The One Word Key To Happiness
…What’s it take to become happy very quickly without dramatically changing your life (or spending $80)? The key to happiness really comes down to one word:
We all have regrets and worries. We all have bad things we could think about. But they don’t bother us when we pay them no mind. The Buddha once said:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
And research is agreeing with him. People always think more money or a better this or that — a thing or event — is going to make them happier.
But when we look at the data, very happy people don’t experience more happy events than less happy people.
Via 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior:
Ed Diener and Martin Seligman screened over 200 undergraduates for levels of happiness, and compared the upper 10% (the “extremely happy”) with the middle and bottom 10%. Extremely happy students experienced no greater number of objectively positive life events, like doing well on exams or hot dates, than did the other two groups (Diener & Seligman, 2002).
So it’s not really what happens. It’s what you pay attention to and the perspective you take on things. “Look on the bright side” is a cliche, but it’s also scientifically valid.
Paul Dolan teaches at the London School of Economics and was a visiting scholar at Princeton where he worked with Nobel-Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.
He explains the importance of attention in his book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think:
Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention. What you attend to drives your behavior and it determines your happiness. Attention is the glue that holds your life together… The scarcity of attentional resources means that you must consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways. If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating your attention… So changing behavior and enhancing happiness is as much about withdrawing attention from the negative as it is about attending to the positive.
Make sense, right? So how can you and I put this to use?
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself about attention that can have a profound affect on your happiness.
Are you actually paying attention?
“Savoring” is a powerful method for boosting happiness. It’s also ridiculously simple:
Next time something good happens, stop whatever you are doing, give it a second and appreciate that moment. Pay attention to it.
…“Stopping to smell the roses”? It’s true. People who take time to appreciate beauty around them really are happier.
Via 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life:
Those who said they regularly took notice of something beautiful were 12 percent more likely to say they were satisfied with their lives.
This isn’t speculation. Studies show slowing down and appreciating good things boosts happiness and reduces depression.
Via The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want:
In one set of studies, depressed participants were invited to take a few minutes once a day to relish something that they usually hurry through (e.g., eating a meal, taking a shower, finishing the workday, or walking to the subway). When it was over, they were instructed to write down in what ways they had experienced the event differently as well as how that felt compared with the times when they rushed through it. In another study, healthy students and community members were instructed to savor two pleasurable experiences per day, by reflecting on each for two or three minutes and trying to make the pleasure last as long and as intensely as possible. In all these studies those participants prompted to practice savoring regularly showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.
Do one thing at a time. Pay attention. Enjoy it. You’ll feel less busy and you’ll be happier.
(For more on how to savor those precious good moments in life, click here.)
Okay, you’re going to pay more attention. But maybe that’s not your problem. You might be paying attention to the wrong things.
What are you paying attention to?
Training your mind to look for errors and problems (as happens in careers like accounting and law) makes you miserable.
Via One Day University Presents: Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness (Harvard’s Most Popular Course):
I discovered the tax auditors who are the most successful sometimes are the ones that for eight to 14 hours a day were looking at tax forms, looking for mistakes and errors. This makes them very good at their job, but when they started leading their teams or they went home to their spouse at night, they would be seeing all the lists of mistakes and errors that were around them. Two of them told me they came home with a list of the errors and mistakes that their wife was making.
Don’t pay so much attention to the bad. Pay more attention to the good. Stop looking for problems. Enjoy what you have.
Gratitude is arguably the king of happiness. What’s the research say? Can’t be more clear than this:
…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.
You must teach your brain to seek out the good things in life. Research shows merely listing three things you are thankful for each day can make a big difference.
Via Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being:
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”). Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?”
This technique has been proven again and again and again. One of the reasons old people are happier is because they remember the good and forget the bad.
And feeling gratitude doesn’t just make you happier. It’s correlated with an objectively better life:
…we found that gratitude, controlling for materialism, uniquely predicts all outcomes considered: higher grade point average, life satisfaction, social integration, and absorption, as well as lower envy and depression.
(For more on how to use gratitude to improve your life, click here.)
Now I know what many of you may be thinking: I agree, but my attention span is terrible.
Well, we can do something about that too.
Can you pay attention?
…This is why you keep hearing so much about mindfulness these days. Meditation can help you train your attention. A 2011 Yale study showed:
Experienced meditators seem to switch off areas of the brain associated with wandering thoughts, anxiety and some psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. Researchers used fMRI scans to determine how meditators’ brains differed from subjects who were not meditating. The areas shaded in blue highlight areas of decreased activity in the brains of meditators.
(For more on the easiest way to learn how to meditate, click here.)
Another issue may be that you’re not really noticing what truly makes you happy and unhappy. It’s a common mistake. But one we can fix.
Are you paying attention to what makes you happy and what doesn’t?
When something makes you really happy, jot it down. Then do that thing more often. Daniel Nettle jokingly refers to this as “Pleasant Activity Training.”
….Yeah, it’s stupidly simple. But as Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker explained in my interview with her, you probably don’t do it:
…people who spend more time on projects that energize them and with people who energize them tend to be happier. However, what is interesting is that there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time. For example, if you ask people to list the projects that energize (vs. deplete) them, and what people energize (vs. deplete) them, and then monitor how they actually spend their time, you find a large percentage know what projects and people energize them, but do not in fact spend much time on those projects and with those people.
(For more of the things research has proven will make you happier, click here.)
Okay, time to bring out the big guns. This is something you can do at any moment to make yourself happier. And all it takes is asking yourself one question.
Are you paying attention to what’s going on right now?
You probably spend a fair amount of time worrying about the future, regretting the past or reliving an argument that ended long ago.
And that means you’re not paying attention to what’s happening right now. None of those negative things are actually occurring here in front of you. If you were focused on right now, bang, you’d be happier.
When happiness expert Sonja Lyubomirsky studied the happiest people, what did she find?
They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present moment.
That thing you’re making yourself miserable about: is it here, right now, in front of you? Or are you projecting into the future or the past? Pay attention to the present and you’ll probably feel much better.
(For more on what makes the happiest people in the world so happy, click here.)
Still paying attention? Let’s wrap this up.
… Try shifting your attention to the good around you.Worrying about the future or dwelling on the past or letting your mind wander is a prescription for unhappiness. Those things aren’t in front of you and they’re not real. As Mark Twain once said:
I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
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