When I started my website on Joy (Joymailed.com), I wanted to share simple ways for people to find joy in the little things. Discussions of happiness are as old as humankind. Hunter-gather societies looked to the sky to finding meaning in something greater than themselves. Here are some tips from scientific research on what makes us truly happy:
1. See Happiness in Bigger Terms, or expand your definition of happiness.
As Martin Seligman suggests in his book, “Flourish,” happiness is not a fleeting emotion characterized by always being in a cheerful mood, but something so much greater-he goes on to say that “well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing.” He explains that the goal of positive psychology in the well-being theory is to increase the amount of flourishing in life.
Seligman asserts, “The content itself — happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships — constitutes human flourishing. Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing. . .”
So where can be happiness found?
2. Cultivate & look for the right things.
In his book “Flourish,” he suggests 5 key areas of importance to well-being:
Positive Psychology: 5 Things that Make Us Flourish
These reflections give direction into how to live our lives.
3. Change your thoughts.
Similarly, in his TED talk, “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance” Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor discusses that happiness is not something found in the external world, but rather, is cultivated by brain processes which can be changed through behavior. He explains,
“We need to reverse the formula for happiness and successes.. . . [we] follow a formula for success which is this: If I work harder I’ll be more successful, if I’m more successful then I’ll be happier. . . our brains work the opposite order. . .”
— Shawn Achor, Harvard Psychologist
4. Change your behavior.
Shawn Achor’s research suggests that simple behaviors actually make us happy; Here is a list of examples of such behaviors referred to in his research:
1. Expressing Gratitude Daily
2. Journaling about Positive Experiences
3. Doing Excercise
4. Practicing Mediation
5. Extending random acts of kindness to others.
(Shawn Achor, TED talk, 2015)
Most researchers in the field of psychology suggest evidence that our daily behavior greatly influences our level of happiness in life. These seemingly small changes to our daily routines, over time, seem to have a profound impact on our level of joy in life.
5. Don’t seek a quick solution.
According to an interview with Christopher Peterson at University of Michigan, there is no magic bullet when it comes to happiness. Rather joy is based on simple, repeated acts. Peterson dedicated his life to the study of this field. He said,
Research suggests that practicing gratitude helps us live a more joyful life.
““People are always looking for the short-cuts. . .the seven easy steps. . the magic formula, and I don’t think there are such things, not if you have to want to have a life worth living.” He continues, “You have to work at it; do volunteer work, and if you can’t do volunteer work, pick up your neighbor’s newspaper and put it on their porch. Just really small things, if you do them over and over you will build the connections with other people. . . . .””
— Christopher Peterson
5. Connect with others.
In this interview with University of Michigan, Peterson went on to explain that in his twenties he was painfully shy, but he decided to force himself out of his shell-and this change made him happier, as he increased his connections with people. Peterson also believed that creativity was correlated with happiness. Other things like smiling, he said, were a “marker” of how people lived their life. According to Peterson, positive psychology focuses on identifying your strengths, passions, and cultural institutions that aide in well-being. He also said that we grow as a result of life suffering and struggles. Peterson went on to say that “happiness is a product of our pursuits . . that make life worth living.” In conclusion he explained, positive psychology can be summed up as follows: “Other people matter.” He suggested we can find life meaning in purpose in things outside ourselves, like spirituality, religion, family, friends, or ideas greater than ourselves.
6. Will more money make us happier?
A Princeton study by Noble-prize winning, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton, suggests that beyond a salary of $70,000, additional money does not show additional gains in happiness. The study brings to light some issues related to how people view money.
While money is necessary to meet our physical needs and basic needs, which we can not underestimate, it does not give our life meaning. Money can’t buy watching a sunset, or the feeling you get after a run. Money can’t buy the sense of accomplishment for a job well-done, or the feeling of joy after helping someone out. As the Beatles said to the world, money can’t buy love.
7. Seek Authentic Connections
One can not talk about happiness without considering the longest running study on human development— the Harvard Study of Adult Development currently directed by Dr. Robert Waldinger. The study began in 1938 and considers the lives of 724 men (JFK being one of them). It implies that the quality & depth of close relationships were the greatest predictor not only of emotional health, but physical health as well. In this study, loneliness seemed to negatively affect health. Dr. Waldinger, who is also a Zen priest, says that “. . .giving people are full, undivided attention is probably the most valuable thing we have to offer. . . over time it can really make a difference.” (From an interview on CBS this morning).
Without these connections would our happiness be meaningless?
In “Braving the Wilderness,” Brene Brown, a researcher on loneliness, concludes that happiness is intimately interwined with human connection. She says,
“We need to hold hands with strangers. We need reminders — collective joy and pain — reminders that we are inextricably connected to each other.”
— Brene Brown
Connections to a greater purpose and to others, make a lasting impact on day to day life — and ultimately lead to a life of joy.
9. Change perceptions. By changing our perceptions and the way we interact with the world, small things cascade into lasting life changes. We appreciate the little moments by stopping to fully enjoy them. We seek the opportunity to pursue things that matter to our heart and soul and affect change in the world. And maybe most important — we realize that we are human — as Brene Brown suggests in the quote above, not because we exist as an island, but because of our connection to each other.
To summarize so far - living a good life, from doing the right thing, and from connecting to people and helping others.
10. Seek Learning & Personal Growth.
In the East, Confucius considered how -any person, regardless of social standing, could pursue self-cultivation and moral virtue as a way to life happiness. Confucius talked about how any person could achieve the level of a “Junzi” (chün-tzu) or a noble or ruler’s son, by seeking personal cultivation and the flourishing of humankind. On the other hand, Confucius compared this to the (xiaoren; or “little person”) who was egotistically driven, only focusing on personal gain and limited in understanding by their own personal biases. Finally, the Sage (shengren), the rare person who had a profound understanding of human nature (Matt Stefon, Encyclopedia Britannica). Much like Western philosophies, Confucianism focused on Jen, or the idea of helping humankind, and respecting the dignity of all people.
And if you want to get really philosophical about it - I’ll include one more to think about:
11. Think of Happiness as ‘Doing the Right Thing for the common good, rather than using people to achieve happiness.
““When a thoughtful human being has overcome incentives to vice and is aware of having done his bitter duty, he finds himself in a state that could be called happiness, a state of contentment and peace of mind in which virtue is its own reward.””
Kant wrestled with the very idea of virtue in his writing — and came to the following conclusion: happiness and virtue went hand in hand. As Andreas Follesdal, Reidar Maliks explain in “Kantian Theory and Human Rights,” Kant believed that happiness was more the result of doing things with a worthy cause, and as would be the case, for the world; this is what Kant believed produced true happiness. Kant also believed that the more we pursued happiness, the more it alluded us, because we did not know what ultimately would make us happy. Kant essentially believed in doing the right thing out of duty to our fellow human — rather than using people as a means to an end.
Many of Kant’s ideas laid the foundation to human rights principles. So what Kant refers to in the quote above is a “state of contentment,” in agreement with many spiritual practices. Instead of focusing on the selfish pleasure, happiness is more about what we do for others.
Perhaps the greatest thing we can do in life is not seek happiness for ourselves, but to make the world better. Please feel free to comment and share your own ideas and impressions of finding joy below. Thank you for connecting and sharing your own story.
“Aristotle’s Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, updated 2018.
Matt Stefon, Encyclopedia Britannica
Andreas Follesdal, Reidar Maliks “Kantian Theory and Human Rights”
Shawn Achor, Ted Talk, “The Happiness Advantage: Linking Positive Brains to Performance”
University of Michigan News Service, Christopher Peterson, Interview, published October 18, 2011 (Part 1).
Martin E. P. Seligman, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being”
Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton, “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being”
Dr. R. Murali Krishna, “The Pursuit of Happiness: Characteristics of Happy People,” Pysch Central. For more on Dr. Murali Krishna see www.drkrishna.com.
Robert Waldinger, “Harvard Study of Adult Development,” Media at http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/
Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone