Can we make ourselves happier just by changing the way we think about our lives?
We’ve all read the studies that suggest that we can’t, that our own personal level of happiness is basically set in stone. Lottery winners have been shown to return to their baseline level of happiness within one year of striking it rich, and even paraplegics return to their pre-injury happiness levels within a year of their trauma. So if winning the lottery can’t make someone happier, and suffering a life-altering injury can’t make someone more sad, then what hope do the rest of us have in boosting our day-to-day levels of happiness?
Well, there’s a lot more hope than you might think. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about how much control we have over our own happiness. According to Prevention Magazine, about 60% of a person’s happiness is determined by genetics and life circumstance (like poverty, poor health, or living under oppression), but about 40% is determined by that person’s mind-set. Most of us try to improve our 60% by chasing after better jobs, more exotic vacations, and fountains of youth, but many of us neglect the remaining 40%. This is unfortunate, because that 40% is entirely under our control. It doesn’t depend on external factors controlled by others—unlike getting a raise or earning the envy of our neighbors.
So how can we improve that 40% share of our happiness? We’ve all heard the typical advice to “think positively” and “cultivate gratitude,” but it’s a lot easier to give this type of advice than it is to follow it when we’re scraping ice off our windshield on a sub-zero morning or quarreling with a close family member. Just telling ourselves that we should feel a certain way won’t make it happen. This is why it’s important to take steps that have been proven to increase long-term happiness and make lasting changes in our thought patterns. Here are 3 of our favorites.
1. Write about your experiences.
Consider keeping a journal and writing honestly about whatever is troubling you for 15 minutes a day. According to the New York Times, keeping a journal helps us to clarify the root causes of our problems and create an actionable plan on what we can do now to solve them. Once we are able to sit and clearly think through our issues, we can calmly consider how to change our behaviors, shift around our priorities, and remove toxic influences from our lives.
Also, journaling helps us to reframe the narrative of our life that we all carry around in our heads. For example, if you are out of work and are having trouble finding a new job, it’s easy to start thinking I’m a failure, and my current problems are a part of a larger pattern of failure. However, if you sit and write about all the successes, large and small, that you’ve had throughout your career, you can start to see your current work difficulties as a blip in a larger arc of success. This change in thinking will give you the confidence and optimism you need to persevere.
Though meditation is an essential part of many religions, the practice itself is completely secular. It does not require a belief in any higher power or specific doctrine; all it involves is sitting and observing our thoughts. Meditating allows us to observe where our minds go when they’re free to roam—some of us tend to dwell in the past, some of us worry about the future, and others can’t stop themselves from having imaginary conversations or arguments that will likely never happen. Meditation helps us break through these harmful thought patterns so we can live in the present, free of anxiety about the past or concerns about the future. (For simple directions on how to meditate, view our blog post
on the subject here.
Does all this sound like spiritual nonsense? Well, research conducted on at the University of Wisconsin has shown that negative thinking is correlated with activity in the right prefrontal cortex, and positive thinking is correlated with activity in the left prefrontal cortex—and that longtime meditators have more activity in their left prefrontal cortexes than people who do not meditate. Not only that, but these areas of the brain actually expand with more meditation experience, which ends up strengthening patterns of positive thinking and making them more permanent. If that’s not good enough reason to start meditating, we don’t know what is.
3. Have an unselfish life goal.
Part of our happiness depends on experiencing regular pleasure, whether it be listening to our favorite music, taking a dip in a warm ocean, holding the hand of a loved one, or biting into a piece of chocolate cake. The other part, though, depends on having a life purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. If you have a life goal that has nothing to do with gaining more wealth, respect, or fame, but instead involves helping others and making the world a better place, then you’re more likely to greet each day with a smile on your face.
Take some time to think about the mark you want to make on the world. When you’ve got an idea of what you want your goal to be, take out a notebook and write down 3 things: what you can do today to start working toward your goal, what you can do over the next month, and what you can do every week for the next year. If you take your first step immediately, you’re less likely to toss your goal into the scrap heap of “what I’ll do later, when I have more time.” Your more satisfied future self will be sure to thank you.