I have always been fascinated with the study of happiness. It’s one of those topics that you can study from a biological, philosophical, psychological, anthropological, or theological point of view and maybe the overlap of all of those schools of thought is necessary to really understand it. It may be that it’s just too elusive of a concept to fully comprehend, but as humans, happiness is something we just can’t ignore.
Conscious of it or not, everything we do (or don’t do) in life, seems to be part of a mission to maximize happiness. Why then, are we so terrible at predicting what factors will actually make us happy?
After watching a series of Ted Talks on this subject, I felt inspired to contribute my perspective to the age-old dialogue and make my own happiness checklist.
1. Do the Experience vs. Memory Test
In his talk, The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory, Daniel Kahneman says that there is often a conflict between the happiness of the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. In other words, we may look back on the events in our life and be satisfied or dissatisfies, but that has little to do with how happy we are in our day-to-day life.
Even when we think about the future, we often think about things in terms of how we will remember them, rather than how we will feel during the experience.
A simple test you can do to determine if there is a disparity between the desires of your experiencing self and your remembering self, is to consider what you might do, on vacation for example, if you knew that all your photos would be destroyed and your memories of the event would be wiped afterwards.
For me, if this were the case, I probably wouldn’t go sightseeing just for the sake of it.
When I went to Pisa, Italy, for instance, I wanted to be able to tell people that I saw the leaning tower of Pisa, and be able to produce a photo of me pretending to push it back up (how clever and original of me), but the actual act of going to see this building wasn’t all that magical or inspiring to me.
I would have rather spent the day strolling around the city, people watching, and maybe enjoying a nice Pinot Noir in some little café that no one’s ever heard of.
Why didn’t I do this?
Because I was too busy making “memories” to just enjoy the moment. It sounds ridiculous, but we do this all the time and it’s a major happiness-inhibiting habit.
2. Understand that Happiness can be synthesized
At least, “Synthesized” was the term Dan Gilbert used to describe this phenomenon in, The Surprising Science of Happiness. What this really means is that the human mind has an amazing ability to adapt and accept anything life throws at us and we often over-estimate how much a traumatic event will really affect our happiness.
For example, given a choice between winning the lottery and becoming a paraplegic, we would obviously choose the former, believing that this occurrence would make us significantly happier.
But only one year after these “life-changing” events took place, lottery winners and paraplegics, on average, reports the same level of happiness.
Studies also show that we tend to be more satisfied with irreversible situations than reversible ones. Since there’s nothing we can do about our fate, our minds are more able to accept the situation and believe that things worked out for the best.
Reversible decisions however, are not as conducive to happiness.
3. Avoid getting hung up on too many choices
A common misconception about happiness is that we will be happier, given more choices.
In Barry Schwartz’s Talk, The Paradox of Choice, he says that having some choice in life is a good thing, but when people are offered too many choices, they often can’t make a decision at all, and if they do, they will be far more disappointed with the outcome than they would have been with fewer options.
There are a few reasons for this:
Regret: Whatever you choose, inevitably will not be perfect, and you may feel haunted by the idea that another option would have been better. This decreases your satisfaction with whatever you have chosen.
Great Expectations: With few options, we are likely to accept whatever we get, but with more options come higher expectations. Out of 100 cereal options, the one that you pick should be perfect, right? Nothing can ever live up to such high expectations
Responsibility: On top of the regret and disappointment you already feel about your choice, you also have to accept the fact that it was YOUR choice. With fate in your hands, you have no one to blame but yourself for your disappointment.
The problem with choices is that when you choose one thing, you are also un-choosing something else. Many people find it hard to appreciate what they have, because they’re constantly thinking about what they could have had.
Agonizing over a decision is something I’ve often had problems with, but making a decision (even an imperfect one) and sticking with it is ultimately better for your wellbeing than spending too much time questioning your choices.
4. Get in the FLOW
According to, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl in his talk, Flow, the Secret to Happiness. True ecstasy comes when you are completely absorbed in the creative process, and you don’t have enough attention left over to think about other things (how your body feels, your problems at home, or even that you’re hungry or tired, etc.). This can often be described as an out of body experience.
He calls this experience “Flow” and says there are 7 indicators of this phenomenon.
1. You are completely focused.
2. You have a sense of ecstasy (being outside of yourself).
3. You develop great inner clarity. You know how to do something and that you’re doing it well.
4. You know that the activity is doable and that you have the skills to do it.
5. You have a sense of serenity, no worries, and you may even begin to lose your sense of self.
6. You lose your sense of time.
7. You are intrinsically motivated. Whatever produces the flow is it’s own reward.
So just how does one achieve, “flow”?
For an athlete, it may be that perfect game, where he or she is in the zone. For a musician, it may be that feeling of being lost in the music or the sense that the music is flowing out of him or her without conscious effort.
The secret is finding your niche, doing whatever it is you’re best at and doing it well. To really achieve Flow, requires you to be in the perfect zone, between doing something that is challenging, yet also within your skill level.
5. Edit your life
In, Less stuff, more happiness, Graham Hill talks about how we have 3 times as much space as we did 50 years ago, and yet we still don’t seem to have enough room for all of our stuff.
He asks us to think about the times in our lives when we lived more simply, (in a college dorm, being at a hotel with just a suitcase, going camping, etc.) and what a freeing experience that was.
Having less space and less stuff is not only cheaper and more energy efficient, but it can also make us happier.
There are 3 steps to do this:
1. Edit Ruthlessly; cut the extraneous and think before you buy, am I really going to use this on a long-term scale.
2. Think smaller and more space efficient. Think about what things are used for the vast majority of the time. Use space-savors, thinks that stack and digitize whatever you can.
3. Make your home multifunctional. Can your nightstand turn into a dinner table for 10? Can your wall pull out and turn into bunk beds for guests? Probably not, but Graham Hill’s can!
You can see more of his tips at Lifeedited.org
6. SMILE 🙂
In, The hidden power of smiling, Ron Gutman explained how scientist were able to measure the smiles of people from an old high-school yearbook and very accurately predict how successful they became, how long and happy their marriages were and how well they would score on a standardized test of well being.
There was also a direct correlation between the span of a smile and the span of a life.
Another study of the human brain found that one smile could generate as much brain stimulation as up to 2,000 bars of chocolate.
In addition to all that, smiling has also been found to reduce levels of stress inducing hormones and reduce overall blood pressure.
So even if you aren’t particularly happy, the act of smiling itself might be all it takes to convince your brain that you are.