Is there such thing as a guide to happiness? Here are some simple changes that could transform your life.
Aristotle said that happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence. Today, examples of just how important happiness is to us are apparent across the world. In Bhutan a happiness index is used to measure national progress, in America the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right protected by the Declaration of Independence, and in Denmark the government places more emphasis on social capital than generating wealth, contributing to the country’s enviable position as the happiest country in the world.
But the unintended consequence of all this focus on happiness is that we become hyper aware about whether we’re happy or not, which paradoxically can make us sad that we aren’t happier. For millennials, who are particularly plugged into this global obsession through social media channels, the problem can be particularly acute. So just how do we cut through all the chatter and get down to the business of being happy with ourselves?
It’s easy to think the millennial generation should be happier than previous ones because we have so many more options, education prospects and travel opportunities. Lots of us spent our childhoods being told we could do anything we set our hearts on. Unfortunately though, none of this makes for happy people. More options are unlikely to make you happier, and instead compound a pressure created by the expectation that you can conquer the world. We are also constantly told the world is more meritocratic, when in fact research shows society is more and more unequal. Whether the world is meritocratic or not, many of us perceive it to be, and what does it mean to fail to live up to high expectations in a society where you have no one to blame but yourself?
Understand What Makes You Happy
The good news is there’s a lot we can do to combat these kind of useless negative thought patterns. People derive happiness in different ways, so an important first step is to understand what makes you happy. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, divides happiness into three different types:
1. The Pleasant Life
The first, which he calls the Pleasant Life, is one in which people seek out as much positive emotion as possible through pleasurable experiences, and use tools like mindfulness to amplify those emotions. This is great to begin with, but can be subject to a law of diminishing returns (a bit like eating something delicious for the first time: the first bite is amazing, but the second, third and fourth times you try it becomes less memorable, and you may even become sick of it. It’s basically the salted caramel of emotions).
2. The Life of Engagement
The second type of happiness is the Life of Engagement, where a person is fully engaged in their daily activities like work, parenting, love and leisure. During these activities they achieve a state known as “flow”, where they cease being aware of passing time. To achieve this, a person should define their biggest strength and re-craft their life around that strength.
3. The Meaningful Life
The third type of happiness is the Meaningful Life, where a person derives happiness from using their greatest strengths in the service of something larger than they are. This is arguably the trait that is most consistently displayed amongst millennials, who tend to seek fulfilment in work that is aligned to their values and ideals, and look favourably on employers who are philanthropically minded.
Simple Changes that Lead to a Happier Life
But re-crafting one’s life and creating meaning within it are huge statements that can take time to realise, which is not great for a famously impatient group of people like us millennials. Luckily there are also a lot of simple interventions we can follow to get happier whilst we’re working all this out:
1. Positive intention
Making the decision to be positive no matter what life throws at you can be life changing. Man Repeller’s Hayley Nahman nails this by celebrating when things don’t go wrong. That moment when you realise your phone is safely in your pocket and not speeding away in a taxi, when you don’t have a cold and your hair decides to behave itself are all little victories. Smiling also ups your levels of happiness, brings you good karma and even makes you more likely to get promoted.
2. Seek out happy people
It turns out happiness is contagious, so surrounding yourself with people who have a positive attitude is a good idea. Studies have found that people who have fewer but deeper friendships rather than lots of superficial ones and regularly have meaningful conversations rather than participate in small talk are happier.
3. Opt for experiences over things
We live in a society that conditions us to think that buying more things will make us happy. It won’t. People who regularly seek out positive experiences are happier than those with lots of nice things and spare cash in the bank, which is a great excuse to book that dream holiday you’ve been thinking about.
4. Get down the gym or out into the park
On a basic level we know that happiness is a cocktail of hormones, and we can stimulate some of these by doing exercise. Even better, go for a brisk walk or a run outside. Walking outside is energizing, and so works as a good alternative to reaching for coffee when tired, which can up anxiety levels.
5. Be kind to yourself
Recognize that life can be tough and remember to give yourself a break. Setting achievable targets will stimulate dopamine release in your brain that gives a sense of well-being. Unplugging from relentlessly one dimensional happy social media and filling that extra time with doing something you love is also a good idea. If you can do this with a close friend, that’s even better.