Greater happiness can be found in unexpected ways. Science says so
We all want to be happier and feel a greater sense of fulfillment. That’s why I often write about what happy people do more often, about some of the habits of remarkably happy people, about things to stop doing so you can be happier at work, about simple daily habits of exceptionally happy people.
We love happiness at Buffer. We’ve renamed customer support customer happiness. Happiness is baked into our culture and values and the DNA of every person who works on the team. If there’s a smile to be had or a positive outlook to take, we’ll do our best to find it.
So I wondered: Are there unexpected ways to be happy?
I pulled together research about the many unexpected and counterintuitive ways to find happiness:
1. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful: Mastering a new skill means more stress now but more happiness later.
If you are willing to push through a bit of added stress in the short term, you can experience huge gains in happiness for the long term.
So learn a new skill. Though you’ll take on a bit more stress, research shows you’ll be happier on an hourly, daily, and long-term basis.
The gains from this investment in time and energy were documented in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Participants who spent time on activities that increased their competency, met their need for autonomy, or helped them connect with others reported decreased happiness in the moment yet increased happiness on an hourly and daily basis.
The key, according to the study, is to choose the right new skill to master, challenge to undertake, or opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. The greatest increases in happiness come from learning a skill you choose, rather than one you think you should or feel forced to learn.
2. Make friends with people who live near you: The sweet spot is a happy friend who lives a mile away.
The town of Framingham, Massachusetts, was the focus of a multigenerational study on happiness known as the Framingham Heart Study.
Beginning in 1948, the study has tracked three generations of Framingham residents and their offspring to discover trends in the way that happiness moves among a population. A few of the takeaways:
- Individual happiness cascades through groups of people, like contagion.
- The more happy people you add to your life, the greater positive effect it will have on you. (This is not true of sadness.)
- Geographically close friends (and neighbors) have the greatest effect on happiness.
Researchers then broke down the happiness effect on the basis of a participant’s relationship to others and their proximity to each other.
What did they find? Here’s the ranking, from greatest impact on happiness to least:
- Nearby mutual friends (who literally ranked off the charts; the probability of increasing happiness is 148 percent)
- Next-door neighbor
- Nearby friend (a person whom the participant named as a friend but the “friend” did not reciprocate that label)
- Nearby friend-perceived friend (a person whom the participant did not name as a friend but who claimed to be a friend of the participant)
- Nearby sibling
- Co-resident spouse
- Distant sibling
- Non-co-resident spouse
- Same-block neighbor
- Distant friend
Proximity of nearby mutual friends, according to the study, included those who lived within one mile of the participant. Others fell into the “distant friend” category.
The main takeaway: Distant friends are fine, but the closer your friends are to where you live, the better.
3. Embrace opposing feelings at the same time: Cheerful + Downcast = Happy
“Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” according to psychologist Jonathan Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. He feels happiness can come from noticing and embracing a wide spectrum of emotions–both good and bad.
Adler and his colleague Hal Hershfield performed a study on this so-called mixed emotional experience and how it relates to positive psychological well-being. They monitored participants who went through 12 weekly therapy sessions and filled out questionnaires before each session.
The results: Feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time was a precursor to improved well-being in the following sessions.
For example, someone might say, “I feel sad because of the recent losses in my life, yet I am also happy and encouraged to be working through them for a positive outcome.” According to Adler, “Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being.”
Hershfield followed up with another study about mixed emotions and health. After studying participants over a 10-year span, he and his team found a direct correlation between accepting one’s mix of emotions (like “taking the good with the bad”) and good physical health.
Still not convinced? A 2012 study by psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University found that mindfulness helped participants overcome anxiety disorders through acceptance of their wide range of feelings and then working toward improvement.
So don’t ignore negative feelings. Embrace them–and then actively work toward overcoming whatever issues you face.
4. Invest in good counseling: Therapy is 32 times more effective than money.
Can money buy happiness?
Not according to research by psychologist Chris Boyce, and not as well as a regularly scheduled counseling session.
Boyce and his colleagues compared the data sets from thousands of reports on well-being and noted how well-being changed because of either therapy or sudden increases in income, such as receiving a pay raise or winning the lottery.
Basically, do we get more happiness for our buck by paying for therapy or by receiving cash in hand?
The results were incredibly lopsided:
- Therapy was 32 times more effective than cash.
- $1,300 worth of therapy equaled the benefit of getting a $40,000 raise.
The study certainly highlights the value of counseling, and it also shows the general benefit of intangible experiences, relationships, and communication over possessions, things, and money.
If you’re seeking happiness, never be afraid to wonder if you’re looking in the right places.
5. Say “no” to almost everything. Better yet, say “I don’t.”
According to Warren Buffett, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”
Overworked and overburdened is a recipe for unhappiness. So if you want to be happy, get some quick wins by saying no.
But say no the right way: say “I don’t.” Believe it or not, using the phrase “I don’t” is up to eight times more effective than saying “I can’t.” It’s more than doubly effective versus a simple no.
The Journal of Consumer Research ran a number of studies on this difference in terminology. One of the studies split participants into three groups:
- Group 1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should “just say no.” This group was the control group, because they were given no specific strategy.
- Group 2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”
- Group 3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”
And the results:
- Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had three out of 10 members stick with their goals for the entire 10 days.
- Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had one out of 10 members stick with her goal for the entire 10 days.
- Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible eight out of 10 members stick with their goals for the entire 10 days.
Results from this study create a pretty great blueprint on how to say no.
6. Prepare for the worst; hope for the best: Take the samurai approach to happiness.
Samurai warriors had two essential elements to performing at their best: They trained extremely hard, and they prepared for the worst.
The latter element, so-called “negative visualization,” has its roots in Stoicism. Oliver Burkeman wrote a book about counterintuitive happiness, including sections on this idea of Stoic thought.
In an interview with writer Eric Barker, Burkeman explained:
It’s what the Stoics call “the premeditation” — that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations, you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.
Another benefit of visualization is that you feel more in control when you have a plan for various outcomes. Navy SEALs undergo psychological training so that they feel in control at all times. And according to neuroscience, the brain can continue to function as normal so long as we maintain the illusion of control (via training and visualization).
7. Give up your favorite things: Just for a day or two, not forever.
Here’s a gem of an idea from Eric Barker, author of the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog: “Denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted.”
The scientific elements at play are self-control and willpower. Researchers who conducted an overview of 83 studies on self-control concluded that willpower wanes as the day goes on, yet you can train willpower just as you would a muscle.
In short: Exerting self-control leads to more self-control over time.
Harvard professor Michael Norton has a great way of thinking about this:
The idea is that the things that you really like a lot, stop. Stop it. So, if you love, every day, having the same coffee, don’t have it for a few days and, when you wait, and then you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime.
The problem with that is, on any given day, it’s better to have a coffee than not, but if you wait three days and don’t have it, it’s going to be way better once you finally do.
Interrupting our consumption is free. It actually saves you money and gets you more happiness out of the money spent. It’s like the best of all worlds, but we’re completely unable to do it, because we always want to watch the thing or eat the thing right now. It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it.”
Think daily coffee, Netflix binging, iPhone games, etc. Find more happiness by practicing patience with the things you love.
8. Celebrate strengths; recognize weaknesses: Give yourself permission to be yourself.
You’ve perhaps heard the old maxim “You can be anything you want to be.” Tom Rath puts it a little differently: “You can be a lot more of who you already are. When we’re able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists.”
Psychologist Paul Pearsall calls this “openture” (his coined phrase for the opposite of “closure”). Pearsall says we should embrace imperfections and celebrate strengths.
Research also shows wedging ourselves into places we don’t fit can lead to undesirable results. As an extreme example, a study from Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo asked people with low self-esteem to say to themselves, “I’m a lovable person,” and at the conclusion of the exercise, participants felt reaffirmed in their low self-esteem rather than empowered to change.
If happiness seems elusive because you feel a need to be someone you aren’t, then take comfort from Rath. Celebrate what you’re good at, and appreciate that we all bring unique characteristics to the table.