There are so many things that we think will make us happy. Things like more money, a good job, awesome stuff, true love, and a perfect and healthy body. I know I’ve done this plenty. “I’ll be happy when I make 6 figures” was a big one for me! So was “I’ll be happy when my hair grows back” (I was nearly bald at one point). “I’ll be happy when I lose those 15 extra pounds.” Or how about “I’ll be happy when my home looks like a page from the Design Within Reach catalog.”
Sadly, these things don’t necessarily increase our happiness or create an extended period of happiness.
So what exactly does make us happy? Hint: it’s not stuff. Keep reading to find out how to increase your happiness.
Have you ever gone on a walk or a hike in nature and allowed yourself to stop and really see where you’re at? The life going on around you? Feel the breeze, hear the sounds and smell the scent of the the plants around you?
This requires you to pause, observe and to be present. The beautiful thing about this is that you can savor the moment as it happens AND you can experience those feelings again by telling others about your experience.
As an example, I often tell people about how I hiked up to North Dome in Yosemite and what my experience was there. I share about the feel of the granite I was sitting on, with dips in them just the perfect size to sink away from the wind to stay warm. I describe seeing the sun set with beautiful colors of yellow, orange and pinks in the sky. How, shortly after, a full moon rose brightly over Half Dome. The sky was bright with the moon and I could see all my friends and the look of awe and contentment on their faces. I knew I wouldn’t be seeing this sight again soon. I didn’t need to take pictures of this either because I was completely present in the moment. I wouldn’t forget this.
Just sharing this story here with you, I can feel the feelings I felt then and it lifts me up.
Gratitude is a positive emotional state where you recognize and appreciate what you have in your life. The wonderful thing is that the more you do this, the more you find things to appreciate. It’s like exercising a neurological muscle.
Have you ever, for instance, thought of buying a specific car and find yourself noticing them more and more in your usual day to day routine? This is because your mind goes where your attention is. So if you’re jotting down 5 things to be grateful for each day, your mind begins to constantly search for those things that would fit into your list.
In contrast, if your attention is mostly on things that are not going well in your life, your mind will seek out more of what’s wrong.
To do this effectively, it helps to do a bit more savoring so you’re in the present moment long enough to observe what you’re grateful for. Next, write down at least 5 things each day that you’re grateful for. Be sure to feel the gratitude as you write them and it doesn’t have to be long! Just a short sentence or a phrase will do.
Robert Emmons , from UC Davis has a great YouTube video about the science of gratitude and has conducted and published research studying the effect of gratitude on overall happiness.
Reset Your Reference Points
The funny thing about our minds is that we don’t think in absolutes. We think in terms of comparisons. For instance, you might be happy with your job and $50,000 per year but then learn your coworker is making $60,000 per year doing the same work as you. All of a sudden, you’re not quite as happy as you were, right?
You’ve heard the term comparing ourselves to the “Joneses.” This happens with the clothes we have, the stuff we wear, the fitness level of our body, the firmness of our skin, the car we drive, our home decor and lifestyle. We tend to compare ourselves with characters on TV and people on social media.
This really downgrades our happiness so how do we reset our reference points? How do we stop the constant comparison?
One way is to practice gratitude. Gratitude will help you focus more on good feelings about what you do have and helps to kills the feeling of envy.
Another trick is to pay attention to these thoughts and feelings as they come up and say to yourself “Stop!” Or you can have a rubber band on your wrist and snap it every time you catch yourself in this envy/comparison mindset.
A third way to help reset your reference points is to be more careful about what you let into your life. If you find yourself being triggered by email newsletters you receive from a competitor who seems to be doing better than you, just unsubscribe. Do you have someone in your social media feed that makes you feel bad about yourself? Just unfollow. Do you watch TV shows or movies with people who look perfect and live the way you want to live? Well, if it makes you feel bad about your body or life, stop watching!
By resetting your reference points, you won’t fall in the envy and comparison traps as easily and your level of happiness will improve.
Want to learn more about this? Check out the book “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky .
Kindness to Others
Acts of kindness to others can boost your own level of happiness , but it’s even better if you also think about your acts of kindness to others afterwards. These can be random acts of kindness or larger planned acts of kindness.
For instance, the other day I complimented a woman on her summer dress. I wasn’t just saying the words of course, I honestly meant it. She smiled behind her mask. It gave her a little bit of joy in the moment and I felt good about noticing and saying something kind. Even as I mention this very small act of kindness, I kind of feel a little lift.
The interesting thing about acts of kindness is that you get more of a happiness boost if you do several acts of kindness in one day AND you recall them later. You might even decide to write them down in your journal.
Acts of kindness can also be buying something for someone else. You may have heard the Starbucks drive-through story where one person started a chain of paying for the drink of the car behind them. The chain lasted over a dozen cars. This is something that has been shown to boost the giver’s level of happiness .
By practicing savoring gratitude, resetting reference points and performing acts of kindness, you can boost your natural feel good chemicals. This has a ripple effect in your life. When you feel good, you are much more likely to stress less, you’re likely to make and to keep better eating and lifestyle habits and be a better parent, partner and friend.
What will you start doing today to boost your happiness?