For the last few weeks, I've been dropping a provocative question into conversations: "what would make you happier?"
This is an interesting experiment and I recommend you try it. I received varied and thoughtful answers, but the most common ones were to do with more money and better careers. It's almost as it, hidden deep in the rules of our modern culture, there's an assumption. It says that happiness is found in the external circumstances around us - in our jobs, houses, and bank balances.
So it's interesting that research suggests only 10% of our happiness comes from these external sources. Maybe we're putting our efforts in the wrong places.
Of the remaining 90%, 50% comes from our genetics. The final 40% is what we have the most control over. It comes from our 'intentional activities'; certain ways of thinking and behaving are more amenable to happiness than others, and psychologists are now beginning to understand which intentional activities make people happier. It should be noted that this is a young field, and much research still need to be done to discover the causes of happiness, and indeed, whether it is truly correct to pursue happiness so systematically. That said, some simple methods have already been shown to increase happiness in studies. Here are five tips:
1) Expressing Gratitude
Gratitude is a positive emotion in itself, so it's no surprise that people who are told to express more gratitude find themselves becoming gradually happier over time. The method is deceptively simple; at the end of each day, write down three good things that happened that day, and why they happened. This simple change of focus, over time, can lead to significant boosts in happiness. (1)
2) Use your strengths
Have you heard the old saying "stick to your strengths"? Well, it's actually pretty good advice. Identifying and developing your personal strengths has had a surge of popularity in business and in self-help books, and research has shown that people who identify their personal strengths, and make use of them on a daily basis, become gradually happier. There are some free tests you can take at the Authentic Happiness website, to identify your own strengths. (1)
3) Acts of kindness
Encouragingly, random acts of kindness are not only beneficial to the recipient; they also make the giver happier. This could mean helping a friend, a family member, or even a complete stranger. Either way, going out of your way to help people has a positive effect on your own happiness. (2)
4) Mental Time Travel
We've all experienced the sensation of being in a good mood, and suddenly finding ourselves optimistic about the future ahead, picturing all the positive things that will happen. However, imagining the future going well is not merely a consequence of a positive state of mind - it's also a cause. Simply taking the time to imagine, as precisely as possible, four positive things that can happen the next day, made people happier in a two-week test. (3)
5) Positive Reminiscence
Do you ever take the time to remember the good old days? In one study, people who were told to spend 15 minutes a day reminiscing on their happy memories ended up happier than people asked to think about neutral or sad memories. For maximum benefit, don't analyse or interpret your happy memories, and don't compare the past to the present. Just relive the good times in your mental theatre. (4)
The striking feature of all these exercises is how simple and unintrusive they are they are, and yet over time their effects can be significant.
Of course, these exercises will not bring you "true" happiness; such a thing may only exist in Disney movies. But research has shown these techniques can at least move people in the right direction; and none are particularly time-intensive, so there's a high potential return on investment. Why not pick one, and try it out for a couple of weeks?