4 Proactive Steps You Can Take to Invite More Happiness Into Your Life
There are two common approaches to happiness.
The first, which dominates the entertainment industry, insists that happiness comes from money, fame, and praise.
Thanks to the dozens of publications that cover celebrities’ every move, the viewing public gets to see this worldview played out on a regular basis. And unfortunately, many seemingly successful people end up spiraling into rehab, bankruptcy, or even jail.
The second popular approach to happiness is summed up well in this famous quote from author Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
This worldview holds that happiness isn’t something you can catch through pursuit — so don’t worry about creating it. Simply enjoy happy moments when they appear.
Dr. Sanjiv Chopra, a professor at Harvard Medical School, has a third view on happiness. Unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne, he believes there are proactive steps you can take to enjoy a happier life.
But unlike the entertainment industry, he doesn’t think the solutions are money, fame, and praise.
Dr. Chopra teaches four things you can do to be happy. Here they are, along with research supporting them and ideas for applying these principles in your life.
1. Invest in Friendships
In 2017, Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general, declared that loneliness has reached epidemic levels. He has compelling evidence on his side.
In a recent study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22% of American adults reported feeling lonely all the time. That’s a startling statistic, and the effects of loneliness are more impactful than you might think.
Researchers have warned that “loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day;” whereas, friendships “reduce the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases and can speed recovery in those who fall ill.”
As for what can be done about loneliness, some countries are intervening at the national level. In Denmark, the government and private donors fund a 20-year-old organization called Ventilen (“friend to one” in Danish), which “brings 15-to-25-year-olds together twice a week with two or three volunteers.” Participants in the group play games together, prepare meals, go to the movies, and “build the human connections that many feel they lack.”
If you find yourself meeting new people but struggling to turn your acquaintances into true friendships, here’s an encouraging insight. Research has found that “it takes about 50 hours of socializing to go from acquaintance to casual friend, an additional 40 hours to become a “real” friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend.” Keep showing up.
2. Forgive Proactively
It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to be unhappy, but when we hold grudges, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Bitterness and resentment are not happy feelings, and failing to work through them will poison relationships that could have brought happiness for years to come.
Dr. Chopra puts it this way: “Gaining the ability to forgive frees you from the burdens of hate and other negative emotions that can negatively impact your happiness quotient.”
Other experts agree. In fact, the Mayo Clinic says forgiveness can lead to:
Improved mental health
Less anxiety, stress and hostility
Lower blood pressure
Fewer symptoms of depression
A stronger immune system
Improved heart health
Some offenses are obviously more difficult to forgive than others, and forgiveness is a process that will often take time. But with a host of benefits waiting for us, forgiveness is a wise aspiration.
3. Give Generously
Dr. Chopra says, “Getting involved in charity and donating money to help others has shown to be one of the most happiness inducing and fulfilling ways of spending your time, money, and efforts.”
Research supports this, suggesting that people who volunteer have more happiness, higher self-esteem, and a even a lower mortality rate. When you consider the good generosity can do for other people, donating your time and your money becomes an obvious win-win.
If you’re looking for ways to donate your time, the Volunteer Match organization can help you find a good fit. As its name suggests, Volunteer Match helps people locate community service opportunities in their area that match their strengths and interests.
4. Practice Gratitude
While most people’s approach to happiness involves changing their circumstances, research has found that simply changing the way we view our lives can have a positive impact as well.
Dr. Chopra explains it by saying, “Taking the time to think of things you are grateful makes you more aware of the positive things in your life, making you less likely to be biased by the fewer negative things in your life.”
In essence, when we focus on the good in our lives, we feel happy and thankful. When we focus on the negative, we’re prone to discontent and even despair.
If you aren’t a naturally optimistic person, keeping a gratitude journal is a proven way to gradually brighten your thinking. The University of California, Berkeley offers helpful instructions for getting started.
The big picture is to simply write down up to five things for which you feel grateful (large or small in importance). And the goal is merely to “remember a good event, experience, person, or thing in your life—then enjoy the good emotions that come with it.”
The exercise can be completed in less than 15 minutes, and you don’t have to do it every day. On the contrary, the Berkeley article says “studies suggest that writing in a gratitude journal three times per week might actually have a greater impact on our happiness than journaling every day.”
You Can’t Buy Happiness, But You Can Learn It.
Dr. Chopra isn’t the only expert talking about proactive ways to increase your happiness. Yale University now offers an entire class about it, and it has quickly become one of their most popular courses.
So if you’re living through an unhappy season, don’t lose hope. There are proven things you can do to help yourself feel better, enjoy life more, and set course for a happier future.