ImagesWho doesn’t want happiness? For most people, the question of how to achieve it is right up there with that of wondering what happens to us when we die. And psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky is on the forefront of helping everyone find some answers, both through tireless research as well as with her books, like “The How of Happiness” (2007) and its just-published follow-up, “The Myths of Happiness.”
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Lyubomirsky, based at the University of California, Riverside, believes that everyone has his or her own set happiness level, noted the New York Times in a recent profile of the researcher. And the less happy among us tend to share traits like frequently comparing themselves to others (and finding personal disappointment in others’ successes), rationalizing often, and dwelling on unhappy events. Happy folks, meanwhile, have a greater tendency to store up positive moments in their memory.
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But whatever your set level is, Lyubomirsky’s research has showed there are many ways—known as “hedonic benefits”—to boost it, some of which may be surprising.
1. Perform random acts of kindness
“The generous acts don’t have to be random and they don’t have to be a certain kind (e.g, anonymous or social or big, etc.),” Lyubomirsky told fellow happiness-expert Gretchen Rubin. “We have found that almost any types of acts of kindness boost happiness.” Recent studies have corroborated the findings, she noted, with one showing that when 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do good deeds for several weeks, they not only got happier, but became more popular with their peers.
2. Live in a home that’s rented, not owned
Lyubomirsky takes the American Dream to task, saying that renters are happier than owners. At least one study agrees, finding that “Homeowners are no happier than renters by any of the following definitions: life satisfaction, overall mood, overall feeling, general moment-to-moment emotions (i.e. affect) and affect at home but instead derive more pain from their house and home.”
3. Count your blessings
Learning to practice gratefulness is particularly key to happiness, Lyubomirsky says. And there are many ways to do it: by keeping a gratitude journal, in which you ruminate on 2-3 things for which you’re currently grateful, “from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night),” she wrote in a recent blog post. Alternately, you can choose a fixed time that’s set aside for thinking about your blessings, or when you can talk about what’s good in your life with a gratitude partner, or even tell people directly that you’re grateful for them or their actions. Writing one day, and then thinking or discussing the next, is a good way to keep your gratitude practice fresh, she notes.
4. Be thrifty
Materialism, overconsumption and overspending will ultimately get you down, Lyubomirsky has noted, reiterating the point by using age-old tropes (possessions break, while memories only get better) and quotes (“Our necessities are few, but our wants are endless”). “Promoting sustainable happiness means helping people transcend set points and setbacks to live more rewarding lives,” she writes in one study. “Thrift can complement this endeavor by extending the meaning of sustainability, ensuring that the collective can flourish as well as the individual.” In other words? Greed makes everyone sad.
5. Become a parent
No, it’s not for everyone, and definitely not a quick or simple fix. But parents experience greater levels of happiness and meaning in life than people without children, according to research that Lyubomirsky led in 2012. “We are not saying that parenting makes people happy, but that parenthood is associated with happiness and meaning,” she explained. “Contrary to repeated scholarly and media pronouncements, people may find solace that parenthood and child care may actually be linked to feelings of happiness and meaning in life.”
6. Learn to savor positive experiences
“The ability to savor the positive experiences in your life is one of the most important ingredients of happiness,” according to Lyubomirsky. How to do it? Put together a small album with happy photos or mementos and carry it around with you. Try to be present and fully appreciate small, happy moments—from taking a shower to eating a meal. And tune in to natural joys, from the sound of a bird singing to the smell of fresh spring blossoms in the air.
7. Take baby steps toward life goalsMaking a list of your big goals in life, and taking baby steps toward them, is very happy-inducing. That’s because a component of happiness is the sense that your life is good, “that you’re progressing towards your goals in life,” Lyubomirsky told Diane Rehm. This is a digestible way to make it possible.
8. Stay healthy and live long: Happiness peaks at age 65
As she noted in her first book, a 22-year study of about 2,000 healthy veterans of World War II and the Korean War revealed that life satisfaction increased over the course of these men’s lives, peaked at age 65, and didn’t start significantly declining until age 75. Takeaway: Not happy at 30? Don’t give up, and don’t rush it. There’s still time.