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5 Surprisingly Easy Ways to Improve Your Life

What researchers say you can do to experience less regret and be more creative, content, grateful, and happier

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Photo credit: Burst on Pexels
Photo credit: Burst on Pexels

1. To experience less regret: Don’t try to optimize everything

Researchers have found that constantly trying to find the best options can actually make us less happy and less satisfied with the options we choose. If our goal is perfection, then anything short of perfection can lead to disappointment and regret. Even when we choose well, it’s often hard to know whether we have chosen the best possible option, which can lead us to continually question and reevaluate our choices. 

Instead of always striving for perfection, try following the decision-making strategy of Nobel laureate Herb Simon: Choose the first option that meets your criteria of “good enough.” By choosing options that are “good enough” and then getting on with your life, you will be more satisfied with your choices and less likely to experience regret.

Having trouble letting go of perfection and settling for “good enough”? Try reminding yourself of the costs of pursuing perfection. When we see that pursuing perfection can actually make us worse off, it no longer seems so enticing. 

2. To come up with more creative solutions to problems: Think “could” instead of “should”

Do you ever have a hard time making decisions when you’re faced with a dilemma? Researchers at Harvard Business School might have a solution for you. 

We often think that when we’re faced with a tough choice, we should think about what we should do in our situation. However, the researchers found that when participants were instructed to think about what they could do in response to a moral dilemma, they came up with more creative solutions to the dilemma than participants who were told to think about what they should do.

As the researchers explained, when we think about what we should do, we focus too narrowly. We look at the options that are immediately before us and try to pick the best one. When we think about what we could do, however, we don’t just limit ourselves to making trade-offs between the obvious choices. Thinking in terms of what we could do opens up our thinking and helps us come up with new solutions.

3. To be more content: Focus on what you’re gaining rather than on what you’re missing out on

Researchers have found that we’re more likely to follow through on our goals when we develop implementation intentions — plans for how to achieve our goals. And our implementation intentions are more effective when we don’t try to plan too many things. For instance, researchers have found that people were more successful at changing their unhealthy snacking habits when they formed a single plan than they were when they tried to change multiple things at once. 

One reason it can be hard not to plan so many things is that we often suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We don’t want to limit ourselves. We want to change everything at once. Do everything at once. Be everywhere at once. 

To combat FOMO, try diverting your attention away from what you might miss out on by focusing instead on what you gain by saying “no” to things. You might miss out on some of the little things by saying “no” more often, but by making fewer implementation plans, you’ll be more likely to follow through on the things that are really important to you.

4. To be more grateful: Don’t just count your blessings, be surprised by them

We have an amazing ability to adapt to our situation. When things become overly familiar to us, they lose their hold over us and we return relatively quickly to our normal level of happiness. Adaptation can serve us well in tough circumstances by helping us feel better about negative events over time. The problem is that adapting to our situation can also make us feel less happy about positive events over time. When good becomes ordinary, it can also become mundane

What can you do to feel more grateful for the good things in your life? You can unadapt to them. Instead of just counting your blessings, try thinking about ways in which it is surprising that this thing or event is part of your life. Researchers found that by thinking about ways in which a positive event might not have happened, the event will seem more surprising to you and you will feel more fortunate that it occurred.

5. To be happier in the future: Capture your ordinary moments now

Researchers at Harvard found that our ordinary moments might be more valuable to us than we realize. As the researchers explain, we generally know that we will want to remember extraordinary events. But what about the ordinary moments? A conversation with grandma? Grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend? Playing Playdough in the kitchen with the kids? We probably won’t write about them in our journals. And unless the kids get Playdough up their nose, we might not even Instagram it. We tend to just let these moments pass by.

According to the researchers, however, these ordinary moments might be more valuable to us than we realize. In one study, they had participants write about conversations they’d had, say how extraordinary they thought the conversations were, and predict how much they would enjoy reading about the conversation in the future. 

When they followed up with the participants seven months later, participants were more interested in reading their conversations than they had predicted they would be — especially when it came to the ordinary conversations. As the researchers explain, we generally know that we will want to remember extraordinary events, but we fail to realize how much we will want to remember our ordinary events in the future.

So, don’t just focus on life’s big moments. Capture your ordinary moments. You’ll thank me later.

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Jen Zamzow has a Ph.D. in philosophy with a minor in cognitive science and teaches ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.

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