As somebody who has dealt with depression on and off over the course of my life, happiness is not something that comes naturally to me. It’s something I have to work at. Fortunately, our baseline level of happiness is not set in stone. Happiness is a skill that can be developed. And with practice, we can raise our baseline level of happiness.
A couple of weeks ago, somebody I had been dating for about two months decided to end things with me. For a few days, I was sad. Then my friend Josep Logan sent me the following text:
I think the Happiness Advantage Has it Right. You gotta show up complete.
So, I decided to reread The Happiness Advantage. As I’ve said before, there are many hidden benefits to reading a book more than once. Rereading it inspired the idea for this article.
Quite often, our environment and our routines are linked to the past. Changing that link requires changing the routine. But it doesn’t have to be a major change in the routine. At the beginning of 2015, I was coming out of a really difficult period of my life. That’s when I learned about the nine environments that make up your life. Up until that point I was using a black Moleskine notebook and a specific brand of pen every day. Because those things were associated with the past, I decided to change them. It was a minor change to my routine that broke the link to the past. Anytime we experience a setback, one of the simplest things we can do is make a minor change to our environment and routine.
Studies show that in the minutes right after meditation, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function. – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
Meditation doesn’t require you to sell all your sh*t and check into a monastery. You also don’t have to spend 20 minutes a day in a lotus position while chanting in Sanskrit. It can be as simple as closing your eyes for two minutes a day and observing your breath. Like most habits, when it comes to meditation, frequency matters more than length. You’re better off meditating two minutes a day for 20 days than you are 20 minutes for two days.
Meditation just doesn’t make you happier. It improves your ability to focus. As Steven Kotler once said to me “meditation is phenomenal focus training.” Improving your focus will not only help you get better at managing your time, but will allow you to do more deep work and produce more meaningful results in your life.
While wasting time on YouTube can become a time-consuming distraction, we can raise our happiness levels if we’re deliberate about it. “A short humorous video clip, a quick conversation with a friend or even a small gift, can produce significant and immediate boosts in cognitive power and performance,” says Shawn Actor. After reading that, I made it a point to incorporate watching a clip from The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight into my morning routine. In the months that followed, I found that my mood had improved significantly.
If there’s one thing that got me addicted to surfing, it was how much happier I felt when I got out of the water. At the time I didn’t realize that there was plenty of science to back up the fact that exercise has a big impact on our mood. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Fitness, John Raty cites exercise as one of the most effective cures for stress, anxiety, depression, and many other ailments.
You don’t have to be an action sports athlete, run 10 miles or become a gym rat to take advantage of this even though sweating always makes you feel great. Something as simple as going for a 20-minute walk can make a big difference. When you’re stuck mentally, move physically.
What you focus on is what you tend to notice in your life. If you’re always focused on the things that suck, that’s going to color your perception of reality. One of the simplest ways to shift that perception is with a gratitude practice.
When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positive – things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth and seizing opportunities to act on them. – Shawn Actor
There are a number of ways to incorporate a gratitude practice into your life:
I’ve found the Five Minute Journal has been most effective in helping me stay consistent with my gratitude practice. Purchase the journal. Put it somewhere you’ll see it every single day (i.e., on your nightstand or desk). Write in it at the beginning of every day. Write in it at the end of every day.
At the beginning of this year, I booked multiple ski trips and a surf trip to Sri Lanka. Additionally, my second book comes out in August. Because of this, I’ve had something to look forward to all year.
Having something to look forward to doesn’t have to be extravagant:
Check your calendar. Make a list of the things that you’re looking forward to. Every time you need a boost take a look at the list.
Humans have a unique capability in that we can assign meaning to everything that happens. We look at facts and tell ourselves a story. And the story becomes our version of reality. Shawn Achor refers to these as counterfacts.
Because it’s invented, we actually have the power in any given situation to consciously select a counterfact that make us feel fortunate rather than helpless. And choosing a positive counterfact, besides simply making us feel better, sets ourselves up for the whole host of benefits to motivation and performance we now know accompanies a positive mindset. – Shawn Actor
In other words, we’re the ones telling the story; we also have the power to change it.
Let’s say somebody hurts you in some way. You might conclude that this person is an a**hole or a horrible person. That’s one story. And while that might be the case, it’s not going to help you very much. Another story might be that you learned a valuable lesson from this person. You can then apply that lesson to your life in the future.
When I got out of business school in 2009, the job market was a disaster. My default story was “this sucks and how am I ever going to find a job?” But eventually, the story became “I have all the time in the world. What could I do now that I couldn’t if I had a job?” I started my first blog, and planted the seeds for career as an author and speaker.
Research shows that experiences provide more happiness than material goods in part because experiences are more likely to make us feel connected to others. – Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Happy Money
When you spend money on things, the satisfaction rarely lasts. What’s new eventually becomes old, and after a few years ends up in the dumpster. Do you remember that outfit that you bought back in 2013? Probably not. But spending money on experiences is different. It creates a memory, one that we can hold on to until we die.
When we do anything that we’re good at, it reinforces our confidence, and as a result, boosts our mood. Shawn refers to this as a signature strength.
I’ve also found that doing something creative can make a big difference in your level of happiness. Part of the reason I write 1000 words every day is that it makes me happier. For you that might be cooking or painting. Set aside time each day to do something you’re good at or something creative.
Remember. The reality you experience at work and home is a constellation of meaningful facts that your brain was wrapped together. Finding meaning in this social support we give others is one of the best ways to harness our cognitive resources, and intelligences to become more engaged motivated, productive and successful in our professional and personal lives. – Shawn Achor.
I have an Evernote file in which I keep all the kind things that people have said about The Unmistakable Creative Podcast or my work. Anytime I’m feeling down about my work, I read through that file. While this seems simple it can instantly shift your mood and motivate you.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a big fan of Shawn Achor’s work. It’s had a huge impact on my life and my work. And I can’t recommend all of his books highly enough.
I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.
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