Everyone wants to find happiness, but achieving this can be difficult. While there are many interpretations about what "finding happiness" means — and how to do it — fortunately, science has your back. Professor Laurie Santo's Psychology and the Good Life course, the most popular course in Yale's history, explores not only the science of happiness, but also the practice of happiness. According to various studies her course draws from, here are 4 ways to improve happiness — and 4 happiness myths debunked:
Things that do increase happiness:
1. Saving time
While you can’t technically ‘buy happiness', you can invest in time-saving services that will likely make you happier. You can always earn more money, but your time on earth is limited, so whenever you’re able to spend the time you do have on something enjoyable versus a chore, you’re more likely to increase your happiness. A study performed by Professors Ashley Whillans and Elizabeth Dunn found that when participants in an experiment were given $40 to use on a time-saving purchase of their choice, such as a house cleaner or takeout, they were happier than when they were instructed to buy a material good, such as a lamp or a sweater.
Researchers have found that practicing meditation for just ten minutes a day decreases levels of stress and increases overall well-being. While everyone has a ‘set point’ in their brains for how happy they generally are, meditation over time can ‘reset the set point’ so a person’s general level of happiness increases.
3. Practicing Gratitude
Oprah has sung the praises of practicing gratitude, and in addition to leading to success, the practice has been linked to increasing happiness as well. In The How of Happiness, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky studied the habits of people who were already happy. One of the significant finding she discovered was that happy people try to live in the present moment and give thanks for what they already have as opposed to focusing on what they lack.
4. Having Responsibility
Having to take care of something actually makes us happier. In one study, nursing home residents were given plants. Half of them were charged with taking care of the plant themselves while another half had the plant care outsourced to a staff member. After six months, the mortality rate of those who did not care for a plant was twice as large as those who did.
Things that do not increase happiness:
1. Having lots of money
To be honest, this was the most surprising find for me, but that’s because living in a capitalistic society means we’re constantly being fed messages that having more stuff will lead to more happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky studied the money-happiness link by conducting a survey wherein she asked people what annual salary it would take to make them truly happy. People making $30,000 had an average answer of $50,000; people making $100,000 on average said $250,000, and on and on.
2. Finding love
Having a new love can feel all-consuming in the beginning, but for evolutionary and practical reasons, the initial intense obsession found at the beginning of a new relationship fades over time. While newlyweds enjoy a significant happiness boost for an average of two years of marriage, the joy wears off after that period, and they return to their normal state of happiness. Thanks to hedonic adaptation, we get used to the good things about our partner, and over time our expectations increase, and the initial happiness is not sustained.
3. Being young
While the phrase ‘my best years are behind me’ has been uttered in many films and scenes in literature, research reveals that the opposite is true. While youth can be a time of excitement and experimentation, it can also be a period of a lot of wasted time—we feel we have so much time to waste! But as we age, motivated by our limited time left, we become more likely to invest time on things that and people who really matter which leads to a greater sense of happiness.
4. Landing a "dream job"
As with having more money and finding love, dissatisfaction after securing a dream career can be blamed on the same culprit: hedonic adaptation. When we finally achieve a goal we’ve been working toward, we assume that this one change will lead to instant happiness—why else would we have fixated on it for so long? But the truth is we become habituated to the excitement, which is simply a naturally occurring process.
Essentially, we often believe that happiness is based on circumstances, but once our basic needs are met, our thoughts, actions, and attitudes are more responsible for our happiness than how much money we make or where we live.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.