How can you find long-term happiness? It’s a simple question, one that has been explored and expounded on for thousands of years. And yet the answer remains elusive to many, perhaps because true, lasting happiness involves a combination of factors—many of which are unique to you.
Happiness has been linked to longer lifespans, increased immunity and lowered susceptibility to illnesses like heart disease and depression, so the value of achieving it clearly goes far beyond your emotional health. And, just like so many other goals with worthy payoffs, long-term happiness takes time and a conscious effort to develop. While you may find momentary bliss in a shopping spree or a pay raise, research shows that only 10 percent of happiness comes from our circumstances. True happiness comes gradually, through the sum of your life choices—of yesterday, but also today and tomorrow.
Though there’s no exact formula for making decisions that lead to long-term happiness, research suggests that happy people tend to share some common principles. Consider these suggestions, based on those truths, when working to cultivate your own contentment. Give yourself the time and grace needed to take to these new strategies and start to see a change in how happy you feel.
Engage in Activities You Love
We are often told to “do what you love.” And while succeeding in a career that brings you great contentment is a reality for some, finding a job that provides more happiness than headache isn’t easy. Yet research has shown that being engaged in something you are passionate about is one of the keys to long-term happiness. So ask yourself what excites you, and then find ways to incorporate that activity into your daily life. You may not be able to change your job (at least not immediately), but having an absorbing, stimulating pastime—cooking, playing an instrument, learning a new language, tending your garden—can help you feel good not just about yourself, but about life in general.
Having meaningful contact and connections with others increases your sense of support and can improve your coping skills, leading to lower stress levels, particularly during difficult times. Good friends also tend to discourage unhealthy behaviors, like smoking, and can be great motivators when it comes to creating healthy ones, like starting a walking routine; better physical health can contribute quite significantly to your overall outlook on things. Commit to putting the people you love first as often as possible. This means scheduling time for coffee breaks, family dinners or even just a chat on the phone.
Even the happiest among us face disappointment and challenge in life, and adjusting to a different outcome than one you were expecting isn’t always easy. It requires you to admit what you can’t control and to come to terms with what you’ve been dealt. But adapting rather than shutting down or giving into anger or frustration can help you be more resilient. With time, you may start to see and deal with obstacles in a whole new way. The next time you are faced with a letdown, try looking at it from three different perspectives: What is bad about the situation (I didn’t get the promotion I wanted); what’s good about it (I now know what areas I can improve on so that I’m more likely to get it next time); and finally, what is interesting about it (Going through this process gave me good insight into how my boss makes his decisions.) This multi-angle view can encourage flexible thinking.
It’s difficult to be happy if you are holding on to anger or remorse for things that were said or done. But practicing forgiveness—both of yourself and of others—is the first step in freeing yourself of this burden and experiencing happiness in the present. While a good amount of time may be necessary to come to a place where you can forgive a major issue, Douglas A. Smith, speaker and happiness instructor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, offers this exercise to practice forgiveness of smaller offenses: Aim to discuss the issue with the person involved, expressing your feelings, within a 48-hour window. After you’ve done that, and those two days have passed, let it go. This can help you to address your hurt while loosening your grip on negative emotions before they have time to take root.
It can be easy to go through life without expressing gratitude, particularly for those who tend to focus on the negative. But research has shown that counting your blessings on a regular basis can lead to lasting feelings of happiness. In one study, people who expressed daily gratitude, by writing down three things they were thankful for, reported that they were significantly happier after only three weeks. You can be thankful for anything—from a loving sister to a delicious lunch and everything in between. The key is taking the time to reflect.
Invest in Experiences
Money may not be able to buy you happiness, but there is a growing body of research to suggest that the benefits that come with some types of splurges may be worth opening up your wallet for. Concerts, trips and other activities can leave you feeling happier, longer, than material objects like clothes or gadgets. That’s because things that you do, see and experience lead to lasting memories, giving you something positive to draw on for years to come—long after that new shirt has seen its last wear. (Bonus: They’re perpetual additions to your gratitude list!) Book that camping trip you’ve been talking about, enroll in those art classes or score that front-row ticket to your favorite band’s next show.
Keep Your Hopes Up
In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic that spanned more than 40 years, researchers found that those who identified themselves as being more pessimistic were 30 percent more likely to die young than those who thought of themselves as optimistic. Optimists were also generally healthier, less likely to suffer from chronic pain, had more energy and—you guessed it—greater feelings of happiness. Changing a glass-half-empty outlook takes time, and realistic hopefulness, not total optimism, should be the goal, but you can start by challenging your thinking. When you find yourself deep in a negative thought pattern, take a step back. Ask yourself if your situation is truly as bad as you think it is. Then try to approach it from a different, more positive perspective. Even a subtle shift, from “things couldn’t possibly get worse,” to “things aren’t great right now, but at least I have my friends and family” is a step in the right direction.