How happy we are at any given time is always part circumstances and part genetics. And while we have little control over genetics, we can certainly tweak our circumstances. Unfortunately, often we tweak them in the wrong direction, misjudging the things that will make us happy, and underestimating the importance of a few simple concepts that enhance happiness. Here are five things to include in your day to give yourself a happiness boost.
Your Signature Strengths
I’ve talked before about how using your signature strengths (rather than following your passion) is the way to build a business you can’t wait to work on every day.
To live happy, authentic, achievement-filled lives we should probably be building our whole life (not just our work) around what psychologists call our signature strengths. These are not just the things we’re best at, but the things that are a natural and inherent part of our character.
While signature strengths can be a great foundation to build a career or business around, not all of them are work-related. One of mine is love. Others on the list include spirituality, kindness, and appreciation of beauty and excellence.
Not sure what yours are? You can find out by taking this survey (the free version is sufficient). It will rank you on 24 key strengths. Then make an effort to incorporate your top five strengths into your daily life and activities. You’ll find, over time, you’ll make a shift. You’ll feel happier and more authentic, as though your life is more closely aligned with who you really are. (Don’t cheat on the test — you really will only be cheating yourself).
How often, growing up, were you told ‘you can’t just do whatever you want, you know’? But here’s the thing: you can, within reason. We all do our best work when we’re doing something we want to do. We all have the ability to fill at least part of every day, week and month with things we want to do. We have the right to leave a job, or relationship, we hate and find one we enjoy.
Doing what you want isn’t selfish. We’ve all experienced the creativity and productivity that happens when we get to do something we really want to be doing: a task which inspires us because our motivation is entirely intrinsic.
Studies (like this one) show that intrinsic motivation is at the heart of productivity. It’s so important that introducing external rewards can decrease motivation to carry out a task we were previously happy to do, perhaps because once there are external rewards involved we no longer feel completely in control of our activity.
For this reason, it’s often enhances our day-to-day happiness to set goals that stem 100% from intrinsic motivation. Paint the picture. Write the poem. Plant the garden. Do the daily yoga practice. Try and fit at least one thing into your day that you:
· Very much want to do
· Don’t (in any way) have to do
· Won’t get an immediate reward for doing
It’s OK that you’ll eventually have a pretty painting, beautiful garden or yoga bod, as long as those aren’t the reasons you’re doing your tasks. You’re doing them for pure enjoyment. Your motivation is entirely intrinsic.
When caught up in those tasks you love to do, it’s possible you’ll experience flow. We hit a state of flow when we’re lost in our activities, experiencing deep enjoyment and total involvement in what we’re doing. Flow is what makes time fly. Flow is what makes creation easy. Flow is what happens to us writers when we suddenly realize we have 5000 new words in our manuscript and we’re not entirely sure where they came from.
The generally accepted wisdom is that ‘flow happens’, or it doesn’t. Flow is something we end up in by accident, when we least expect it. While that’s often true, it’s also possible to create and cultivate flow.
In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience author and psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, explains how we can order the information that enters our consciousness, creating flow in our daily activities, enhancing our happiness and improving the quality of our lives. The book is well worth a read.
I’ve addressed this before, in my article about why your brain has no idea what makes you happy. Your brain adapts to your circumstances, very quickly. So we buy awesome stuff (designer shoes, iPhones, cars, and condos), and we absolutely love our new thing, initially, but we adapt to the awesome stuff, which magically turns it into ordinary stuff. Once you own something, it becomes your new normal, and your brain just can’t get excited about it any more. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation.
It is possible to thwart hedonic adaptation with novelty, though. If we don’t let ourselves adapt to the awesomeness of our lives, we’ll feel happier, longer. This is one of the reasons that experiences make us happier than things. Once you’ve bought them, things don’t change much, but an experience happens once, lights up our brain, then goes away. The memory of the experience continues to make us happy, and next week we can have a different experience, which will light up our brain’s happiness center again.
Novelty is easy to fit into your life. You can plan to go somewhere different every weekend, try a new course each semester, or vacation somewhere new every year. You can choose to rent or lease rather than own, live in a few different countries over your lifetime, try a few different careers. This will also give you the opportunity to ‘fold time’ squeezing more life experience out of less life, something I address in detail in this article about falling through wormholes.
Technology has become the most important way most of us stay in touch with friends, family and loved ones. And staying in touch is good. Anyone vaguely familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will know how important a sense of social connection and belonging is, and strong social networks have been shown to affect health, happiness, and longevity.
It’s an irony, then, that spending time on our devices, and on social media in particular, often makes us feel less happy, not more so.
We need technology breaks, for part of every day, and occasionally for longer. We need to put the devices down, log out of the social media sites, go outside and talk to people, and hang out with friends, family and lovers. We need to rest our eyes, and brains, and thumbs. We need to spend time in nature, perhaps in the middle of a forest, even though that’s not where the WiFi is. And yes, there’s 4G coverage in the forest, so leave your devices at home. Take a notebook, sketchpad, and picnic instead.