10 Life Lessons from Happiness Experts

Science tells us that we’re never too old to build new, healthy habits.

Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock
Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock

This September on the Untangle podcast, we asked some pretty big (and tough) questions: What makes us happy? What gives our lives meaning and purpose? What are the myths around happiness? 
To get the answers, we hand-selected some of the best and brightest in the happiness business:  

  • Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and creator of The Science of Wellbeing, one of the most popular courses at Yale; 
  • Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychology expert and Harvard lecturer; 
  • Elisha Goldstein, meditation expert and author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion; and
  • Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, co-author of the book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts

Here’s the good news: Science tells us that we’re never too old to build new, healthy habits. It’s the choices we make each day that make all the difference in our happiness levels, not the big things like getting a new job or starting a new relationship. Often, a series of small, but powerful shifts in everyday behaviors can make a big difference. According to Laurie Santos, “Happiness is like a leaky tire, and happy people know how to fill their tires when they’re deflated.”

Here are the top ten takeaways from our happiness experts: 

  1. Prioritize positive activities. Take a look at your schedule for the day. Are you excited about it? Make a habit of including joyful activities in your day, whether it’s going on a walk, doing yoga or cooking a meal. Find something you love and build it into your schedule.   
  2. Flip the switch. Ever feel cranky for no reason? Science tells us that if you spend time reflecting on what you’re grateful for (instead of on what makes you miserable), you’ll quickly adopt a more positive perspective. Simply list three things you’re grateful for when you wake up each day or before you go to sleep. Get specific for better results. 
  3. Meditate for 10 minutes. We’ve all heard that mindfulness and meditation can have a huge impact on our stress levels. Did you know that just 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a big difference? Taking a moment to sit and reflect can inject a big dose of calm into your day. 
  4. Make social connections. Many of us work or study alone and don’t realize how isolated we’re feeling. Research has repeatedly shown that connecting with others is necessary for happiness. We need each other. If you’re feeling low, call a friend or get to know the barista at your coffee shop. It’s surprisingly energizing!
  5. Lend a hand. Ever ruminate on a story over and over again, spending so much time in your head that it’s about to explode? Try being of service to others and see how quickly this can shift your perspective. Find a cause you believe in and volunteer your time.
  6. Create time affluence. We’re all so busy, but giving yourself a little bit of extra “me” time (even just an hour) can be an incredibly powerful way to boost your mood. Even better, it may help you be more efficient processing all of that stuff that’s on your plate. 
  7. Soften your expectations. Often, we think we should do or achieve certain things at a particular age and when we don’t meet those milestones, we feel deflated. The research on this is pretty clear: achievements don’t sustain happiness. Try letting go of your expectations and open your mind and heart to what really makes you happy. 
  8. Create random acts of kindness: Want to spread a little happiness of your own? Try a small act of kindness. The next time you’re in a coffee shop, buy a cup for the person behind you. They’ll be tickled and you’ll feel great, and who knows what might happen when the next person pays it forward!
  9. Celebrate mistakes: Many of us feel sad or even angry when we make mistakes. It takes us back to that time when we got  too many red marks on a 2nd grade spelling test. The truth is that most successful people have made tons of mistakes. Whether you’re learning something new or trying to improve yourself, a growth mindset involves tripping up from time to time. Go for it and celebrate those mistakes. They are moving you in the right direction. 
  10. Savor the meaningful moments: Many of our experts reminded us that our brains have a nasty habit of holding on to negative thinking. Instead, try savoring the happier, more meaningful moments in your life. When you see a sunset, lock it in by focusing on it for a few minutes. Soak in those positive moments so that you can recall them whenever you need them.

Much of what we heard from our experts was connected to developing the capacity to see the good in ones’ life instead of obsessing over what hasn’t worked or what you’re worried might never work. Those with a growth mindset, resilience, and the ability to abandon rigid rules of how life must be, are the happiest among us.

It’s good to remember that being human comes at a cost. Life is messy and sometimes we’ll feel sad, angry, and even devastated. The practices and attitudes that our experts shared give us hope that we can lead kinder, gentler, and happier lives. Tune in to Untangle to hear all the interviews.

Patricia Karpas is the co-founder of Meditation Studio and host of the Untangle Podcast, where she has interviewed over 200 experts, thought leaders and authors on how mindfulness, contemplative and brain-focused practices change us. She leads content and talent for Muse (the Brain Sensing Headband) and Meditation Studio, the 5-star app that Apple named one of its top 10 apps of the year.  

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