Scientists now know that your genes may play a role in determining your happiness; some people are naturally predisposed to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, while others appear to be more protected. But genes only make up around 50 percent of what defines happiness.
Circumstance, environment, lifestyle, and your behavior and thought processes make up the rest. Fortunately, we have control over a good portion of those things.
Aside from food, sleep, shelter, and sex — the basic foundational requirements for survival and happiness — we often long for a greater, more intangible sense of satisfaction. Humans have been trying to define happiness for generations, and it’s often different for everyone depending on their society, culture, philosophy, and/or religion. But for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on what recent psychological science has to say about the best ways to go about finding happiness.
Connection, Mastery, Autonomy
After the absolute basics of food, sleep, and shelter, some psychologists believe there are three other requirements for happiness. Raj Raghunathan, professor of marketing at the University of Texas and author of the book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? described these writing for Psychology Today.
He notes that the first is social connection, or a “sense of belongingness.” American society often favors individualism and independence — both of which are important to identity and self-worth — but at the end of the day, having either a partner or friends and family with whom to share your life can often be the difference between feeling fulfilled and unhappy. “[I]f you want to belong to the happiest group, belongingness is not a luxury: it’s a necessity,” Raghunathan wrote. Indeed, studies have shown that loneliness can be just as detrimental to your health as a physical ailment.
Next, we must be able to feel like we are good at whatever we have chosen to master in life. If you choose to be a doctor, you’d hope that your life’s training and work would ultimately result in you being a pretty good doctor. Having a sense of mastery in our lives is important. Thirdly, autonomy and freedom — the feeling of having control over our own lot in life — is a requirement for happiness.
But having these requirements will only make you happy if you approach them the right way, Raghunathan argues. You can approach belongingness through two avenues: the need to be loved or to love — you can master your craft either by seeking superiority or by pursuing your passion — and achieving autonomy, either through a struggle for external power and control or via internal control. For each requirement, the latter route appears to be the one to happiness.
“Although the need to be loved, the need for superiority, and the need for external control can enhance happiness levels in the short run, they are likely to lower it in the long run,” Raghunathan writes. “By contrast, the need to love, pursuing passion, and the need for internal control have much better potential to enhance not just short-term happiness, but also long-term happiness. Further, they also have the potential to enhance the happiness of others around us.”
Don’t Compare Yourself To Others
We all probably want to master a craft, or at least accomplish certain goals. But when we’re motivated by the wrong things and we accomplish said goals, sometimes we don’t feel any happier afterward. Research has shown that big events or accomplishments like getting into an Ivy League school, or moving to a new city, contribute to about 40 percent of happiness during that time, but that effect is bound to wear off in a few months. That’s why focusing on doing the things you naturally enjoy — rather than comparing yourself to others in the hopes of being superior or working toward a goal only for the results — will bring more happiness in the long run.
“When you don't need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate toward things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you're good at,” Raghunathan said in an interview with The Atlantic. “[I]f you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you're going to progress toward mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.”
Fake It Till You Make It
Sometimes happiness truly is a choice: Deciding to be happy rather than sad can boost your mood, and it already makes the battle twice as easy. Research has shown that simply smiling or standing up straight can have a significant impact on your mood, confidence, and perspective.
The same motto can be applied to work. With mastery of a craft, as mentioned above, comes the need for continuous challenges. Choosing to simply go for the next challenge regardless of whether you fail, and “faking it” without fear, will often bring pleasant surprises of success, new learning, and the satisfaction of overcoming a new challenge.
Value Time Over Money
Money can bring happiness to some extent by contributing to autonomy, but at the end of the day, time ends up being more important than dollars. A study published this year found that people who valued their time more maintained happiness more than those who put more of an emphasis on making money. After a certain point, we all need to put aside those extra hours of work and instead use them to spend time with family and friends, or on passions we enjoy.
Disconnect For A Bit
Something that our ancestors didn’t have to worry about was the need to disconnect from the buzz of technology and constant communication, but it may soon be yet another requirement for happiness. A 2015 study found that simply logging off Facebook for a week boosted happiness levels, reduced stress, and improved the ability to feel present in the moment. Disconnecting from social media and attention-seeking culture will also likely aid in stopping you from comparing yourself to others.
Remember Happier Times
Focusing on passions that you enjoy rather than the fame or money from the accomplishments goes in line with the idea of fostering inner strength and character instead of seeking external validation. One recent study out of the University of Liverpool suggests that we can build this inner strength by fostering positive thoughts and feelings, which in turn develops resilience against psychological disorders. One simple way to improve your positive thinking when you’re normally a Negative Nancy is to remember happy times, the researchers said.
Tap Into The Creative ‘Flow’
Finally, we get to a tip that isn’t exactly novel; in fact, it was first discussed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi years ago. Getting into a state of “flow,” or a state of heightened focus and creativity in work or art, is the ultimate key to happiness, Csikszentmihalyi argues.
“Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple,” Raghunathan told The Atlantic. “It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.”