There isn’t a single human being who doesn’t want it, and for many, it is the primary pursuit in life.
Conventional wisdom tells us that we need a good job, a great family life, and 11.5 months of vacation time to be happy. But we’re going to focus on some lesser known factors of happiness that anyone can apply immediately.
1. Throw Your Negative Thoughts Into the Trash (Literally)
What happens when we treat our thoughts as material objects? This study found: “When participants physically discarded a representation of their thoughts, they mentally discarded them as well, using them less in forming judgments than did participants who retained a representation of their thoughts.”
It seems like we can throw away our negative thoughts and be happy forever, but the fact is, as researcher Richard Petty says, “they are not really gone—you can regenerate them, but the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.” For negative thoughts, writing them onto a piece of paper and then throwing it away appears to thwart their negative power, though it may only be short term. With repetition, one could possibly gain longer term benefits by “practicing” discarding negative thoughts.
Important lesson: If you have pervasive negative thoughts, write them down on a piece of paper, and physically throw them away, or burn them! This strategy can be employed as a quick way to clear your head of negativity.
2. Use Your Imagination
A just-released study found that the human imagination is powerful to a scary and exciting degree. “This is the first set of experiments to definitively establish that the sensory signals generated by one’s imagination are strong enough to change one’s real-world perception of a different sensory modality,” says Professor Henrik Ehrsson, the principle investigator behind the study.”
Your imagination is so powerful that it can alter what you see and hear in the physical world. I submit, then, that it easily has the power to change your mindset to a happier state. Here is one experience I had with the power of imagination, and honestly, I was amazed when it worked.
One day I was feeling (extra) lazy, lounging in bed. I couldn’t get motivated to do anything worthwhile. Do you know what I did then? I imagined a tiger, as vividly as I could. I could see him running towards me with great speed; his big cat eyes looking at me like I was a tuna steak. Then I visualized the rest of the scenario—if I didn’t get up very soon, he would attack me, but if I did get up, I would avoid him and save my life! It jumpstarted my entire system—I was up and moving (and laughing at myself) within seconds. If you spend all of your time thinking realistically, not only will life be a little bit boring, but you’ll miss out on your brain’s most enjoyable and powerful tool—imagination!
Important lesson: Remember childhood, before you were trained to be “responsible?” Exercising your imagination muscle will generate creative ideas, motivate you, and make you happier if you use it well. Happiness is a perspective, and using your imagination is an effective way to alter your perspective to your liking. Or at the very least, it can get you out of bed. (Tiger alarm clock patent pending) 😉
3. Stop Buying Possessions, Start Buying Experiences
I admit that I’m biased as a minimalist, but it’s hard to deny hard data—experiences have been shown to make us happier than material possessions. The linked study from Cornell says, “Consumers spend more time thinking about material purchases they didn’t choose than they spend when they buy an experience.”
It appears that experiences are free from the comparison mindset that can sour an item purchase. A year later, your phone is outdated, but your trip to Rome isn’t – instead it ages like wine in your mind. I went to Rome in May and my $800 Galaxy Note II was stolen. I haven’t missed my phone at all, but will remember the trip forever.
When it comes to spending money, experiences are almost always a better value than possessions. As I have said before: “Things have a ‘pay once and use for years’ value appeal over an experience’s one-time nature. I get that. But it’s a value trap—as we say in the investing world – because time of use is not an accurate measure of value. If I licked a rock for 40 years, you wouldn’t call the rock valuable, would you?”
Important lesson: Material possessions tend to make us happy initially and then wane off considerably, but the happiness gained from experiences may last a lifetime. If you want to be happier in the long term, consider buying plane or concert tickets instead of a TV or new phone.
Volunteer, pay for the person behind you at Wendy’s, cook a surprise meal for someone, or give someone a gift outside of Christmas or their birthday. We are incredibly powerful in our ability to make someone else’s day with very little effort on our part. And one study suggests that giving is an innate source of happiness in humans. The study found that toddlers before the age of two years old “exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves.”
Giving to others makes us happy from birth, it seems. Another study by a Harvard scholar found that happiness can be bought, so long as you’re spending the money on someone else. What else is there to say? Giving makes you happier!
Important lesson: Instinct tells us that receiving is preferable, but giving brings real happiness results. If you truly want to maximize your happiness, then find ways to give to others. You won’t regret it.
5. Train Your Brain Like a Monk
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, is sometimes called “the happiest man in the world.” What’s his secret? “We’re not always angry, always jealous, always generous,” says Ricard. “There is a possibility for change because all emotions are fleeting. That is the ground for mind training. Mind training is on the idea that two opposite mental factors can’t happen at the same time…You cannot in the same gesture shake a hand and give a blow…There are natural antidotes to emotions that are destructive to our well-being.”
Ricard says that mind transformation is the way to go, but that it takes time (from my research and experience with neuroplasticity, I agree this is true on both accounts). The mind transformation he talks about is achieved through meditation on unconditional compassion and loving kindness. “Some of [the monks] who came to the labs […] did 20-40 thousand hours of meditation. They are real Olympic Champions of mind training,” he says, getting a laugh from the crowd.
When the monks were tested for happiness using tests that measure brain activity for happiness (based on the pre-frontal cortex halves—left side activity is associated with happiness, and the right with depression), it was found that the monks were four standard deviations from the norm in favor of happiness; in other words, they were off-the-charts happy.
Important lesson: If you want to multiply your happiness results from giving, meditate on compassion and loving kindness (these are underlying components of giving). It appears that the monks’ theory on opposite mental factors holds true. They spend so much time thinking of positive things, that negativity and angst are pushed out of their mind, and they become very happy (and I would add, at peace). Another important lesson here is the power of repetition—the brain is wired to form habits, and there’s no reason a generally happy mindset can’t be habit.
Perhaps the most surprising and 21st century relevant happiness factor of all is focus. Did you know that being distracted makes you unhappy? This study found that people’s minds wandered a disturbing 47% of the time on average. And the result? It had a bigger (negative) impact on their happiness than what they were doing.
“If you ask people to imagine winning the lottery, they typically talk about the things they would do—’I’d go to Italy, I’d buy a boat, I’d lay on the beach’—and they rarely mention the things they would think. But our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”—Harvard Psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert
My blog is about staying focused, but even I was surprised to find such a powerful direct connection between focus and happiness. It makes sense though, because to focus is to live in the present moment, which cuts out worry, guilt, and other past regrets or future concerns.
One more benefit of focus is that it allows you to live the life you want to live. Focusing your skills and energy on fewer areas is a simple formula that brings big results. The more you focus on what matters, the more your life becomes as you desire, and the happier you’ll be. This means no more justifying your smart phone addiction. (Yes, I’m calling you out for texting group B when you’re with group A, and then texting group A when you’re with group B. Or burying your face in your phone when you feel even slightly uncomfortable.) Commit to being with Group A when they are physically around you. I saw a group of guys in Chipotle, and all three of them were looking down at their cell phones. They were physically present, but they weren’t mentally present.
Important lesson: Learn to control your whims (and phone notifications) or they will control your life and steal your happiness. True happiness is not being a slave to a piece of technology—it’s deciding what’s most important in this moment and focusing all of your energy on it. Distraction is often a failure to make this decision.
Now, see if you can use these tips to beat Matthieu Ricard for the title of happiest person alive. Even if you get second place, you’ll still be pretty happy.
P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.