the secret to happiness (hint: it's not those new shoes)
What would make you happy: A new car? Those Italian shoes you've been stalking online? A raise or a promotion? These things may make you feel content for a moment—as novelty tends to show up in the brain as happiness—but probably not for the long term. Studies show over and over again that the happiness we sometimes chase in the form of retail therapy, wealth accumulation or power brokering isn't actually making us happy.
Carrie Williams is the owner of Los Angeles-based RainShadow Coaching. “We think that objects will make us happy, but what studies show is happiness is really about mindset. The people who are happy are the people that choose to be happy, regardless of their circumstances," she says. “The other things that makes us happy tend to be connections to other people and relationships with family." Think quality over quantity—having even just one or two people you can turn to in times of need can make a big difference.
People have been studying happiness for at least a century and there are lots of ways to parse the results. For example:
- A famous Harvard study that began in the late 1930s shows that men who had happier childhoods, who mentor others, who have good stress-management skills and who spend time with others are happier.
- Money's not everything, but it helps to be comfortable: Researchers from Purdue University and the University of Virginia found that most people don't need millions to be happy—$60,000-$75,000 for an individual's income correlates with personal well-being. And luxury car owners aren't any happier than those who are more frugal with their vehicles, according to another study.
- Performing acts of kindness have been shown to make people happier than doing something for themselves.
- For those over 40, volunteering gives a bump to emotional well-being.
- A clean home correlates with overall happiness—but it's still unclear whether a positive mindset prompts the cleaning or the other way around.
Finding Your Way to Happiness
Williams says that the first step in getting happier is to acknowledge where you are right now. “We don't like to acknowledge how unhappy we are, because we don't want to dwell on it. But in actuality, you can't get where you want to get to unless you're really honest about where your starting point is."
Next, she says to identify the things that actually make you happy. “What are the things that fulfill you, that inspire you, that make you feel gratitude? Try and put more of those in your life." These can be the simplest of things—a walk in nature, calling a friend or feeling grass under your feet.
Then identify your stressors and understand that they can actually help you. “Stress in itself is amazingly productive," Williams says. "If we didn't have stress, we would never accomplish anything or grow at all in our life. "
The stress of learning a new skill (like skiing or algebra) is momentary, but studies show that new competencies lead to greater daily happiness. But when stress becomes chronic, our cortisol (the “fight or flight" hormone) goes way up, muscles stay tense and our heart rate remains too high. Then it's a problem that can affect our minds, bodies, work and relationships.
Self-care, exercise, meditation and breathing exercises can all help with stress-busting. “Once you start to get your breathing under control, your heart rate will start to follow. That will start to shift some of the hormones in your body that are caused by stress."
Next, it's time to shift through your thought patterns when it comes to stress—mindfulness practices such as meditation and being grateful can help.
“The only person that can give you happiness is yourself, "says Williams." "And it's inside of you, not external."