What Makes Us Happy?
Most of us set specific goals for ourselves to succeed in life. For some people, this means getting good grades, finding paid internships, getting the “dream job,” and earning a high salary. For others, these goals revolve around romantic relationships and finding “the one.”
If you keep asking yourself why you want the things you want in life, you will most likely find happiness to be the answer. At the end of it all, we just want to be happy.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside and the author of the best-selling book, The How of Happiness, explains that most people strive for happiness. And there are definitely reasons to be striving for it! Studies show that happy people are more productive at work, more likely to have fulfilling marriages and less likely to get divorced. Happy people also have stronger immune systems and they are more resilient to stress.
According to psychologists, happiness has two important components: 1) Positive emotions (joy, contentment) and 2) Having a sense of satisfaction with life. Moreover, Dr. Lyubomirsky’s research shows that happiness is heavily influenced by genetics, life circumstances, and intentional activity (making an effort to engage in activities that increase happiness). In essence, the difference between a happy and an unhappy person is generally accounted for by these three factors.
There are many roads to happiness but not all of them are worth taking. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to get good grades, good jobs, and awesome relationships to be happy, our mind’s intuition usually leads us to make false predictions about how happy we will feel down the road. Dr. Laurie Santos from Yale University suggests that it is useful to think about this concept in terms of optical illusions. When we see an optical illusion, we tend to make inferences and draw conclusions based on what we think we see. Further analysis of the illusion reveals the subtle ways in which our mind’s intuition is actually wrong. Dr. Santos calls the optical illusion of happiness “miswanting.” In other words, we think that the things (i.e., jobs, cars, money) we want will make us happier when they actually do not (not as much as we would hope).
Hedonic adaptation is one of the reasons why miswanting occurs. Simply put, it is a process of getting used to positive or negative stimulus. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes, “Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.” For example, when something like getting into Koc University happens, you probably do not wake up every day celebrating your acceptance letter. After some time, being a KU student becomes the norm. While it is normal to adapt to positive changes that happen in our lives, simply learning to appreciate them regularly boosts happiness.
The strategies on how to get happier mostly focus on overcoming hedonic adaptation and shifting our focus to the stuff that really adds to our happiness.
How to get happier
Before starting to implement any kind of strategy into our lives, Dr. Lyubomirsky suggests that it is important to become familiar with our personality, strengths, goals and the source of our unhappiness. It is also worth noting that culture plays an important role in the way we think about happiness. The strategies outlined below may not be relevant to every culture. Therefore, it is crucial to find what fits into our lives.
- Invest in experiences rather than material things. Traveling, going to art galleries or concerts are all experiences that cannot be compared and they last only a certain amount of time. The time constraint not only prevents hedonic adaptation but also reminds us to soak up the experience.
- Savor the little things. Savoring or mindfully paying attention to our experiences helps us enjoy them even more.
- Do small acts of kindness for others. Doing someone a favor like buying them a cup of coffee not only benefits that person but also increases our happiness.
- Make this your last day. Imagine that you are about to move to another city and think about what you would explore before moving away. Revisit the places that make you happy or explore new ones.
Contrary to popular belief, happiness takes effort but we can boost it with the little things that we do every day.
- 1. Kurtz, L. J. (2008). Looking to the future to appreciate the present: The benefits of perceived temporal scarcity. Psychological Science, 19. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02231.x
- 2. Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). “The How of Happiness: Boosting Wellbeing Through Kindness, Gratitude and Optimism.” Happiness & Its Causes. International Convention Centre Sydney. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7JDbP_x8So
- 3. Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803
- 4. The Science of Well-Being by Dr. Laurie Santos, Yale University, www.coursera.com
- 5. Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193-1202. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1243