Happiness Advice the World Needs Right Now
Science-based practices that benefit you & everyone around you
Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash
This is a guest post by Sarah R., an energy & environment professional based in Washington, D.C. For more on these topics, please follow her on Twitter! This article was originally featured on Medium by the In Fitness and in Health.
Two years ago, I walked away from a toxic work environment. It was so emotionally taxing that it kickstarted my exploration of practices focused on reducing stress and boosting happiness.
I started with my physical health by developing a consistent exercise routine, improving my diet, and setting a regular sleep schedule.
My interest in Eastern traditions also led me to restart my yoga practice and join a meditation group. Meditation provided strategies for cultivating mindfulness. I learned that by focusing on my breath or sensations in my body, I could remain in the present moment. Mindfulness achieved through meditation is known to counteract mind wandering, a feature of our minds that is associated with negative feelings. In this way, meditation has a positive effect on our happiness.
One of the most effective parts of my meditation practice was focusing on compassion. I used my weekly practice to cultivate compassion for the coworkers who had caused my distress. And it wasn’t for their sake, but for mine. By extending compassion, and understanding that they too suffered in ways I couldn’t fathom, I could see them as the flawed individuals that they were. In effect, it allowed me to let go and move on.
In the spring of 2020, I signed up for Yale University’s most popular course — The Science of Wellbeing — which was being offered for free on Coursera. By the time I finished it, Covid-19 cases were on the rise, lockdowns were imminent, and I had been laid off from another job. This time around, I was more prepared for what followed (check out my article linked below).
Through the course — as well as personal reflection — I came to realize that the cues we absorb about happiness are highly flawed.
Happiness research tells us that our intuitions about what will make us happy are often wrong. Accumulating stuff, making more money, becoming more physically attractive, and finding a great partner can provide temporary pleasure, but they don’t lead to lasting happiness. This is often due to hedonic adaptation, a powerful cognitive bias. It describes the fading over time of positive or negative impacts on our happiness.
However, cultivating the right practices can build lasting happiness by strengthening our emotional resilience, enhancing our awareness of the positive aspects of life, and helping us reframe our experiences. Notably, these habits can create positive ripple effects that extend to our social circle, our community, and the world at large.
Here’s a sampling of the concepts and practices that have helped me and, I hope, will help you too.
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Strengthen Social Connections
In general, people with strong social ties are healthier. Studies show that they are less vulnerable to premature death and more likely to survive serious illnesses.
The benefit we receive from social connections extends beyond our close friends and family. Even loose connections, such as striking up a conversation with a stranger, support our emotional and physical resilience.
Given our current circumstances, it’s more important than ever to reaffirm these connections by staying in touch with people we care about and checking in on those who are isolated or vulnerable.
Invest in Experiences, Not Stuff
Research has demonstrated that buying and accumulating material goods doesn’t make us happy in the long term. This is where hedonic adaptation comes into play. Our tendency to get used to things diminishes their effect on our state of happiness. We’ve all felt it — excitement about that new pair of sneakers — but it wears off quickly.
Strikingly, hedonic adaptation doesn’t seem to affect experiences, which provide more enduring happiness. The lead up to a vacation or a weekend tour gives us an anticipatory boost and provides great stories we can recount in the years that follow. Experiences are also less susceptible to social comparisons, our tendency to compare and value ourselves against other people.
Sometimes we embark on experiences alone, but often we are accompanied by friends, family or others. This means that investing in experiences usually comes with the added benefit of social connection.
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash
Seek Out Opportunities to Be Kind
The results are in: happier people consistently perform more acts of kindness. Spreading kindness enhances your happiness, but it also creates a cycle of goodwill that can ripple through a community.
Have you ever rolled up to a drive-thru window at a coffee shop, only to be told that the car ahead of you has already paid for you? That subtle act of kindness has been known to be paid forward for an entire day, where customer after customer paid for the coffee for the person behind them.
This example is also interesting for a different reason. Studies show that money spent on someone else brings us more happiness than money spent on ourselves, regardless of the amount we spend. So, if you have the means, be generous. And if you don’t, there are other ways to express kindness.
Reflect on What You Are Grateful For
Gratitude also counteracts our innate negativity bias, that tendency to fixate on the negative while taking for granted positive or neutral aspects of our lives. In this way, a gratitude practice can reframe how we experience the world.
Setting a regular practice of reflecting on the things you are grateful for is a great way to start. If you are grateful for someone in particular, write them a letter expressing your gratitude and hand deliver it. Research shows this process can lead to a significant happiness boost — one that benefits both you and the person you appreciate!
These simple, science-based practices have the potential to transform our lives for the better. It only takes a few minutes a day to spread kindness and express gratitude for all that we have.
From the book Gratitude Journal: A Year of Living with Intention. Cover image above reprinted with permission of the author.
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