Let’s begin with a cruel little fact…
Iris Mauss, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, found that those who worked the hardest to be happier ended up being unhappier on every measure she studied.
Huh? Trying to live a better life fails miserably? Might be time to close up shop on this blog. Well, we had a good run. It’s been fun. Bye…
Seriously though, let’s put a pin in that one for now. We’ll get to it later. (Trust me, there’s a reason.)
More importantly, why can’t we just be (and stay) happy in the first place? Because Mother Nature doesn’t want you to be. Author Robert Wright broke it down pretty clearly. Pleasure evaporates so quickly in order to make you keep pursuing more pleasure. Evolution doesn’t want you sitting around content all the time. It wants you to be productive (at least by its definition). So the anticipation of pleasure is super strong — but the feeling itself is fleeting. Keeps you hustling because if the treadmill’s not on, you don’t run.
Annnnnnnnd so we scramble around with a torch juggler’s schedule doing things to try and keep the happiness ball in the air. Problem is, we often do the wrong things to be happy.
So what are the right things? Well, I have a handy dandy acronym for you: PERMA. Easy to remember because that’s not even a sound bite; it’s a sound nibble.
There’s your hedonic cheat code. But does it work? Actually, more than eight thousand studies show these strategies are effective.
No, I didn’t come up with it. (I’m not a researcher. This post is fan non-fiction.) PERMA was developed by Martin Seligman, the Grand Poobah of happiness research. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a former president of the American Psychological Association, and the leading researcher in “positive psychology” – the science of making you happier.
Ready to be cheered up? I know I am. Let’s get to it…
News flash: good feelings make you feel good. You know this one and already rely on it – maybe too much.
We want to feel good but we don’t want the negatives that come with so many of the strategies we try, like the stomachache after two gallons of ice cream. Well, we can get the upside without the downside.
Let’s focus on savoring because it’s the one you hear the least about. One method is called “memory building.” You do this, but only occasionally and haphazardly. It needs to be a habit.
You know those memories of the good times? The powerful ones that irresistibly bring a smile to your face? Make more of them. Next time life is wonderful and things could not get any better, when you’re laughing with friends or on that relaxing vacation with the millions you embezzled, pause and take a mental snapshot.
I said “mental” snapshot. Rather than just taking a photo and burying it in the bowels of Instagram, forge a crisp memory. Soak in the details. Really feel it and burn the image into your brain. Then return to the world and fully enjoy the moment.
We’re often so busy collecting experiences for social media that we aren’t fully present. You don’t want to be an archivist or a detached witness in your life. You want to be a participant. So make memories and savor them.
And they don’t need to be the Supreme Highest of Highs. Anything that brings you solid positive emotions qualifies. When I’m listening to Chris Rock or Led Zeppelin, I smile and laugh, and tell myself just how good this feels. The little things matter. Take a mental snapshot.
No, you can’t just stop there. This is a common mistake we make: focusing exclusively on positive emotions. It sucks that immediate pleasures don’t equal long term happiness. Life would be so simple. No, we gotta do more. We got four more letters…
There are times when life is going nowhere. And it is doing it very slowly. Everything is “fine” but the world feels as barren as the lunar surface. Empty. There’s a longing inside you.
Maaaybe, it’s because you’re not engaged. Seligman says: “Engagement is an experience in which someone fully deploys their skills, strengths, and attention for a challenging task.” We need to be involved. Not watching life, but an active part of it.
The answer here? You want more “flow.” You’ve probably heard of this concept. It’s those moments where you are so wrapped up in something that the world falls away and you lose track of time. You are “one” with whatever you’re doing.
Flow isn’t passive. Laying on the couch or watching TV doesn’t usher it in. Flow is active. You’re making progress toward a goal. The challenge is at that sweet spot where you need to be on your game but it’s not overwhelming. You’re not thinking about the end result; you’re fully swept up by the process. Oddly, flow feels good but you don’t even notice until after because you’re not thinking about how it feels. You’re not thinking much at all. Like an athlete in the zone.
So how do we get there? Good news — flow usually comes when you’re doing what you enjoy most. Reading, talking to friends, playing music, exercise… Whatever makes self-awareness vanish and the chatter in your head die down. Whatever does that for you, do it more. Actually schedule time for it.
It’s not magic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t magical.
Okay, two letters down. There are these other things on the planet known as “people.” Shockingly, they are not always a negative…
Relationships are so critical to well-being I actually wrote a whole book about it. Ironically, I was very much alone at the time, cooped up during the pandemic. (If you’re imagining “The Shining”, you’re not far off.)
Relationships don’t just bring us joy, they amplify the joy that’s already in our lives. We also get support from others. And unless you’re a solipsistic sociopath, you derive a lot of pleasure from doing things for others. Plenty of research shows that kindness promotes well-being.
What’s the most scientific way to be happier through relationships? Science and relationships don’t intuitively seem to fit in the same bucket. I’m not going to suggest that instead of telling your beloved they are “one in a million”, you start saying they are “six deviations from the mean.”
I do, however, recommend a “gratitude visit.” We’ve discussed this before on the blog. It’s warm and fuzzy but also quite scientific.
The brass tacks:
It’s that simple — and oh-so-powerful. People often cry. And they never forget it. Studies show the happiness boost you get from this can last up to three months. Now that’s some ROI. And the bonus is you get to make someone special very happy as well.
Next we have to go deeper. Gotta muck about in the existential swamp and find the answer to that eternally troublesome question: “Why?”
You can have all the things that make up a good life but meaning is the thing between the things. Without it, all the good stuff can have a ghostly hollowness.
But when we have meaning, wow. It’s like being a member of the French Resistance. Things are important. You stand for something. What you do matters. You matter.
Seligman says meaning comes from “belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.” Religion, family, community, work, and social causes can all bring meaning. Do you know what brings meaning for you? If so, good. If not, think about what you wish to be remembered for…
Yeah, that’s a tough question.
Don’t worry, there’s a simple — and fantastically morbid — way to get the answer: visualize your funeral and consider what you want friends to describe as your legacy.
That’s right, all it takes is some dwelling on the thing you fear most. (Yes, I just made a joke about death in a post about happiness and, no, I am not better than that.)
Seriously, what would you like to be praised for and remembered for? Then go do those things to become that person and earn that praise. (Follow through and there’s a good chance you’ll get that praise before you die.)
Most of what happens to all of us is the same. You go to work, you see your family, you sit in traffic. What makes us each so different and special is how you see the things you do. The meaning beneath it all. Don’t neglect that.
Alright, enough highfalutin fancy thinking stuff. Time to get out in the world and accomplish things…
Whether it’s through work, hobbies, sports or games, a feeling of competence and success fill us with pride and energy. Accomplishment is unique because the process doesn’t always feel good – it’s hard – but the struggle makes the achievements even better.
So what’s the “to do” here? It’s simple: do more stuff. Not only does it intuitively make sense, but accomplishing things actually undergirds one of the most effective treatments for depression — “behavioral activation therapy.”
You know the feeling. It’s what makes scratching things off your to-do list so rewarding. And you also know the flip side. When you’re on social media and it’s kinda nice but then two hours have gone by and you’re like, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”
The best part about accomplishing things is it can create a virtuous cycle. We make progress, it feels good and we’re ready to do even more. Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has shown that nothing is more motivating than making progress.
And the best part is we’re focused on happiness here, not getting ahead. So you don’t have to think about getting that promotion. You don’t have to move mountains or cure cancer. You don’t have to become a world class master to feel a bit of mastery. (A journalist asked John Lennon if Ringo Starr was the best drummer on the planet. Lennon replied, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”)
Don’t do it for money. Don’t do it for your college application essay. Do it for you. Because it feels good to be good at something.
Envy is for the lazy. Go accomplish something that makes you feel awesome.
Alright, time to round it all up and answer that question we raised at the beginning of the post: Why does trying to be happy so often fail?
How to be happy forever and ever and ever…
Okay, okay, I apologize for keeping you in suspense. Why does trying to be happier fail?
If you’re doing the PERMA 5, dead set on achieving happiness… they won’t work. Seligman says the spell is only effective when PERMA is “pursued for its own sake, not as a means to an end.”
Might seem too cutesy but it makes sense. How sincere do you think that gratitude visit is gonna be if you’re just going through the motions and saying, “Alright, I did it. Where’s my happiness?” And you can’t be in flow if you’re thinking about the end result because when you’re in flow, you’re not thinking.
If you hollow out these activities and make them a line item on a to-do list, it won’t be genuine because these practices are all about sincere emotion. That’s not going to lead to deep-seated happiness and fulfillment. You’re going to end up as disappointed as Darth Vader was when he realized there was no homeowner’s insurance on the Death Star.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.”
Do the PERMA 5, but do them for their own sake, not for some future payoff. That’s how we learn to appreciate the moment. And life is nothing more than a collection of moments.
Give it a shot. Even just a few of the 5 can make a huge difference.
Chris Rock and Led Zeppelin. Just sayin’…