Happiness. There isn’t a single human being who doesn’t want it, and for many, it is the primary pursuit in life. Conventional wisdom tells us that we need a good job, a great family life, and 11.5 months of vacation time to be happy. But we’re going to focus on some lesser known factors of happiness that anyone can apply immediately.
Throw Your Negative Thoughts Into the Trash (Literally)
[-] It seems like we can throw away our negative thoughts and be happy forever, but the fact is, as researcher Richard Petty says, “they are not really gone—you can regenerate them, but the representations of those thoughts are gone, at least temporarily, and it seems to make it easier to not think about them.” For negative thoughts, writing them onto a piece of paper and then throwing it away appears to thwart their negative power, though it may only be short term. With repetition, one could possibly gain longer term benefits by “practicing” discarding negative thoughts.
Important lesson: If you have pervasive negative thoughts, write them down on a piece of paper, and physically throw them away, or burn them! This strategy can be employed as a quick way to clear your head of negativity.
Use Your Imagination
[-] One day I was feeling (extra) lazy, lounging in bed. I couldn’t get motivated to do anything worthwhile. Do you know what I did then? I imagined a tiger, as vividly as I could. I could see him running towards me with great speed; his big cat eyes looking at me like I was a tuna steak. Then I visualized the rest of the scenario—if I didn’t get up very soon, he would attack me, but if I did get up, I would avoid him and save my life! It jumpstarted my entire system—I was up and moving (and laughing at myself) within seconds. If you spend all of your time thinking realistically, not only will life be a little bit boring, but you’ll miss out on your brain’s most enjoyable and powerful tool—imagination!
Important lesson: Remember childhood, before you were trained to be “responsible?” Exercising your imagination muscle will generate creative ideas, motivate you, and make you happier if you use it well. Happiness is a perspective, and using your imagination is an effective way to alter your perspective to your liking. Or at the very least, it can get you out of bed. (Tiger alarm clock patent pending).
Stop Buying Possessions, Start Buying Experiences
[-] When it comes to spending money, experiences are almost always a better value than possessions. As I have said before: “Things have a ‘pay once and use for years’ value appeal over an experience’s one-time nature. I get that. But it’s a value trap—as we say in the investing world – because time of use is not an accurate measure of value. If I licked a rock for 40 years, you wouldn’t call the rock valuable, would you?”
Important lesson: Material possessions tend to make us happy initially and then wane off considerably, but the happiness gained from experiences may last a lifetime. If you want to be happier in the long term, consider buying plane or concert tickets instead of a TV or new phone.P
[-] One study suggests that giving is an innate source of happiness in humans. The study found that toddlers before the age of two years old “exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves.”
Giving to others makes us happy from birth, it seems. Another study by a Harvard scholar found that happiness can be bought, so long as you’re spending the money on someone else. What else is there to say? Giving makes you happier!
Important lesson: Instinct tells us that receiving is preferable, but giving brings real happiness results. If you truly want to maximize your happiness, then find ways to give to others. You won’t regret it.
Train Your Brain ‘Like’ a Monk
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, is sometimes called “the happiest man in the world.”
[-] Ricard says that mind transformation is the way to go, but that it takes time (from my research and experience with neuroplasticity, I agree this is true on both accounts). The mind transformation he talks about is achieved through meditation on unconditional compassion and loving kindness.
Important lesson: If you want to multiply your happiness results from giving, meditate on compassion and loving kindness (these are underlying components of giving). It appears that the monks’ theory on opposite mental factors holds true. They spend so much time thinking of positive things, that negativity and angst are pushed out of their mind, and they become very happy (and I would add, at peace). Another important lesson here is the power of repetition—the brain is wired to form habits, and there’s no reason a generally happy mindset can’t be habit.
Perhaps the most surprising and 21st century relevant happiness factor of all is focus. Did you know that being distracted makes you unhappy? This study found that people’s minds wandered a disturbing 47% of the time on average. And the result? It had a bigger (negative) impact on their happiness than what they were doing.
[-] One more benefit of focus is that it allows you to live the life you want to live. Focusing your skills and energy on fewer areas is a simple formula that brings big results. The more you focus on what matters, the more your life becomes as you desire, and the happier you’ll be.
Important lesson: Learn to control your whims (and phone notifications) or they will control your life and steal your happiness. True happiness is not being a slave to a piece of technology—it’s deciding what’s most important in this moment and focusing all of your energy on it. Distraction is often a failure to make this decision.
Now, see if you can use these tips to beat Matthieu Ricard for the title of happiest person alive. Even if you get second place, you’ll still be pretty happy.