It appears that in America and many other parts of the world as well, we are at a cultural crossroads. Industry and technology have completely transformed society in the past century, and even greater fundamental shifts are expected with the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics. Global corporations have greater wealth and influence than many governments. And the ecological impact of our productivity revolution has been catastrophic. Surely it’s time to reassess our perception of happiness. With such monumental looming problems on the table, many people understandably have the attitude, what can I possibly do to change the world? Perhaps a better question is, what can I do to change MY world?
The first step to a happier world is a happier you. It might surprise you to know that judging our own happiness is not so easy. Most people assume they are moderately happy, whether it is true or not. “We tell stories about the things we think should make us happy, but sometimes, when we look a bit closer, we’re not really that happy at all,” says Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, a government policy advisor and one of the world’s leading happiness scholars.
After years of research, Dolan says people who are truly happy find joy in everyday experiences that give them pleasure and purpose. Once they have identified those things, they organize their days around them. The first step toward this goal is to do a happiness audit to find out what actually makes you happy. So much of our lives is spent on autopilot, it can be difficult to differentiate what is truly making you happy. “It’s about tuning in to what you are doing, who you are doing it with and how it makes you feel,” Dolan says. “How much worry, stress, anger, joy or contentment do you experience on a given day?”
Some things can be a quick fix, such as taking a walk in the afternoon to break up the workday, or playing podcasts during commute time, or even taking up an old hobby such as playing the piano or painting. Yet even when we identify the sources of our happiness, challenging issues may arise, such as realizing disappointment in a relationship or job. Life-altering changes, such as divorce or career change, are difficult to manage, but with patience, planning and honesty, new relationships and jobs can have a profound impact on the quality of your life. Transitional periods can be rough, but better to have a difficult season than an unfulfilling life.
While taking this happiness audit, it would be prudent to take a financial audit as well, to assess how much the “stuff” in your life is enhancing your well-being or saddling you with debt and stress. Maybe that big house in the suburbs isn’t worth the long commute and huge mortgage. Perhaps the little bungalow in town close to work and entertainment will make you happier. Some people might opt for a less expensive or older car and use the extra money to take a special vacation every year. By looking at your finances with an eye toward happiness, rather than through the green-colored glasses of consumerism, you may find that shifting some of your lifestyle priorities can buy you a lot more happiness.
Once you establish the activities that make you happy, schedule them into your daily life. Make the process of doing them as simple as possible. “There’s this belief that anything worth having has to be effortful, but really the opposite it true. Just make happiness as easy as possible,” says Dolan. If you enjoy an afternoon walk, schedule it on your work calendar. If you enjoy painting, set aside an area in your home where your paints and brushes can permanently reside. With proper structure and design, we can quickly make a habit of things that make us happy.
Focus on Today
Another helpful tip for acquiring more happiness is to focus on today. Long-term goals are important, but too often people sacrifice the moment for someday in the distant future. None of us are guaranteed a tomorrow, so don’t expend too much of your energy on far-reaching goals. Strive to make today great.
People often spend decades in marriages and careers that do not make them happy. They justify their misery with the idea that someday down the road when the children leave home they will make a change. Children typically grow up to emulate the patterns they see in their home. Parents who are at odds or barely speak are not setting a healthy example for their children to follow.
Family therapist Roxanne Permesly says, “Our children absorb our sense of well-being. They react, respond, and replay it over and over, day after day.” Whether your path is tumultuous or calm, your children are likely to follow in your footsteps.
Build Moral Muscles
According to studies, compassion rather than self-interest is a more direct path to joy. Scientific studies have shown that the brain’s pleasure centers are activated when we are kind to others, much more than when we focus on personal goals. Our prewired desire to be compassionate and care for others leads to meaning, argues psychologist Dacher Keltner in Born to Be Good. Copious research supports the role of moral behavior in generating happiness and meaning. There is, however, virtually no evidence that material gains or improved efficiency or productivity have the same benefit.
Any number of small gestures can add joy to each day, such as dropping change in the jar for the cashier, taking dinner to a sick friend, or letting someone pass in front of you in traffic. It doesn’t take monumental acts to be kind, but the rewards can be substantial.
Avoid “What If”
Focusing on the positive side of life rather than the negative can greatly affect the quality of your days. Many people spend far too much mental energy on the possible negative outcomes of situations. What if I lose my job? What if I don’t find the man of my dreams? What if I do find the man of my dreams but he doesn’t love me? What if we all just take a break from the “what if” syndrome?
I have watched someone close to me spend countless hours worrying about the worst-case scenario of almost everything. He wastes enormous amounts of energy on these protracted stories he tells himself about the bad outcome that could possibly someday happen. Of course rarely do any of these worst-case situations ever happen, but he has ruined so many perfectly good days stressing over these imaginary tales.
Bad times will certainly come to all of us. When less than desirable situations arise, don’t procrastinate; deal with it, then move on. But until the bad thing absolutely happens, don’t waste good energy chasing it.
Choose Progress Over Perfection
Perfection doesn’t exist in the human experience. Improvement is a better goal than perfection. Setting a high bar is commendable, but don’t disparage yourself if you fail to meet all of your benchmarks immediately. Sometimes people set lofty goals, such as running a marathon to get in shape. Then when they fail to reach their goal, they become discouraged and quit. Slow, steady progress is the best way to reach any goal. If you have a minor or even major setback, remain patient and keep moving forward.
Expect to Get What You Expect
It’s an uncanny truth that people who totally believe they are going to succeed, usually do. Those who believe life is unfair, repeatedly find themselves in unfortunate situations. Visualizing your way to happiness is not a new concept. Norman Vincent Peale, a minister and the author of the famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, sold tens of millions of books on the subject back in 1952. He preached that people inevitably get what they focus on. Peale advised, “Formulate and stamp indelibly in your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold the picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture.”
The mind is the most powerful tool in our arsenal for achieving the life we want. Picture a life that makes you happy. Illustrate it in your mind; color in the details. Now write down every element of the life you desire, from your work to your family and friends, the house you live in, your hobbies and interests. Imagine what it feels like to live this life. Now, accept that you deserve it.
It’s harder than it sounds to hold this happy picture without allowing doubt to invade. Women are always our own worst critics. We doubt our abilities, put ourselves down, and constantly remind ourselves of our shortcomings. We would never treat a friend the way we do ourselves. Stop the endless self-deprecation! When your inner critic gets going, change the subject. Focus on the happy picture and where you are going; don’t allow self-doubt to pull you down—onward and upward!
Enrich Your Relationships
Close ties to friends and family are the cornerstones of true happiness. Enrich the relationships in your life by giving those closest to you your undivided attention. Technology has given us a window into the world, but far too often we are isolated from the actual world, trapped in a screen. Some people spend the majority of their day communicating through a device. Facetime cannot replace real, face-to-face time. It’s challenging to get people to actually talk on the phone nowadays instead of texting. Modern communication is devolving into a few broken sentences, abbreviations and emojis.
Put down your phone, turn off your computer and the TV, and talk to the people in your life. Plan a family game night during the week to reconnect with your kids, or turn cooking into a group activity by preparing a meal together. If you have a family at home, make dinnertime a priority. Use the time together to talk about happenings in your lives, or current events. Ask everyone to bring a topic of interest to the table to discuss to liven up dinner conversation. Plan a special girls’ getaway with your friends, even if it’s just to a local spa for the day, or a weekday dinner. Remind those close to you that they are important. Without question, nurturing the relationships in your life can bring you the greatest joy.
Get involved. Whether it’s local government, a church, charity, meet-up group or sports activity, there are numerous ways to get connected to your community. Find organizations and causes that speak to you. Making a difference can assume many forms. Volunteering at your local food bank or an at-risk children’s center can have enormous rewards and give your life a sense of purpose and belonging.
There are many ways both big and small that you can help change the world. Becoming active in your local government can be empowering. To date, more than a half-dozen states have either calculated their own GPI or had their GPI developed by an academic and/or nonprofit organization, including Maryland, Vermont, Washington, Hawaii, Ohio and Utah. These states recognize the importance of responsible growth and a good quality of life for their residents. Find out why Florida is not on the list, and become a spoke in the wheel of change.
Jefferson wisely used the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” None of us is guaranteed happiness, but we are fortunate to have the right to pursue it in America. It cannot be given; you must define it for yourself. It’s not a destination, but rather a moving target. A work in progress, always changing as we grow and evolve. There is no race to win—the joy is in the journey.