’ve tried implementing the standing desk. It’s HARD. I’m one of two others I know of who’ve actually managed to stick it out. Why focus on a life hack as difficult as this, when they’re plenty of easier ones I’m sure you’ve yet to implement?
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