It may often seem that life is a pursuit of happiness, consisting of lots of struggling dotted with joyous times, may be connected by lots of “so-so” days and months.
But some who have studied what makes people happy have a common theory: Happiness may be easier to achieve than many people think.
The common secret is not really a secret - a small shift in perspective can make a big change in a person’s experience of happiness.
Some surprisingly simple routes to happiness are suggested in a TED Radio Hour called “Simply Happy.” These paths to happiness are more about “being” than “having.”
That’s the suggestion of Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. Accept and make the most of the situation you’re in, whether it’s the joy of being in love or the anguish of losing a job. There’s something to be gained, to be learned, in each situation that can make the following days richer and more meaningful.
Gilbert determined from his research in psychology and neuroscience that people have a baseline of happiness. He found that three months after a traumatic event, or a joyful one, most people return to that baseline.
“Happiness is an emotion,” said Gilbert. “We don’t sustain emotions for a long time.”
Gilbert describes emotions as a “compass.” They guide us toward what seems good for us and away from what seems bad.
He says “Humans are hard-wired to be happy” and have “a psychological immune system.” That’s why people who go through a difficult time often say it was the best thing that happened to them, because it changed their life, or at least their perspective on life, and likely set them on a new path.
We don’t have complete control over what life might send our way, but in Gilbert’s view, we are not totally without control either. We have some control over how we approach what does happen, and by “reframing” what happens in our life, we can “…keep longings and worries from being overblown.”
A little less “chasing happiness” and a little more “being present” can add up over time to a greater sense of happiness, says Gilbert.
“Gratefulness makes us happy,” says Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.
His view is that every moment is a gift, so if we stop and enjoy each moment, each opportunity, we are building happiness.
While it’s not realistic to be grateful for violence or war, Stiendl-Rast suggests being grateful for the opportunity to rise to the occasion, learn patience, or make something better out of these troubling situations.
“If we’re grateful, we’re not fearful or violent,” says the monk. “Grateful people enjoy differences and are respectful of others. Grateful people are joyful people.”
Using technology to discover when people feel happy, researcher Matt Killingsworth created a smartphone app to help discover what experiences are most valuable to each individual.
Killingsworth discovered, from people’s input, that happy moments have things in common, and those are being in the moment, being engaged, and being aware of what you’re doing.
People report being less happy when their minds are wandering, says Killingsworth.
His advice, based on his research, is: Bring your attention back to what you’re doing, whatever it is, whether it’s painting or talking with someone. Be engaged.
It’s simple to track valuable moments, which may have up to a greater sense of happiness over time, with Killingsworth’s project. Anyone can go to www.trackyourhappiness.org, download the app and do their own research while contributing their input to the overall research.
Let go of too much “stuff,” says Graham Hill, founder of LifeEdited, who downsized to 420 square feet of carefully-designed living space.
Hill says giving up “stuff” adds up to gaining time and freedom. The most important part of letting go of unnecessary “stuff,” says Hill, is that it makes way for the real ingredients of happiness – memorable experiences and relationships.
Downsizing or lighting up doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Hill’s, but making more time for people and meaningful experiences can put life on a trajectory toward a greater sense of overall value, and happiness.
“Too many people are hurrying through life instead of living it,” says Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness. Just because Western culture doesn’t respect “slow,” often judging it as lazy or stupid, is no reason to buy into that perspective, he says.
Happiness comes from savoring the minutes and hours, about quality over quantity. Honore says there’s a right speed for everything, perhaps slow or medium, not just a one-speed called “rush.”
He nudges us to question whether we’re living “…the fast life, instead of the good life.”
Once we are aware of these choices that point toward happiness, we have the power to choose. We can choose to slow down the pace of life. We can say “no” when we really don’t want to take on another responsibility or another activity.
We can be grateful instead of critical or worried. We can be less focused on collecting things and more focused on building meaningful relationships.
We can be engaged and attentive and enjoy the moment.
Simply put, we can choose how we use our time, money, energy, and experiences so that in the long run, our choices toward happiness build on each other. Then, little by little, day by day, we may slow down and realize we are grateful for our increasing sense of happiness.
Ted Radio Hour, "Simply Happy," Oct. 16, 2015