Are you happy? It's a simple question, but with numerous variables underlying it. What makes someone happy? Is there more than one route to happiness and more than one way to measure it?
If you're an economist or a social scientist, you may conduct scientific surveys that try to gauge levels of contentment or satisfaction. If you're a religious leader, you may wonder if someone feels spiritually fulfilled, connected to a community and in touch with his or her chosen deity. Being married often boosts happiness, as does a genetic basis for a sunnier disposition. Older women become less happy than their male counterparts, who report increased levels of happiness as they age [source: Holt].
In the end, happiness may come down to what you're looking for in life and how you define this nebulous term. In different societies throughout history, happiness has been equated with sheer luck or the certitude of religious belief. Others have thought that happiness means being a good person or being able to live a life of pleasure and leisure.
Just as definitions of happiness change, so too does our ability to handle adversity. Numerous tales exist of people undergoing tremendous hardships -- cancer, losing a job, a bad breakup -- and finding themselves in the end as happy as or happier than ever. Despite the difficulty in pinning down what happiness is and how to achieve it, we're going to take a stab at it in this article, in which we offer 10 key tips. We'll start with a few that might seem more obvious and then move on to some unusual recommendations for boosting happiness.
Live in a Happy Country
Many different studies have examined happiness in various countries. These studies generally rely on extensive surveys of inhabitants and their stated level of happiness. One, the Happy Planet Index, considers happiness in tandem with a country's environmental impact and carbon footprint.
The Day Reconstruction Method asks subjects to rank activities they performed on an "enjoyment scale" [source: Stehr]. The survey aims to be more accurate than previous ones by soliciting opinions about people's daily lives immediately following the events in question, rather than taking a holistic, long-term view of their overall contentment. The U.N. Human Development Index uses a mixture of data about gross domestic product (GDP), education and health to produce a measure of a country's success.
Unfortunately, broad studies on societal happiness are notoriously fraught with problems. From the phrasing of questions to the weather on the day that a survey is performed (respondents are generally more upbeat on days that are literally sunnier), numerous variables can be difficult to account for.
Even within a relatively happy country, like the United States, you can have a high level of "happiness inequality" among different social groups. However, a study published in July 2008 showed that, at least in the United States, the happiness inequality gap among people surveyed had decreased over the last few decades but that happiness inequality was increasing based on education level. More educated subjects reported higher levels of happiness than those who were less educated, which coincided with a growing income disparity in the country. But the happiness inequality between men and women and among different races had also lessened, the study found [source: Wolfers].
Gretchen Rubin, who runs happiness-project.com and is writing a book about happiness, lists as one of her "twelve commandments" the mantra "Identify the problem." It may seem like a basic idea, but often our frustrations can be traced to problems we haven't fully grappled with. Identifying a problem can often lead to a clear solution, perhaps one so mind-numbingly obvious that you'll wonder why you hadn't addressed the situation earlier.
Understanding a problem also allows people to keep things in perspective, to understand whether something is really worth getting upset about. It prevents giving in to self-pity and instead represents a more proactive approach that allows for finding a solution and moving on to other concerns. And if you're feeling overwhelmed with concerns, singling out a problem and addressing it can lessen stress and make once daunting challenges seem surmountable.
Simplify Your Life
There's a tendency, especially in the United States, to try to do as much as possible. We multitask incessantly, as evidenced by the BlackBerry and iPhone crazes.
But a good day can also mean making a trade-off between doing many things and a few meaningful ones. Think about what's important and what you can do away with. You may be able to get rid of some possessions, or you may be able to eliminate certain stressors.
Another term for simplifying your life may be -- and this idea arises in several tips in this article -- mindfulness. Mindfulness -- slowing down, appreciating and observing what is around you -- is a form of simplification. It allows you not to worry so much about the future and to remain more involved in the present. It encourages not overscheduling yourself, completing tasks at an appropriate pace and spacing out tasks so that you can better reflect and decrease stress in your life. Following these ideas, it's possible to recognize what concerns are truly important and what have instead been impressed upon us as important but may not be.
One happiness-oriented Web site recommends focusing on doing one thing at a time. For example, if you decide to watch a classic film and spend the first hour of the film writing some e-mails to your colleagues, by the end you may have gotten several things done, but did you fully commit yourself to either? Is it possible to enjoy and understand and even feel a connection with the movie if your attention was divided for much of the time?
The mind-body connection is often cited as an integral component of happiness. Keeping the body fit through exercise has measurable effects on the mind, too. People who exercise generally have lower levels of anxiety and depression. But studies have also shown that the same genetic factors that motivate people to exercise might also make them less predisposed to being depressed, eliminating a causal connection.
Boosting happiness through exercise doesn't require a diehard devotion to fitness. Embarking on a less ambitious fitness regimen can help to keep your goals realistic while also producing tangible results. (No need to feel guilty about not reaching your exercise goals, which would only contribute to unhappiness.)
Exercising lowers the body's levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Depending on your stress level, you may need to alter your workout accordingly. If you're more stressed, it might take a longer, more rigorous workout to burn off cortisol and walk away feeling relaxed and refreshed.
You may have heard of endorphins. Exercise causes the pituitary gland to release these powerful, mood-boosting chemicals. As with cortisol, the release of endorphins from exercise varies depending on the person and situation. Intense aerobic activities, such as running, are more likely to release endorphins than light weight lifting. Experts also recommend varying workout routines and activities. Like bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics, the body builds up a resistance to the strenuous activities you put it through. Listen to music while working out, try a new activity, play a new sport, and above all, work hard, and that endorphin-produced "high" should come, along with many health benefits.
Accept Emotions, Positive or Negative
Accepting emotions of all types, including frustration, sadness and disappointment, helps to create a more realistic worldview. By accepting these feelings as normal, it's easier to respond to them constructively. It also allows you to keep your expectations in check and to gain perspective about life.
Pay more attention to your feelings and how the outside world affects them. Do basic needs, like hunger, override your desire to be happy? Making a small improvement in your happiness may be as simple as being sure that you eat regularly and have snacks available.
It's also important to acknowledge the feelings of others. Maybe you're feeling good, but someone's sour mood is bringing you down. Recognizing these feelings as legitimate, or at the very least as a reality worth dealing with, can help to prevent you from becoming frustrated. Often someone who's upset just wants a companionable listener to turn to, and the result may be that you both are happier and more contented, having found understanding in one another.
Acknowledging feelings and emotions doesn't mean you should always act on them. Most of us are familiar with the advice to count to 10 or take a minute to cool down when angry. Similarly, trying to refashion negative emotions as positive ones can lead to real changes in mood. There's a kind of self-actualizing in play here: Tell yourself that you are patient and understanding, and eventually you will be. Embracing this kind of more optimistic viewpoint allows you to more easily let go of anger and to be more resilient in the face of adversity [source: Rubin].
Spend Time in Nature
Many people would claim to have an instinctive attraction to nature and a desire to preserve it. We want to protect the rain forests, clean up pollution, and if possible, live by the sea or a nice park. And despite much of the world's population living in urban areas, we interact with nature in many ways, whether in a mediated way through having domesticated animals as pets, or by going camping or fishing.
The concept of biophilia, a term coined by biologist E.O. Wilson, states that evolution has bred us to appreciate and do well in nature. The scientific literature backs him up, as studies have found that people who are exposed to nature become ill less frequently. (Similarly, hospital patients recover more quickly if placed by a window with a pleasant view [source: Bloom].) Pets and spending time in nature are both tremendous stress relievers. Having a cat or dog can also help people to alleviate loneliness or feel in touch with nature, even when confined in a city.
Buy Happiness -- If That's Possible
The Easterlin Paradox states that richer people are usually happier than the poor. But as a whole, richer societies don't show much more happiness than poor ones, and a country's improved economic standing does not improve happiness.
The Easterlin Paradox grew out of studies by economist Richard Easterlin in the early 1970s. Easterlin found that a certain level of increased income boosted happiness among the poor -- but only to a certain degree. After that, the amount of money people made compared to their peers, or relative income, became more important in determining happiness than their individual income. In other words, people wanted what others had.
But at least one more recent study, which draws on numerous public opinion polls conducted all over the world, shows that people in richer countries do appear happier than those in poor ones. And isolated within a country, income level does seem to correlate with happiness. For example, a far larger portion of Americans earning $250,000 or more per year were happier than those making less than $30,000.
In challenging this discovery, some critics point to changes in how these questions are asked and also bring up that while people in some developing countries have become happier as income has improved, in other countries, happiness has not increased along with income [source: Leonhardt].
On the whole, wealth does seem to boost your chances for happiness, as does living in a wealthy country that can provide the services and security that often accompany affluence. But as this article shows, many other factors besides money, many of them subjective, determine personal happiness.
Some studies show that meditation improves happiness [source: Max]. Consequently, activities like meditation, yoga and practicing mindfulness may boost your level of happiness and satisfaction. Meditation may allow you to put your problems in perspective, or the clarity achieved by the process, combined with a sense of mindfulness, may allow you to better appreciate things in the world around you that you've taken for granted.
People who have meditated regularly as part of scientific studies have also reported lower incidences of illness and feeling more connected to the people around them [source: Max]. Brain scans of meditators also show that areas of the brain associated with stress show less activity after meditation [source: Alleri].
In ancient times, true happiness was seen as something exceedingly rare and transcendent -- equivalent to being in touch with heavenly spirits [source: Holt]. Meditation is often associated with transcendence, with a progression beyond often trivial earthly concerns and moving into a more rarified space of higher understanding and contentment.
Study Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is a rapidly growing field that examines what makes people happy. As a discipline, psychology has traditionally focused on negative emotions and what can go wrong in the brain. Positive psychology looks at positive emotions and methods of fulfillment, like hope, gratitude, pleasure, spirituality and charity [source: Max].
Besides shifting the focus to these other, oft-neglected emotions, positive psychology examines concerns like the difference between feeling good about yourself for a moment or a day and creating enduring happiness. This balance between ephemeral satisfaction and prolonged happiness can be difficult to strike, and courses in positive psychology may ask students to look deeply into their own lives and examine how they work to achieve happiness.
Dozens of universities now offer classes on positive psychology, many of them very popular, such as one at George Mason University called The Science of Well-Being. Harvard's basic positive psychology class is the most popular class at the university [source: Smith]. In these classes, students look at what produces happier emotions and feelings of satisfaction. They often conduct personal experiments in which they volunteer -- a selfless act that's supposed to lead to longer-lasting happiness -- or give in to impulses that produce more short-term feelings of happiness. But positive psychology has been criticized by some educators and academics as being too lacking in hard science, too prescriptive and seemingly almost like a religion. Some also claim that professors in the field don't spend enough time considering individual differences among people and different modes of achieving happiness [source: Max].
Don't Be Happy
There are actually some compelling ideas against happiness. Naysayers aren't against happiness; rather, they point out some of the effects of happiness that may negatively affect people besides the person who claims to be happy.
What are the downsides of happiness? For one thing, happier people are more prone to prejudicial behavior [source: Holt]. One possible explanation is that a contented, lackadaisical or happy attitude allows people to easily turn to stereotypes or other caricatures when making judgments. Happy people also can have excessively high self-regard -- to the point where they think that their thoughts or actions can control events clearly beyond their control. Similarly, concerns have been voiced that happy people may be easier to manipulate, particularly by unscrupulous political leaders. But happier people show higher levels of political involvement. Happy people generally live longer, but one study found that "cheerful and optimistic" U.S. children actually did not live as long as others, so draw your own conclusions [source: Holt].
There are other reasons not to reach for happiness at all costs. A blind pursuit of happiness may neglect some complicated effects associated with socioeconomic improvement. People who improve their station in life often report being less happy because with money and personal freedom come a variety of unintended choices and desires. More opportunities are open to the wealthier person, but so potentially are feelings of inferiority and a desire for more, more, more.
For more information about happiness, unhappiness and all manner of related topics, please look over the links on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "9 Tips in Life that Lead to Happiness." Lifehack. Nov. 8, 2005. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/9-tips-in-life-that-lead-to-happiness.html
- "About the Happy Planet Index." The Happy Planet Index. http://www.happyplanetindex.org/about.htm
- "Arguing the Upside of Being Down." NPR. Feb. 11, 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18885211
- "World Database of Happiness." http://www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness/
- Allen, Colin. "The Benefits of Meditation." Psychology Today. April 24, 2003.http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20030424-000003.html
- Babauta, Leo. "The Mindfull Guide for the Super Busy: How to Live Life to the Fullest." Zen Habits. April 29, 2009.http://zenhabits.net/2009/04/the-mindfulness-guide-for-the-super-busy-how-to-live-life-to-the-fullest/
- Belluck, Pam. "Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says." New York Times. Dec. 5, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/health/05happy-web.html
- Bloom, Paul. "Natural Happiness." New York Times. April 19, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/magazine/19wwln-lede-t.html
- Fox, Justin. "Don't Ditch the GDP." Time. Apr. 10, 2008. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1729697,00.html
- Holt, Jim. "Against Happiness." New York Times. June 20, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/20/magazine/20WWLN.html
- Holt, Jim. "Oh, Joy." New York Times. Feb. 12, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/12/books/review/12holt.html
- Karnaiewicz, Sarah. "Do today's kids have 'nature-deficit disorder'?" Salon. Jun. 2, 2005. http://dir.salon.com/story/mwt/feature/2005/06/02/Louv/
- Leonhardt, David. "Maybe Money Does Buy Happiness After All." New York Times. April 16, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/business/16leonhardt.htm
- Lloyd, Robin. "Best Benefit of Exercise? Happiness." LiveScience. Fox News. May 30, 2006.http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,197466,00.html
- Max, D.T. "Happiness 101." New York Times. Jan. 7, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/07/magazine/07happiness.t.html
- Porter, Eduardo. "Happiness is a) Warm Puppy, b) Money, c) None." New York Times. July 27, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/opinion/27sun3.html
- Potash, James. "Running From Depression?" ABC News. Aug. 22, 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/DepressionNews/Story?id=5627302&page=1
- Rubin, Gretchen. "Eight Tips for Conquering Anger and Irritability." Slate. April 29, 2009. http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/happinessproject/archive/2009/04/29/be-happier-eight-tips-for-conquering-anger-and-irritability.aspx
- Rubin, Gretchen. "Happiness Myth No. 3 -- Venting Anger Relieves It." The Happiness Project. Mar. 4, 2009.http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2009/03/happiness-myth-no-3-venting-anger-relieves-it.html
- Rubin, Gretchen. "Today's prosaic secret to happiness? Long underwear." The Happiness Project. Feb. 6, 2007.http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2007/02/todays_prosaic_.html
- Smith, Tovia. "Finding Happiness in a Harvard Classroom." NPR. Mar. 22, 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5295168
- Stehr, Emily. "Kahneman, Krueger develop happiness survey." The Daily Princetonian. Jan. 14, 2005.http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2005/01/14/11812/
- Wolfers, Justin. "The Economics of Happiness, Part 1: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox." Freakonomics. New York Times. April 16, 2008. http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/the-economics-of-happiness-part-1-reassessing-the-easterlin-paradox/
- Wolfers, Justin. "Happiness Inequality #1: The Facts." Freakonomics. New York Times. Aug. 4, 2008.http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/happiness-inequality-1-the-facts/