You may think happiness just happens to you, but in truth, the keys to happiness are within your control. Here are the small steps that can change everything.
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How to be happy—it’s one of the most fundamental human quests. So why does it feel so hard and, well, unhappy sometimes? It may be because we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. With all the things modern society offers in the name of happiness—from closets full of clothes to the internet to endless entertainment, we should be happier than ever, right? And yet Americans’ self-reported state of happiness declined all throughout the last half of the 20th century and then plummeted after 2010, according to the World Happiness Report.
Experts say that the first happiness disconnect lies in the structure of modern society. “It turns out that while happiness is the central concern for most people, it is not the central concern for most societies today,” says Robert Waldinger, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist, co-author of The Good Life and current director of the Harvard Adult Development Study, the longest-running study of happiness in the world. “The modern world prioritizes many things—wealth, power, popularity, success—ahead of the health and happiness of human beings.”
The second happiness disconnect comes from … ourselves. “Everyone thinks we know what will make us happy, when the truth is that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will bring them lasting happiness and satisfaction,” he says. Dr. Waldinger notes that in one oft-cited happiness survey, the most common answer people gave for what they thought would bring the most joy and pleasure was getting rich, followed by becoming famous, having a successful career, traveling a lot and having an “easy” life. The truth? Absolutely none of those things, on their own, brings happiness—especially not money, he says.
So What Does Make Us Genuinely Happy?
Happiness isn’t found in just one thing. “After studying hundreds of entire lives—from childhood until death—I can tell you that there are a huge range of factors that contribute to a person’s happiness,” says Dr. Waldinger. Not all these factors are under your direct control, but about 40% are, he says. And what you do with that 40% can determine 100% of how you feel about your life.
The question “What makes us happy?” is exactly what inspired Gretchen Rubin—now a world-renowned expert in the science of happiness—to write The Happiness Project, about her own year-long search to find happiness. “One day I had this realization that I was in danger of wasting my life. I had everything I could possibly want, but I wasn’t appreciating it,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘What do I want from life, anyway?’ Well, I knew I wanted to be happy, but I had never thought about what exactly made me happy.”
That was nearly 14 years ago, and today Rubin is continuing to discover her purpose while finding immense joy and satisfaction in her day-to-day life. She’s written four more books about happiness, including the upcoming Life in Five Senses, and launched a successful podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. “My life’s not perfect, of course, but perfection was never the goal—happiness is.”
We asked Dr. Waldinger and Rubin to share how, what and, most important, whom to focus on to feel happier and more fulfilled. From cultivating a positive attitude, learning how to build community, posting inspirational quotes on your vision board and so much more, we have the secrets to how to be happy … starting today.
When it comes to happiness, nothing is more powerful than your relationships with other people. In fact, that was the main finding of the Harvard happiness study, says Dr. Waldinger. More than any other factors in the study, the quality of relationships people had was the greatest predictor of their happiness. In other words? The happiest people were those with the closest, loving, reciprocal relationships. It didn’t matter whether the relationships were with friends, family or lovers, or if a person had two or 200 people in their lives. What mattered is that they connected regularly with others on a meaningful level. If you want to know how to be happy, start with the tenet that “our relationships are everything,” he says.
From the moment you’re born, you’re learning how to bond with those closest to you and interact with your community. And if you ever took it for granted, the quarantine lockdowns during the pandemic really reinforced how absolutely vital our community is to our health and happiness, Dr. Waldinger says. The Harvard study found that people with a strong community not only lived longer lives—their lives were happier and healthier to the end, simple as that. Here’s how to have happier relationships.
1. Check in with friends
Friends provide love, support, fun, comfort, entertainment, a listening ear, an adventure buddy and so much more—yet we often let friendships slide as other commitments feel more pressing. It doesn’t have to be a lot of effort to make time for friends, though! Take, for example, one of Dr. Waldinger’s daily happy habits. “Each day I make a goal to consciously connect with one person,” he says. It doesn’t even need to be an hour-long gab sesh to be effective. “A text is OK, but a phone call or in-person check-in is preferable,” he says. When you can’t see your pal in person, text one of these “thinking of you” messages that will make anyone’s day.
2. Embrace freudenfreude
You’ve heard of schadenfreude—the feeling of taking pleasure in someone else’s misery—but if you want to be happier, instead try its opposite, freudenfreude. This funny-sounding word means finding pleasure in someone else’s success and happiness. Not only will this attitude of “a rising tide lifts all boats” strengthen your relationships with others, but it will also help you feel more confident and positive about yourself, says Dr. Waldinger. Compliment a work colleague on a job well done or take pleasure in your sister cooking yet another perfect meal.
3. Strike up a conversation with strangers
Building close relationships is foundational to happiness, but it turns out that relationships don’t have to be deep or long-term to give you joy. One of the more surprising findings from the Harvard study is that people experienced a significant happiness boost even after talking briefly to a stranger they would likely never see again. Just feeling connected is important, but there’s also a lot we can learn when we talk to strangers, adds Dr. Waldinger. The next time you’re out, try chatting with the barista about the weather or compliment your doctor’s receptionist on her earrings, then see what unfolds.
4. Go out of your way to be kind …
Acts of kindness are the building blocks that relationships and communities are made of, says Ryan McAnnally-Linz, PhD, co-author of Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most and associate director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture in New Haven, Connecticut. And it doesn’t have to be a huge act of service to have a big impact—little acts of kindness add up, causing ripple effects and spreading kindness far beyond the person you originally helped. A few ideas you can try today: Hold the door open for someone, donate time or goods to a charity or take soup to an elderly neighbor.
5. … but know your limits
Learning how to set boundaries—your framework for what is acceptable behavior and the way you communicate that to others—is a crucial part of having healthy relationships, says Rubin. It’s a popular myth that if you really love someone, then it will be limitless or boundary-less, but the truth is that agreeing on basic ground rules for interacting makes stronger relationships and helps avoid codependency. It is OK to say no, politely of course, to invitations to events that don’t work for you for whatever reason.
6. Let go of grudges
“We’re fragile, which means it’s always possible for us to hurt one another. And we’re fallible, which means we’re prone to let one another down in a thousand different ways,” says McAnnally-Linz. “Combine those two facts, and it means that forgiveness is an essential part of even the smoothest relationships and of healing and happiness.” (This is also true when it comes to forgiving yourself, he adds.) But forgiving a wrong can be easier said than done, especially when the hurt runs deep and/or long.
The good news is that forgiveness isn’t just something that magically happens; it’s a skill you can work on, he says. Make it a goal to learn how to forgive: Read books, listen to podcasts, talk to a therapist or loved one, research philosophy and religion, or meditate on forgiveness. If you’re the one in the wrong, it’s equally important to know how to apologize—meaningfully.
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