Cheer up, buttercup. Here’s how to be happy (according to people who study it.)

Anna KaufmanUSA

In the past 12 months, just over 27,000 people a month have searched the phrase “how to be happy,” according to Conductor Searchlight.

A spoiler alert before you read this article: We don’t have the answer. Good news for us, no one else does either. The truth is that happiness requires a highly individualized recipe and any attempt to deliver some definitive and universal answer would be foolish. You’d have better luck consulting a Magic 8 Ball, or some other source with a false sense of confidence.

This article explores how to be happier. Which, it turns out, is a science you can count on.

How to be happy (read happier):

Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and the co-instructor of a course entitled “Science of Happiness.” She has spent decades studying emotion and says her work repeatedly spits out the same conclusion: the more people feel “prosocial emotions” the happier they are.

Prosocial is defined officially as “positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.” Thomas references gratitude, compassion, awe, love, friendliness, affiliation and trust as examples of these types of emotions.

“The best opportunity that most humans have to increase their own happiness comes from investing in their prosocial experiences and behavior,” Thomas says. You can make more money, and strive towards achievement, but there’s a cap on how much that will improve your long-term happiness, she explains, and that point comes way before a life of luxury. After clean water, shelter, food, and enough money to make ends meet, wealth’s relationship to happiness becomes logarithmic, she says.

“No one is saying forget about trying to be successful and make money, the argument is to do your best to pursue meaningful goals and once you have your basic needs met, you’re better off redirecting your priorities towards investing in relationships,” Thomas argues.

So what does that look like in practical application? The answer is split into three buckets.

Bucket 1: Social connection skills

This is essentially the art of conversation. Listen actively, Thomas instructs, and don’t get distracted by thinking up your response. Empathy, trust, and true connection are predicated on unselfish listening.

Tidy up the negativity in your interactions as well, Thomas advises. While our friendships can be a safe space to vent, making sure to capitalize on some positive events can make a big difference.

“Balance out the content that is in our awareness so it’s not all and always defeating and hopeless,” she says. Choosing to shun pessimism might end up being contagious.

Bucket 2: Positivity

Thomas describes this as having a “style of emotional experience” that allows for you to savor when things are going well, and tuck into those moments even if they are small or mundane. Being in nature might help, she says. Engaging with the natural world can sew a sense of wonder into our day-to-day.

“Can we adopt a lens of gratitude for what is good?” Thomas suggests as the central question for this bucket.

Bucket 3: Resilience

Practicing resilience starts with mindfulness, Thomas says. The more we can be aware of ourselves, the easier it will be to recognize our harmful tendencies like being hyper-critical or seeing others as a threat.

Noticing your own emotions, she explains, allows you to name them, and recognize them as impermanent. It’s a ‘this too shall pass’ approach.

Extra credit

As a courtesy, Thomas adds a few more pearls of wisdom for those brave enough to venture past the first three buckets.

Learn to apologize, she says, and to forgive. American culture, which tends toward individualism, has tremendous trouble with this, Thomas posits. But, when done right, authentic apology and forgiveness do a great amount to ease personal strife, she argues.

People, especially young people, should tread carefully with technology, she adds. There aren’t yet good structures around what to skip and what to pay attention to, Thomas explains, and without that, we can end up absorbing a great deal of content that is not beneficial to our growth or worldview.

If happiness is hard, try joy instead

Joy and happiness, sometimes used interchangeably, are not synonyms Ingrid Fetell Lee wants you to know. She has spent over a decade studying what she calls “the aesthetics of joy” and has a best-selling book and a TED Talk to prove it.

Her theory rests on the idea that we shun joy in the pursuit of happiness, assuming the latter is a microdose of the former – but that’s not the case. “Happiness is a state of being, it is a longer-term consideration,” she says. “Joy by contrast is simpler and more immediate. When psychologists use the word joy they’re talking about an intense momentary experience of positive emotion.

Happiness is a bit more elusive. It’s the result of a complex equation that involves big-picture things like a connection to others and finding meaning at work, Lee says. This conclusion is certainly backed up by Thomas’ findings. Happiness can also be vulnerable to arrival fallacy, Lee notes: I’ll be happy once I fill in the blank. Joy on the other hand you can get it in quick hits from seeing a funny-looking dog or watching a kite fly by.

You can experience joy while being unhappy. Emotions spiral though, Lee points out. So sometimes that moment of joy can be the kick starter to an upward spiral. And even if it isn’t, there is still a long-term payoff. Years later, you may not remember the bad day, but you will remember that nugget of joy, she explains. “There’s no day that’s unsalvageable, every day could potentially have a moment of joy in it,” Lee says. 

Joy is like a layer cake

Much of our culture frames joy as something to be earned, Lee argues. To reframe it, you have to learn to lean into small moments of enjoyment and shove that ‘guilty-pleasure’ mindset aside.

Think of joy like a layer cake, Lee instructs. The top layer is highly individual, the next is filtered through culture, and the final (biggest) layer is more universal. These “aesthetics of joy” as she calls them are shared by many individuals. They are sensations like bright colors, warm sunlight, and repeating patterns that convey a sense of symmetry, or that signal abundance (think polka dots.) They can also play with our sense of perception. Going to the top of a tall building can spark joy, or seeing something with quirky proportions like a pug, or oversized furniture a la Alice in Wonderland.

The key, Lee says, is “people giving themselves permission to exhibit and express their joy.”

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