Are you sick of people’s opinions on what brings you happiness?
I used to be quite unhappy and confused on how to fix this. I talked to everyone from relatives to religious people and consumed everything I could find online about the topic.
But I just wasn’t sure if it was the truth or false theories. I wanted rigorous, tested research that I could trust. And that’s when I turned to science and books. Fortunately, I found the answer to my questions…
This is the complete, definitive guide on how to obtain happiness in life based on scientific research. And when I say happy, I mean long-lasting, sustainable happiness rather than short-term fleeting pleasure (which people often think is the same thing).
After a lot of sorting through crappy videos and books, I found some saints who had done the heavy lifting and research already.
For thousands of years, people just gave theories like:
- “Just be happy.”
- “Happiness comes from God.”
- “Getting rich makes you happy”
- “Happiness comes from within.”
- “Hooking up with girls makes you happy.”
No longer will you have to guess. This topic is really dear to my heart and I am excited to share it with you.
Why should you be happy?
For some of you, that’s obvious: because it feels better. But for others, that’s not enough. Why be happy just because my body tells me to? Well, it turns out there are many benefits to happiness on top of just “feeling good.”
According to the books The Happiness Advantage and The How of Happiness, studies have shown that if you are happier, you:
- Earn more money.
- Are a better parent.
- Perform better at work.
- Appear more attractive.
- Have better mental health.
- Are better with social skills.
- Recover faster from illnesses.
- Are likely to stay married longer.
According to the various longitudinal studies cited in Ed Diener‘s book Happiness, happier people:
- Live longer.
- Are healthier.
- Exercise more.
- Volunteer more.
- Have more friends.
- Give more to charity.
- Are liked more by others.
- Are more mentally resilient.
- Get along better with others.
- Are sought out more by others as friends.
As you can see, increased happiness ripples through to greater levels of success in almost every other area of your life.
1. Is Happiness Fixed From Birth?
Yes — well, partially. Actually, no. You can change it, don’t worry. I’ll explain.
Psychologists found a range of happiness that a person stays around. They call this your happiness set point. As a rough approximation, it accounts for around 60% of your happiness out of your control.
That still leaves a healthy chunk of at least 40% you can control! You can definitely increase your happiness to the higher ends of your range if you want to.
2. The Hedonic Treadmill: Masterialistic Pursuits and Their Relation to Happiness
Materialistic and superficial achievements generally don’t affect your long-term happiness as much as you think.
Dan Gilbert illustrates this in a TED Talk, citing a few of studies tracking people’s happiness before and after they won the lottery or encountered a horrible accident that left them without legs. It turns out that both parties return to their normal happiness levels before the event on average.
This is the most important message I want to share with you. Studies have shown that you can buy happiness… until you hit a first-world middle-class income. From there, the extra happiness you can get with more money is less and less. The level of income you need ranges from $40,000 a year to $70,000 a year, depending on the study, before you get most of what you can out of happiness.
That is shocking, because it is much less than the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year society tells us we need. Why do we need so little? Because that income covers the basic survival needs that cause unhappiness. It’s awesome when you don’t have to worry about starvation, retirement, or unexpected medical bills. And that’s why increasing most third-world family incomes will help with their happiness: money, on average, does increase happiness for them.
Another reason is because science has discovered that we take for granted any expensive possessions or sexual pleasure we get. The scientific term is called the hedonic treadmill.
Most middle-income families are a great example. Hundreds of thousands of these people live better than the richest billionaire did 100 years ago. They have better possessions and access in every way: entertainment, transportation, housing, choice of food, choice of clothing, choice of goods, and so on.
Yet I bet you many of them aren’t much happier than that billionaire.
Every year, I see celebrities come forth to share how they finally achieved their dreams of wealth and fame to realize it didn’t make them any happier.
A few months after I discovered this, the most followed people on Instagram and Twitter, Lady Gaga and Cara Delevigne, both did speeches about this exact topic that I watched. I like Cara’s a lot because she’s very clear about it.
We’ve been taught by commercials, ads, society, and the influencers who buy into this that making millions of dollars, buying expensive things, and having a great reputation is what makes us happy. But that’s just not the case.
Some people can’t believe this. But you don’t have to look far to see that this is true. There are many millionaires who I listen to in podcast interviews, which you can too for free, who reveal they are unhappy.
My favorite story about this is from the billionaire Ted Leonsis’s book The Business of Happiness. He was “living the life” with millions in the bank when he found himself in a crashing airplane. Right before he thought he’d die, he realized he was never happy. He survived and spent the second half of his life finding out why he wasn’t happy.
Gallup has conducted the largest longitudinal studies on happiness ever. They surveyed thousands of individuals from many countries. What they found was that most people are mildly happy most of the time unless there is extreme disruption or starvation. This means that rich and poor people can be equally as happy.
Pleasure is Different From Happiness
I was reading the founder of Zappos’s book, Delivering Happiness. Although he mentioned he loved reading scientific articles on happiness, I was shocked when he said happiness happened when customers opened up a box of brand new shoes. I know he’s trying to tie it into the title of his book, but that is pleasure, not happiness.
And pleasure is different because it lasts for a short time before leaving you — even when you think it will stay.
Two other books that touch on happiness, Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar and The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, have authors that won national championships. They both thought that winning would make them extremely happy forever because they had spent so long preparing to win. But in just a few days after winning, their happiness levels dropped back to where they were before they won.
Therefore, avoid overemphasizing a chase for pleasure if your main goal is enduring happiness. Examples of other materialistic achievements that may bring pleasure include money, fame, hooking up with women, winning awards, and food.
It’s important to know that pleasure or positive feelings alone is not the same as happiness. Drug addicts, for example, may obtain temporary pleasure from their drug, but quickly fall back into the pain they are trying to escape from.
Journey Is More Enjoyable Than the Destination
There’s an old story depicting what Hell might be like. A man wakes up in what seems like paradise. He gets everything he asks for: money, clothes, and women. But after a while, he gets bored of it. Everything comes too easily for him. He begs the angels for something that requires some effort, but is denied. Slowly, he realizes he’s in Hell, not heaven.
Humans naturally seek fulfillment, purpose, effort, and new goals. Therefore, you may be disappointed if you get to a goal and think it will make you happy. You can still chase these goals, but the real enjoyment is usually in the process of improving and getting there, not the actual achievement itself.
3. Do Gratitude Exercises
In the book The How of Happiness, they found that gratitude is the one of the key traits to maintaining long-lasting happiness.
You don’t have to do gratitude exercises often to see the most benefit. Research shows that doing gratitude exercises more than once a week doesn’t increase happiness more than doing it once a week. In fact, it may decrease happiness. Scientists hypothesize that it’s because it becomes a chore, and you already got most of the benefits doing it once a week.
If you can list out as many events, situations, or items in your life you are grateful for, you start to prevent taking them for granted (and letting hedonic adaptation take over). There are many ways of expressing gratitude. Here are a few awesome suggestions:
- Write in your journal 5 things you’re grateful for. Then 5 people.
- Call or meet with a long-time friend or family member you haven’t in a while. Express your thanks for something they did.
- Thank someone you should’ve thanked years ago you didn’t.
- Go somewhere you can marvel or savor. Scenic locations work great.
A study by Emmons and McCuilough in 2002 had four groups: a gratitude practices group, talk about hassles group, talk about how they’re superior group, and a control group.
The experiment measured how each group performed on five measures:
- how likely they were to achieve their goals
- generosity and benevolence
- how healthy they were
The group that performed the worst was the one that focused on their hassles. The group that performed the best was the gratitude group.
There’s so many tiny items in our lives we can be grateful for. One time, Helen Keller after asked a friend what he saw after walking in a park and he responded with “nothing in particular.” She replied with this:
“I who am blind can give one hint to those who see: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. make the most of every sense; glory in the beauty which the world in all the facets of pleasure reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight is the most delightful.” -Helen Keller
4. Help People Less Fortunate Than You
Did you know giving even a small amount of money to even a stranger can make you feel more happy than spending the same amount on yourself?
According to the studies mentioned in the TED Talk by Michael Norton, spending even a small amount of money on others creates a long-lasting boost in happiness, while spending the same amount on yourself creates a small amount of delight that fades quickly.
If you do not have a lot to give, that’s fine. Giving a small amount to someone, even a stranger, who really needs it can do the trick. A cup of coffee for yourself creates a “happiness” that fades quickly, for example, but a meal for someone else who is starving creates something you can hold with you for weeks. Try to buy something for someone rather than just give them money if you can.
Instead of giving money, you can to volunteer somewhere or fund-raise for charity. In the book Before Happiness, an investment banker client of the author chose to take his family to volunteer at a soup kitchen instead of taking them to the usual fancy restaurant. At the kitchen, they saw a child celebrate their birthday there (with barely anything) and realized how fortunate they were.
Even though everyone in his company was getting fired or reduced bonuses since it was the 2009 Recession, his family was happier because they saw how worse off others were.
5. Stay in the moment. Find work that puts you in a state of flow.
Matt Killingsworth designed an app that tracked people’s happiness. Through a lot of data, he found that no matter the task, people were more happy when they were focused on the task rather than drifting off or day dreaming.
After studying thousands of the world’s most successful people, I found that most of them perfected their craft in a state of flow. Time flew by because they were so engrossed in their work.
A great book on finding and developing that flow is called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Meditation is a great way of working on being more present and focusing on being in the moment. I recommend mindfulness meditation. It’s even taught to Google employees.
6. Savor the present moment
Neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson found that you can be happier by prolonging small moments in your life that made you happy.
You simply have to spend several more seconds enjoying and appreciating an awesome moment that occurred. It can be something that always happens everyday that you usually pass over quickly, like a girl smiling at you, you making her laugh, or enjoying an ice cream. Instead, savor it. Prolong it. Stay with it.
Also, you can find things that you enjoy doing and spend more time enjoying them in that moment. These can be very simple things that are easily accessible.
For example, I really love food and nature. I take my time to chew slower. I take my time to marvel at the leaves on a tree or the colors of a setting sun.
Rick Hanson goes into great detail in his book on ways over prolonging and properly savoring a positive moment. One of my favorite suggestions is looking at a common experience in a different or new way.
Let’s say you really appreciate the detail of a flower. How about appreciating it in a new way? Appreciate how it is a core component to the ecosystem and the geometric or biological structure. Or just how the colors work together.
I recommend the book Hardwiring Happiness if you want more detail on different exercises.
Mindfulness meditation is a great way of improving your ability to stay present. It can take over a year to see the effects of consistent meditation, but it’s worth it. Just 5 minutes a day can get you going.
7. Develop Close, Supportive Friendships and Keep In Touch At Least Once A Week
According to the book Social by Matt Lieberman, we are social creatures and get a lot of well-being and from social interactions and relationships with a community.
In Matt Lieberman’s book Social, studies showed that meeting with a good friend at least once a week, staying healthy, and volunteering at least once lead to increases in well-being equivalent to significant increases in salary.
Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, and Ed Diener looked at the top 5% of happy people. They found that 100% of them, every single one, had close, supportive people in their life (whether it was a partner, family member, or friend).
8. Cardiovascular Exercise
A 1999 study was done on groups of people who suffered from depression. There were three groups who were studied: one group that exercised, a group that took anti-depressants, a group that exercised and took anti-depressants, and a control group (that did nothing).
The group that exercised took longer for the people to get out of depression than the other groups. But when they checked back on the groups 6 months and a year later, the group that exercised had the lowest amount of people relapse into depression.
Note: This is not to say that anti-depressants are not useful. It simply says that exercise can also be quite useful.
The frequency and type of exercise is open to debate, but if you’re not doing any that doesn’t matter. Just get out there. Intensive cardio (at least 75% of max heart rate) for twenty minutes three times a week may be one of the best type and amount of exercise.
The Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar said in a lecture that exercise may not actually be an anti-depressant. It’s the lack of exercises that depresses us. We are genetically wired to be active like our ancestors, but many of us do not get a chance in modern society.
There are many studies and books, like The Happiness Advantage, that that have discovered that exercise improves many other factors related to success in life., such as your energy levels, focus, concentration, and creativity. Treat it as an investment in time rather than an expense because you get out more than you put in.
9. Avoid Social Comparison, Dwelling, and Negative Influences or Environments
According to studies in the book The How of Happiness, the two worst things you can do for your happiness are:
- Social comparison.
- Dwelling on negative feelings or events.
Psychology 101 teaches us that one negative comment towards you takes at least 7 positive comments to counteract. This is called the negativity bias.
The reason for this wiring dates back to prehistoric times. For our survival, we evolved the tendency to overemphasize negative events because overlooking them could cause us death.
A jealous rival’s comment could mean he was going to attempt to kill you in the tribe soon. A patch of grass that had the shape of a dangerous animal could spell death if not emphasized.
In modern society however, it’s toxic to overemphasize the negative because the thoughts are more potent than the actual potential consequences. A negative comment from a random stranger online has very little real possible result.
In the book Hardwiring Happiness, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson states that you should do your best to avoid exposure to negative news, comments, and influences from media, the internet, Youtube, TV, and other people.
We are wired to dramatically overemphasize these because we had to in order to survive in our prehistoric past. It can take 3 to 10 positive influences to match the weight of a single negative influence.
Turn off your phone from time to time. Take some time off of social media (especially Instagram and Facebook). These platforms are filled with people showing off how they’re better than you, which really screws with your happiness.
Only make friends with positive, happy people.
Avoiding or hiding from negative things is only a temporary fix. The most successful people I’ve met do shield themselves partially. But they’re really good at being able to stay happy and positive no matter what negative events or influences occur.
I’ve observed that they do this by developing inner self-esteem and a joy that isn’t dependent on others.
11. Let Go Of Past Pains. Forgive.
Often, what holds us back from happiness is memories of a bad past, such as childhood neglect, lack of validation, or abuse. You can and should get past it. Forgive those who have wronged you or else you can not move forward. They will chain you down.
The past has happened and cannot be changed. Therefore, there is no use dwelling on it. One of the only uses for the past is to learn from it to make better decisions in the present. Otherwise, move on.
12. Move Closer To Your Job
A study by Frey and Stutzer found that the farther you had to commute to work, the lower your well-being (happiness). For a man who makes $1,283 Euros a month ($1,389 a month), it requires 242 Euros (18.86% of monthly wage) to make up for 23 extra minutes of commute and 515 Euros (40% of the monthly wage) to make up for an hours worth of commute.
13. Realize People Are Different. Do What Suits You Best.
There are a dozen foundational principles that can increase your long-term, sustainable happiness. Having said that, you don’t need to do them all to achieve peak happiness.
Religion is a great example. Some people are not religious and choose not to be. Therefore, it would not be a fit to use that to increase happiness if they do want to.
By combining as many of these as you can (that fit your lifestyle and interests) into a consistent habit, you can dramatically boost your happiness forever.
14. Realize These Practices Take Time to Build Into A Habit.
These exercises aren’t easy. It takes time and effort to maintain them. But if you do, the rewards will be greater than ever.
Neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson, says that you can literally change the physiology and structure of your brain through consistent practice.
The brain is a very malleable and plastic thing. It’s amazing. When I read Hardwiring Happiness, I found that taxi drivers that memorized different routes and meditation practitioners increased the density and size of different areas of their brain.
Rick says that neurons that fire together wire together. In simple terms, this means that if some trigger event makes you depressed, you can restructure that to make you happy by substituting different events when that trigger goes off.
Just like when a dog that salivates when a bell is rung because he knows it’s time for food, you are wired to feel things when certain triggers ring, such as a song that reminds you of an ex-girlfriend.
Here’s exactly how Rick suggests you get over negative experiences: Think of a positive experience like someone who loves you.
- Have his or her love in your mind. Close your eyes.
- Enrich and prolong that experience for at least 20 seconds so that it moves from short-term to long-term memory.
- Absorb the love.
- Link it. Associate it with a negative memory or event you’re struggling with. These will wire these two events together if you do it enough. The good will wash over the bad.
You can use this to heal old pain, neglect, or new struggles.
15. Spend on Experiences Rather than Events or Possessions
Studies have shown that if you spend money on a great experience with another person, or people, you will be happier than if you spend it on a possession or event. For example, you could remember it better and have more fun if you choose to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and goof off with your adult friends rather than go to a boring expensive restaurant or buy a fancy car.
16. Have More Sex and Conversations?
In this lecture below, Professor Dan Gilbert shows a study that discover people are most happy when having sex and talking to others. I will have to be more investigation on the actual study because this study may be measuring short-term delight rather than long-term contentment or happiness.
AIM is an acronym Ed and Robert Biswas-Diener suggested in their book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries in Psychological Wealth. It’s supposed to bring you more happiness based on principles of human psychology.
Thanks to our ancestral negativity bias, humans easily forget about positive events and let negative events stick.
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” -Rich Hanson, Ph.D.
Our ability to notice other things when we’re focused on one is also really bad. This monkey experiment video is a good demonstration:
Therefore, make sure you pay attention to and celebrate positive wins, no matter how small.
Even the most handsome, famous, rich men can experience unfortunate events. Virtually no one is immune from them. Therefore, it’s not trying to avoid all the bad stuff life will throw at you. It’s about interpreting them in better ways and moving forward.
Interestingly, this is also common theme for people who live very long. In the book 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People, one of the secrets is that these people were chill even when their lives were ruined. They just soldiered on. One man in the book lost all his money, his house, and family due to an unexpected war. But he remained happy throughout this process. You discover that long-living people don’t avoid obstacles in life; they get through them better than others.
It’s important to go back and remember the positive experiences you had in the past. If you’re always looking forward, it’s easy to forget about all the great achievements you’ve already made.
I see this very often with successful entrepreneurs. They forget to look backwards and they end up beating themselves up too much for not reaching a lofty goal. The problem with this is it’s never enough. After they hit $10 million, they want $100 million. It never ends.
Does Religion Bring Happiness?
According to many new studies cited in Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries in Psychological Wealth, religious people are slightly happier on average. But the difference is minor. And when you drill down to individual religions, some don’t make you happier at all.
There are lessons taught by many religions (morality, positivity, gratitude) that match techniques of positive psychology, which is maybe why religion has often been associated with happiness.
Ask Yourself “Why?” Numerous Times
There’s a technique in the self help and entrepreneurial world where you ask yourself “Why?” numerous times. One of the first times I heard this was in Ted Leonsis’s book. When he was in college, he got angry at his roommate for making out with a girl while he had to wake up early to work on Saturday. His roommate kept asking him why he did what he did. It went something like this:
Why do you go to work on Saturday? -> So I can get make more money. -> Why do you want more money? -> So I can pay for tuition -> Why do you want to pay for tuition? -> So I can graduate with good grades -> Why do you want to graduate with good grades? -> So I can get a high-paying job -> Why do you want a high-paying job? -> So that girls will like me and I can make out with them like you are now!
After that conversation, his roommate told him he was just cutting out the middle stuff and taking a shortcut to the same goal.
This reasoning might be flawed (If he continues goofing off, will he still get girls this easily later on), but the main point is still clear. Are you getting to your end goal in the most efficient way and is this really a goal worth going after?
Our society and culture sometimes make us believe that the best way to a life of happiness and success involves building a business and/or working for years. But is it always?
Tim Ferriss uses this exact technique for his readers when they tell him they want to travel the world like him. He asks them to calculate the exact costs to travel to a country like Thailand. Often, your money can go a lot farther in these countries and they are surprised at how little it costs. Without doing this detective work, you can waste years blindly making more money than you need to get started on your end goal.
Other influencers, like the author of The Art of Tidying Things Up, use this strategy to prove that everyone’s end goal is ultimately happiness. They argue that if you ask anyone, “Why?” enough times, they do it for happiness. I disagree. Some people, like Bill Gates’s charity work, do it to help others — even at the cost of pain for himself. Others, like Beethoven or Elon Musk, set out to create the world’s best art or achieve something humankind has never done — also sometimes at the cost of suffering.
Clearly, happiness is not the same as the absence of all pain. There are ups and downs, but it’s all fairly positive overall.
You can be happier. No more theories. No more opinions from random people. Just look at the science.
If you want further reading on this, I suggest the book The How of Happiness which walks through all the things I say in a more comprehensive, but easy-to-read manner.
It is the best book I have read on the topic. And I went through a lot of bad books on happiness to get to it. It’s one of the few books that doesn’t just use random cherry-picked studies to support random ideas about happiness.
What is holding you back from the level of sustainable happiness you’re after? Let me know in the comments.
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