I hate to burst your bubble. Happiness isn’t something that just happens to you. It’s a learned behavior.
This was a hard pill to swallow because I think of myself as a naturally happy person. But the more I started to dig into the topic of happiness – because it’s a thing at the moment – the more I realized that I might be kidding myself.
So I enrolled into Yale University’s free online course The Science of Well-Being through Coursera where psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos teaches students to build skillsets that will make them feel happier over time.
Like many people, I was programmed to believe that happiness stems from landing a dream job, getting good grades, being skinny, looking pretty. Boy is that thinking ever wrong.
Happiness is not what you think
According to Professor Santos in a Happify interview, our minds lie to us. Research reveals a slew of misconceptions about what we think make us feel awesome. The funny thing is that we think we need to change our life to become happier. Come to find out, all we need to do is put certain strategies into practice to build happier habits.
The proof is in the evidence. Basically, it all boils down to flipping our mindset away from our “miswants” of the wrong stuff and diligently integrating the right stuff into our day. Over the 10-week course, Professor Santos lectures on the science behind what we really should and shouldn’t want and subsequently introduces simple behavior change exercises, or rewirements, that when done habitually will shift our happiness radar.
“Much of what science tells us is that daily rituals can increase happiness,” says Professor Santos, adding “To actually see behavioral change, though, you need to put in the intentional work.”
I’ll be honest. I have serious reservations about this science of happiness bibble-babble. Do I have to contemplate my every action? I’m on a happiness high. Will being intentional skew my happiness? Will I be that one person who gets less happy from taking the course?
As my journey continued, I crossed paths with Ana Lopez, a certified psychologist and life coach who recently obtained her certification as a happiness coach. She not only confirms the science but she corroborates the fact that happiness is daily work.
“You can’t just expect to be happy,” says Lopez. “Our mind is tuned into looking at life in black and white. We forget the gray space. When we find something that doesn’t bring us happiness, we start to compare and label our thoughts.”
Labeling often implies that something is “good” or “bad” and better than the other. In order to enjoy our happiness we need to accept that other side – the uncomfortable, the comparisons, the mind traps.
How then do we thwart the cognitive biases our minds conjure up? Researchers find that happy people tend to be grounded in the present moment.
Lopez suggests tapping into stillness to bring the mind and body to the present. “ In silence you stop labeling the uncomfortable. The day you stop labeling happiness is the day you find happiness everywhere.”
Turns out that despite my initial skepticism, the science points me back in the right direction. My mind’s been telling me the wrong way to be happy. As soon as I figured out how to reset my thinking, bam, I was subconsciously weaving in simple behaviors throughout my day.
And as Lopez says: “After you put it all together, happiness happens naturally.”
Magic potion for happiness
While there is no fairy to sprinkle happiness dust over us, there are strategies to apply to your daily life. Professor Santos recommends tapping into one of these habits of happy people.
Run-through your signature strengths The VIA Institute on Character have identified 24 character strengths that make up the best of our personalities. Once you take the survey to determine your top four, you can consciously use those strengths in new ways.
Savor life Stop, pause, and pay attention. Be present and enjoy what you are doing at the moment.
Practice gratitude When you ask a happy person what makes them tick, they spontaneously bring to mind the little things that they are grateful for. Research shows that jotting down three to five things that you are grateful for every day can statistically improve your well-being in as short as two weeks.
Be kind When you are nice to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up. It also puts a smile on the other person’s face. An act of kindness does not have to be over-the-top or time-sensitive, but it should be something that helps or impacts another person. It can even be as basic as saying hello to someone you pass by.
Stay socially connected Many of us feel lonely, which is surprising because we’re often around other people. We just don’t try to make a connection with them. Make an effort to schedule time for the people in your life. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, go rogue and chat up a stranger (like someone in front of you at the coffee shop).
Make time for exercise The link between exercise and mood is strong. Research shows that increasing your physical activity to at least 30 minutes a few times a week can do wonders on your psyche.
Get enough sleep To feel better both mentally and physically, you need to get some shut-eye. Professional sleepers recommend at least seven hours a night several times a week. To ease into sleep mode, put down your phone before you go to bed and hit the sack at the same hour every night.
Meditate There’s tons of evidence proving that five minutes of meditation has a host of positive effects. Meditation can help you improve your concentration, not only when you’re meditating, but afterwards as well. Most importantly, meditation can improve your mood and help stop mind-wandering.
Consciously communicate Although this strategy is not in the course I feel it is relevant to the big picture. Being aware of how you talk and listen enriches relationships and makes you a better person to be around.
Cheats to keep rewirements top of mind
In addition to the above strategies, Professor Santos shares five tips to make seeking happiness easier.
PRO TIP 1 Make a plan! Think about your rewirement in terms of the following: When will you do it, where will you do it, who will you do it with? Having concrete answers to these questions will help you stick to your plan.
PRO TIP 2 Socially commit! Tell someone about your challenge. It not only boosts accountability but it also increases the likelihood that you will commit to this new routine.
PRO TIP 3 Design your environment to set yourself up for success! Take a moment to consider what situational support you need in place and brainstorm ways to promote good environments or fix bad ones that might be getting in your way. One suggestion is to piggy-back the new habit onto an existing habit.
PRO TIP 4 Keep a growth mindset! The idea that you can continue getting better over time to focus not on your performance but rather on how much you’re learning. How much are you improving over time? What else can you do to make this rewirement a daily part of your life?
PRO TIP 5 Track it! The best way to make a habit stick is to monitor its progress. I’m sure there’s an app for that.
Shelly Nyqvist is a certified life and travel coach, writer, workshop leader, and MEscape expert who helps today’s woman venture out (near and far) to discover within and find her best self (again).