How to Hack Your Happiness


It’s easy to assume everyone around you is happy. But the truth is, all of us deal with stress, overload, and gloom more often than you’d think (yes, even your favorite Instagram influencer).

When feeling down, many of us slip into thoughts like, ‘I’d be happier if only I could go on a 2-week vacation,’ or ‘lose some weight,’ or ‘get that raise.’

But would losing weight or getting a raise actually make you happier? Consider this: People who win $20 million dollars in a lottery are not actually happier one year later, according to a famous study at Northwestern University. Similarly, people who become paralyzed aren’t less happy one year later.

While you’d think these events would impact happiness levels in the long term, the truth is, humans adapt to new realities easily. Lottery winners get used to their shiny new houses and cars, and paraplegics adapt to their new circumstances, too.

So that raise or 2-week vacation won’t actually make you happier. After a few months, the contrast between ‘before’ and ‘after’ will blur, and the new normal will become a baseline for your daily life.

The happiness formula

So the question is: When you experience down spurts, what factors in your life can actually influence wellbeing?

According to research by Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman, this is the happiness formula:

Happiness level = genetic happiness baseline (50%) + daily activities (40%) + life circumstances (10%)

Things that happen to you (ie, winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed) won’t impact your happiness very much. In fact, half of your happiness is determined by genetics, while nearly half is determined by the activities you do every day (and only 10% by the things that happen to you).

So, the key to being happier?

1. Do activities every day that boost your well being
2. Elevate your genetic happiness baseline (yep, that’s possible)

Here’s how.

What to do every day

Let’s start off with the ‘daily activities’ part of the happiness formula.

Remember how humans adapt to winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed? Similarly, we get used to basically anything that becomes a normal part of our lives (with a few exceptions). In psychology speak, this is called the ‘adaptation principle.’

How can you hack this?

1. Switch up your habits and routine as often as you can

What to do:

Take a new route to work. Eat at a new restaurant. Visit a town nearby you’ve never been to. Take a class to learn something new.

Why:

While we get used to the things we see and do every day, our brains are extra sensitive to new stimuli or information. In other words, our brains perceive change as vital information worth our attention – not steady states.

Because of that, new, exciting things have a much bigger impact on our happiness than the same ol’ pleasures do.

2. Stop to appreciate the things that happen to you

What to do:

Recap a positive memory with a friend. Think about the last time you laughed the next time you have a spare moment. Write down 3 things you appreciate before you go to bed.

Why:

Since humans adapt easily, we need to work extra hard to derive pleasure from the good things in our lives or the things we achieve. Have you ever worked really hard to plan an event, only to not appreciate your accomplishment once it’s over?

As David Brooks wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed,

“When the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list, it felt like … nothing. It was external to me. If you build your life around career success, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.”

Luckily, there’s a way to combat this. Consider this: People who had a habit of writing down 3 good things that happened to them throughout the day were happier – not only immediately afterward, but also one week, one month, and even six months later, according to a famous study by Prof. Martin Seligman.

3. Prioritize your relationships

What to do:

Invest in your friendships. Make as many plans (and cancel as few of them) as possible. Have deep conversations with friends. Share your positive moments with them.

Why:

There are few things humans never adapt to, and one of them is relationships. The strength and number of our relationships trumps all other things when it comes to determining our happiness:

“If you want to predict how happy someone is, or how long she will live, you should find out about her social relationships… No man, woman, or child is an island. We are ultrasocial creatures, and we can’t be happy without having friends.” – NYU Prof. Jonathan Haidt

Our friends celebrate our happy moments and comfort us when we’re sad. They make us laugh, and prevent loneliness. They’re the all-purpose tonic for a happy life.
How to rewire your brain

While there are a few daily activities you can do to make yourself happier, you can also rewire your brain and increase your ‘genetic happiness baseline.’

Your baseline determines 50% of your happiness levels at any given moment. And while your baseline is mostly set, there are two major things you can do to actually increase your brain’s capacity for happiness:

1. Exercise

What to do:

Move your body for 20 minutes a day, every day.

Why:

Exercise promotes neurogenesis and the release of ‘happy hormones’ (endorphins and serotonin), all of which change your brain and boost happiness.

No need to run a 10k to reap the benefits – raising your heart rate for just 20 minutes will do the trick. But take note that the impact of exercise is short-lived – exercising on a Monday won’t boost your happiness on a Tuesday. The key here is consistency.

2. Medidate

What to do:

Meditate for 2 minutes a day, 21 days in a row

Why:

Meditation lowers your stress hormone (cortisol), shrinks the part of your brain that controls anxiety and fear (amygdala), and increases activity in the happy zone in your brain (the prefrontal cortex) – expanding your neurological capacity for happiness.

And just as with exercise, the key to meditation is consistency, not duration.
Four happiness rules to live by

That was a lot to take in. Here’s the TL;DR version of how to hack your happiness:

1. Seek out new experiences
2. Savor the things you’re grateful for
3. Prioritize your relationships
4. Exercise for your body and mind

Being proactive towards happiness isn’t easy – but things worth doing rarely are. Prioritizing your happiness means prioritizing you – and it’ll create a ripple effect through your life, boosting not only your fitness levels and social life, but also your productivity, creativity, and your sense of purpose.

What’s Next? Talk with others. Take action.

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This post previously published on Lemonade and is republished with the permission of the author.

Photo courtesy iStock Photo.