If you ask someone what their goals for their life are, you’ll get a variety of answers, to make enough money, to get married and have a family, to climb Mount Everest. But one that you’ll hear from almost everyone is, “I want to be happy.” Improving one’s happiness is of course a reward in and of itself, but it is also desirable from an HR perspective. Studies have shown that happy employees are more creative, more productive, and have a lower turnover rate (a link to one such study).
A lot of people believe that their level of happiness has been set from when they were born, or is completely dependent on their current situation. While there is evidence that some part base happiness level is based on a person’s genes, think about your hair color, which is 100% genetic – you could go out and change that today if you wanted to. Much of our happiness that we attribute to our current situation often depends on how we interpret and think about our situation. With practice a person can learn to see everything that happens to them in a more positive way, and it can make a profound difference in their happiness from day to day.
As the study of subjective well-being – a person’s evaluation of their happiness from their perspective – has shown, we are very capable of changing our happiness level. Here are just a few things you could start doing today that have been shown to improve your happiness. I provide a list of them, because it’s important to consider person-activity fit – what works for one person may not be feasible or enjoyable for someone else. Fortunately, there’s lots of different things to try until you find one or a couple that are right for you!
Pursuing the right kinds of goals, and aligning those goals with your values
Before you begin, think about 2-3 goals that are most important to you right now, and maybe write them down on a piece of scratch paper. You will classify them based on three criteria: self-concordance, approach vs. avoidance, and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.
Values are beliefs about what are important to us. Our values motivate our behavior; they affect the goals we pursue and the paths that we take to reach those goals. A goal is said to be self-concordant when it aligns well with one’s values. Having and working towards self-concordant goals has been shown to improve meaning in life and overall happiness. If you’d like help determining which basic values you align with most strongly, you can visit yourmorals.org and take the Schwartz Values Questionnaire there, which will show you which values you most closely align with out of a list of 10 basic values: Achievement, Benevolence, Conformity, Hedonism, Power, Security, Self-Direction, Stimulation, Tradition, and Universalism. Try to classify each of the goals you listed under one of these values.
Goals which are approach-oriented (ex. “I want to run 4 times a week to get in better shape and spend more time outdoors”) rather than avoidance-oriented (ex. “I need to run more so I don’t get fat”) are more likely to be achieved and will make you feel happier while pursuing them. Classify each of your goals based on their orientation. Fortunately, if you have any avoidance-oriented goals, you can probably rephrase them to think about them in a new light!
Finally, intrinsically-motivated goals are goals you pursue for reasons such as self-improvement or because you enjoy them. Extrinsically motivated goals might be pursued because someone will be disappointed in you if you don’t, or for the praise you will receive. Pursuing intrinsically-motivated goals will result in better follow-through and will also make you feel happier, both while pursuing and upon achieving them.
Think about the goals you listed. Could you rephrase or reframe them to make them more self-concordant, approach-oriented, or intrinsically motivated? It could help you to achieve the goals which are important to you, and you’ll have a better time working towards them!
Commuting takes up more of all of our workdays than we’d like it to, and is often our least favorite part of the day. Other drivers, stoplights, traffic, sometimes it feels like the world is conspiring to make you start your day off on the wrong foot. Unfortunately, for many people driving to work is unavoidable, and you’ve really just got to make the best of it and listen to some nice music, or maybe a podcast or audiobook. Enjoy the time you can spend by yourself and try not to let it all get to you.
However, for some people, other options, such as public transport, cycling, or even walking to work are available. Sometimes they may be less convenient, but studies have consistently shown that people who bike or walk to work, or even use public transit are higher in SWB than those who drive (a link to one such study). If it wouldn’t be too inconvenient, try it out for a few days or a week, weather permitting, of course! The extra exercise or social time could make your morning a little brighter.
Mindfulness is a skill you can develop that will enable you to view your own thoughts in an objective, nonjudgmental manner. Developing mindfulness can help you avert a bad mood the moment it starts coming on, react more constructively to a bad situation, or even just get in a better state of mind after a stressful day at work.
Contrary to popular belief, this is something anyone can do, and it doesn’t even take more than 10-15 minutes a day. Just a part of the time you might spend sitting in front of the TV for a show you aren’t really interested in or browsing the internet aimlessly. There are many online resources, and different things might work better for different people, but a site that I discovered that I really enjoy is Headspace. They offer 10 free sessions aimed at practicing mindfulness for the first time, meant to be done over 10 days and each session is less than 15 minutes. I highly recommend just trying it for a day or two, you might see the positive effects that quickly.
Unfortunately, no one can be happy ALL of the time. But you can definitely learn to mitigate negative feelings and to cut them off before they spread and multiply. Practicing mindfulness helps with this, as it makes it easier to notice when the beginnings of negative thoughts are beginning to swirl around in your head.
A good path of action is trying to recognize automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), also sometimes called toxic thought traps. These can spring up without you really noticing them, but they or the thoughts that spring from them can eventually put you in a bad mood or result in harmful rumination on unpleasant thoughts for hours or more. Example of ANTs include all-or-nothing thinking (“I didn’t get the promotion, I’m worthless” instead of “I just need to work harder to get my boss’ attention for the next one!”), shoulds (“I should have finished that task yesterday” instead of, “I’ll get started to finish it today”), and excuses (“I can’t just join the marathon training club, it’ll be awkward and I won’t know anyone” instead of, “Everyone has to go for the first time at some point, I can meet people!”).
When someone close to you us going through a hard time, we all know how to comfort them, “There are plenty of other jobs,” “Everyone has off days.” But when bad things happen to you, it’s easy to mope or wallow in self-pity or get angry at yourself for every little thing that you did wrong. Actually, you can treat yourself with the same compassion as you would others, by practicing self-compassion when not everything is going right in your life. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Think of ways to fix the problem rather than continuing to worry about things that have already happened and can’t be changed. Look on the bright side!
Prosocial behavior is any action intended to help others. It can increase your feelings of connectedness with others and meaning in your own life. You could spend extra time volunteering for a local cause you believe in, or send some of your extra money to help make a positive change in the world even if you don’t have any spare time. Giving to others has been shown to be the best way to spend money, in terms of increasing subjective well-being.
But you can practice prosocial behavior on an even smaller scale, by focusing on performing a few more acts of kindness in a day or week, beyond what you’d normally do. This has been shown to make people feel much better, and of course the targets of kindness feel better too. Everyone wins!
This list is obviously far from exhaustive. There are many other ways to improve your happiness, such as sharing your good news with others, expressing gratitude more often, and focusing on improving your relationships. And if these things wouldn’t work for you, there are plenty of resources online to help! One such site is the Pursuit of Happiness (link), which has tons of information on the history of happiness and positive psychology, as well as many ways to have more happiness in your life.
Your happiness is not a fixed point. If you aren’t satisfied, there are many steps you can take to increase the positive feelings in your life, and then you can share those with others around you! But it’s important to note that most of these are conscious choices; you have to decide that you want to be happier, that you can be happier, and that you will make some changes to accomplish it. As my professor, and a pioneer in the study of happiness, Ed Diener said, “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”