Wealth, status, fitness, relationships – for most people, these markers are accomplished in pursuit of the ultimate goal: Happiness.
Collecting these achievements makes sense – who wouldn't be happier with more money, a higher-profile job, better defined abs or a stronger marriage? But research has shown, somewhat counterintuitively, that major positive changes in life circumstances don't necessarily translate to similarly significant upticks in well-being. (Two studies, one pertaining to newlyweds and the other to high-level managers who voluntarily changed jobs, illustrate this human tendency to quickly adjust to improvements, a process known as hedonic adaptation.)
If boosting one's life circumstances isn't necessarily the secret to boosting one's happiness, then what is? Or is happiness, as with so many things, simply the result of a genetic lottery?
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside and she's spent the majority of her career studying happiness. She's come to believe that in many ways, happiness is a skill. “Research has accumulated to convincingly suggest that a large portion of happiness may be under people’s control through the activities they choose and how they construe and respond to situations in their lives,” she and postdoctural researcher Kristin Layous wrote in Positive Emotion (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Here are three cognitive and behavioral strategies she says have been found to “reliably improve happiness.”
1. Remember: Life is short.
Contemplating mortality may seem like a backwards way of finding happiness, but a recent study co-authored by Lyubomirsky and currently in review suggests this may indeed be an effective strategy.
In the actual study, participants were either instructed to live the following month as if it was their last (in their current city) or to just keep track of their daily activities. Those in the first group reported higher levels of well-being at weekly check-ins during the four week trial, as well two weeks after the trial was completed. What's more, their well-being increased over time and, the authors write, "mediation analyses indicated that these differences were explained by greater connectedness, competence, and autonomy."
It's easier to appreciate something (be it a meal, a vacation or a city) when it is finite; when a resource is limited, its value increases. By imagining time as scarce, the authors speculate, we can jolt ourselves into refusing to take the positives for granted, to "seize the moment and extract greater well-being" from our lives. It's a subtle, but important, variation on the cliché 'live every day like it's your last' (which, taken literally, would be ridiculous). Instead, it's about recognizing that the good times won't last forever – and appreciating them all the more because of it.
2. Shake it up.
As mentioned earlier, it's surprisingly easy to adapt to a positive life event, be it marriage, a promotion or weight loss. As Lyubomirsky writes in her book, "even the most beautiful or noteworthy events are susceptible to the process of hedonic adaptation, whereby they lose their emotional impact over time and through repeated exposure."
Previous research suggests variety helps combat this effect: College students report being less able to adapt to dynamic life changes, such as making a new friend or learning a new skill) than static ones (such as upgrading dorm rooms or receiving more financial aid).
Whenever possible, infuse variety into your life. This can mean finding a wider sample of enjoyable activities, as well as taking a break from certain ones altogether (which interrupts the cycle of adaption, enabling a renewed sense of pleasure when the break is over). Both strategies slow the process of adaption by creating a perpetual sense of newness.
3. Focus on others.
When it comes to happiness, effort isn't always enough. In fact, high-levels of self-monitoring and self-focus have been associated with lower levels of well-being.
Which is why, as circular as the following statement sounds, actively working to increase the happiness of people close to you may be the best strategy to increase your own happiness.
In a soon-to-be-released study co-authored by Lyubomirsky, participants were split into two groups; those in the first group were asked to actively try and make someone in their lives happy for four weeks, while those in the second were simply asked to track their daily activities.
"People who took steps to make a friend, family member, or roommate happy reported increases in happiness compared to those who simply kept track of their daily activities, thus supporting our contention that focusing on the well-being of others is good for mental health," the authors wrote. "Thus, focusing on a close relationship helps people obtain greater fulfillment out of their daily lives and feel more grateful for what they have."