4 Rituals To Keep You Happy All The Time


Happiness. It’s the one characteristic everyone goes on about like it’s the golden ticket to the Wonka factory of life. And maintaining happiness, well, yeeeeesh. It’s a relentless pursuit in a world that constantly shifts the goalposts. You’re trying to maintain a sunny disposition in an era where the news cycle is less “informative briefing” and more “24/7 carnival of despair.” The world might feel like your oyster, but unfortunately, you’re allergic to shellfish.

Everybody thinks they have answers. The never-ending mantra of hydrate, meditate, yoga-tate, all while making sure you get eight hours of sleep. And the frequent thought in response is: “Who the heck has time for that? I’d have to clone myself, and even then, I doubt either of me would want to do yoga.”

People say you should “embrace your negative emotions.” But you don’t want to embrace them. You want to unmatch them on Tinder, block their calls, and avoid them at the grocery store.

We need answers. Well, when things get serious, mafia members “go to the mattresses.” We’re going to the textbooks. This week we’ll be drawing from “A Primer in Positive Psychology.”

We’re gonna get some tips on how to be happier and get those positive emotions flowing. (People have referred to me as a “Thought Leader.” I hate that term. If anything, this week I’m more of a “Feeling Emperor.”)

Let’s get to it…


The Simple Formula For Happiness

Of course there’s one:

“Happiness = set-point + life circumstances + volitional activity.”

Jargony but pretty accurate. First, there’s “set-point,” which sounds like something you fiddle with on a washing machine, not a component of emotional well-being. Roughly 50% of your happiness is determined by your genetics, that nebulous cocktail of evolutionary hand-me-downs. Some people have a default setting of “cheery” and other people’s emotional thermostat is naturally as low as a bass guitar in a grunge band. If you’re in that latter category don’t start drinking wine straight from the bottle just yet. There’s not much you can do about genetics but we do have two more factors.

Life circumstances can be altered — but usually not too dramatically or quickly. If you live in a war-torn country or weren’t smart enough to choose billionaire parents, this can be a drag too.

Finally, we have “volitional activity,” which is a fancy way of saying “stuff you choose to do.” This is the part of the equation where we can try to wrestle our happiness back from the jaws of fate.

The key thing about volitional activity is it’s like going to the gym: if you don’t do it consistently, you don’t stay in shape. So look for activities that you can build into your schedule on a daily or weekly basis. It has to be integrated into your life.

Alright, we know the formula for happiness – but what things actually produce it?


Correlates Of Smiles

What does the research say is associated with happiness?

Of course, I have to give the “correlation is not causation” warning and maybe throw a “YMMV” in there too, but you can do a lot worse than the following list:

  • Zero To Small Effect: age, gender, education, social class, income, having children, ethnicity, intelligence, physical attractiveness.
  • Moderate Effect: number of friends, being married, religiousness, level of leisure activity, physical health, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism (negative correlation), internal locus of control.
  • Large Effect: gratitude, optimism, being employed, frequency of intercourse (yeah, that means what you think it means), percent of time experiencing positive affect, self-esteem.

Increasing things from the “large effect” list in your life would be a good idea. Might want to get a few from the “moderate effect” list as well. And another thing that might boost your happiness: if you don’t score so well on the things in the “zero to small” list, well, when it comes to happiness, they’re not that big a deal.

Of course, as scientific as this list may be, these are only true “in general.” So how can we get some bespoke, custom recommendations for the things that will idiosyncratically boost your smiles?


Customized Happiness

Many of the “personal” suggestions we get for how to be happier, while well-meaning, can also be pseudoscientific and a bit loopy. Reboot your soul. Clear your chakra cache. (I’ve been trying to “manifest” a winning lottery ticket for years, but so far, all I’ve managed is a concerning number of empty pizza boxes.)

If you want to have more good days, you first need to define what a “good day” is for you. Sounds simple, but it’s not. Research shows we’re actually pretty bad about knowing what really makes us happy — and we’re probably even worse about consistently doing those things.

I apologize – you’re going to need to do some homework for this one.

First, pay attention to what makes you happy and unhappy. Sounds obvious but we often don’t do it – like choosing to stay in when seeing friends would really boost your mood. Simply put, do more of the good and less of the bad. Yes, these findings sound like they came from the “Journal of Obvious Conclusions.” It’s a method so straightforward, it’s almost offensive. I’ll bet you know a few things that would make your days better, but you just don’t consistently do them.

If you’re still bewildered or feeling fancy, break out the notebook and start keeping track of what you do and then rank the days from 1 to 10. Do this for at least two weeks and then look for patterns. It’s a bit like playing a game of emotional “Clue.”

Did most of the good days involve accomplishing something? Exercise? Seeing a friend? Reading a phenomenal blog post by a guy with the initials EB?

Did the bad days all have long hours at work in common? Little sleep? Or just the presence of that one person who drives you crazy? Don’t get down about it, learn from it. Honestly, I’ve had so many “learning experiences” that if they were points on a loyalty card, I’d have a free trip around the world by now.

The research shows everyone who does this exercise finds a pattern and often it was one that surprised them. Who knew your personal secret to happiness was just more internet videos of dogs reuniting with their owners?

But maybe you can’t dramatically alter your schedule. No problem. We’re gonna cheat like bandits and trick our brains into happiness…


The Peak-End Rule

The human brain might be the most complex thing in the universe. Dopamine, serotonin, limbic system – sounds like a lineup for a particularly bad music festival. But in other ways it’s pretty simple – and easy to trick.

As you may have heard, we’re all subject to “cognitive biases.” These are built-in shortcuts your brain uses, trading off a bit of accuracy for increased speed and simplicity. And we can leverage these to increase happiness.

For instance, how your brain evaluates your mood in the moment is very different from how it perceives things when it looks back on your life. As I discussed in one of my books, when we reflect on the past, our gray matter focuses on the high points and the ending.

We can use this bias to game the system. That day might not be so great but if you make sure there’s a good high point and that you end the day well, you’re more likely to look back on it positively and feel better. It’s like auto-tune for life.

Remember, in the grand movie of life, you’re both the director and the editor. Tough day coming up? Happiness could be as simple as making sure an Amazon package is scheduled to arrive – and that you end the evening having dinner with a friend. Things might still be rough but you’ll remember it as much better than it was. It’s like giving your past a makeover.

Okay, let’s round it up – and learn a great shortcut to happiness…


Sum Up

This is how to be happier:

  • The Happiness Formula: “Happiness = set-point + life circumstances + volitional activity.” (This is what happens when scientists try to solve emotions as if they’re fixing a carburetor.) Not much you can do about set point, a little you can do about circumstances, but volitional activity is very much under your control. Find sustainable habits that elevate your mood.
  • Leverage Correlates Of Happiness: Really work on gratitude and optimism. Worry less about looks, education and income. And more friends never hurt.
  • Develop Your Custom Happiness Protocol: Study your good and bad days to discover patterns for tailored happiness. It’s like turning your life into a DIY project, except instead of making a coffee table, you’re trying to assemble your mood with an Allen wrench of self-reflection.
  • Exploit The Peak-End Rule: It’s like being a DJ for your memories. You’re spinning the tracks, pumping up the bass on the good bits, and fading out the bad. Give moments a positive high point and a happy ending and you can photoshop your life.

Yeah, this might feel complex to execute on a daily basis. Some will say, “Oh, Mr. Digital Ranty Man, I’m not gonna remember all that.” Fine. Here’s a shortcut…

By any chance, did you notice a pattern in the moderate-to-large correlates of happiness? Number of friends, marriage, extraversion, and gratitude. They’re all social. And if you squint, even some others like religiousness, leisure activities, and employment all often involve contact with others.

Yeah, the shortcut is people.

A very interesting study from 2002 compared happy people to very happy people. As you got to the far end of the happiness scale, most robust correlates of happiness stopped being predictive. But one remained — good relationships. Every one of the very happy people had close connections.

Friends can be crazy, annoying even, but few things bring us more happiness. We all have that “I’ve Got a Crisis Every Five Minutes” friend. The sky is always falling, and they’re Chicken Little’s publicist. But let’s face it: you’re probably someone’s occasionally irritating friend, too.

And then there’s family, a group of people who, for better or for worse, are bound together by fate, fortune, and the occasional paternity test. They’re like a sitcom cast that never gets canceled, complete with wacky neighbors and surprise guest appearances. They might seem like nature’s way of ensuring we never run out of material for our future therapists. But being closer to them is a powerful route to feeling better.

Some days we live in a world where it seems like if people are talking, it’s assumed the Wi-Fi is down. But in a field of study like psychology where things are often blurry, it seems fair to say there is one necessary condition for extreme happiness…

Connecting with people you love.


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