Money, fame, love, sports, chocolate—what works? For centuries, we’ve been trying to figure out what makes us happy. Psychologists, economists, theologians, and others have come at this from different angles. Can we choose to be happy? How?
Is happiness genetic?
Ever wondered how much control you have over your happiness? Studying identical twins raised in different environments helped researchers figure out that 48 percent—nearly half of our happiness—may be attributed to our genes.
Your happiness, your health
What about the rest? And how much does it matter? People who rate happier on psychological tests experience a range of health benefits, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These can include:
- Better response to flu vaccines
- Less severe colds
- Reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
- Better health maintenance
What is happiness, anyway?
Happiness is hard to define because it’s so personal. It reflects values, character, genes, and other factors. Happiness isn’t the same as quality of life: You can have everything you need and more, yet still feel sad. Finding out what makes you happy, and seeking it out, can have profound effects on your present and future.
“The key to happiness is acceptance. You can’t always control life, but you can accept what it gives you and control your reaction to it.”
—Jordan C., fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon
8 ways to happify your life
Remember when “YOLO” was everywhere? It was the modern version of carpe diem (“seize the day”): You only live once. Research has repeatedly shown the importance of savoring the ordinary moments. Valuing everyday experience offsets the diminishing returns of maximum-excitement activities, according to psychologists. Here are some tips for making this work:
Connect with friends and family.
We mean in person, rather than living from one social media “like” to the next. “Family and friends are very important to me, so spending time with them, no matter the cause, always brightens my day,” says Kayla O., a fourth-year undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Explore your own city and state.
Experience the familiar in an unfamiliar way. You’re bound to find local gems. “Go out with your friends and make a game of searching something out (like the best pizza place) or talk with locals you don’t normally talk with,” says Carissa Y., a first-year undergraduate at Colby College in Maine.
Spend more time with your parents.
The pace of Saturday night may be slower, but they’ll love it. You may get funny stories from their youth, a free meal, and laundry service. If you’re not sure what to talk about, help them sort books, reorganize the garage, or do a jigsaw puzzle. The conversation will happen. If you’re too far away to take a weekend trip home, pencil them in for a phone call or FaceTime date.
Take care of your body.
“There’s now fairly clear evidence that eating seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day will help your happiness and mental health,” says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics (and a behavioral scientist) at the University of Warwick in the UK. Quick tip: To keep your mood up, make sure you don’t get too hungry. (Only 28 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents correctly identified not getting hungry as a source of happiness.)
Relish the process.
“People focus too much on the outcomes they’re striving for, thinking they’ll be happy when they get there, when most of our research suggests they’re most excited and engaged during the process of striving for those outcomes,” says Dr. Brian Knutson, professor of psychology at Stanford University in California.
They say we can’t buy happiness—is that true? A large body of research attempts to answer this question. Here’s what we know (sort of).
The $75,000 benchmark
Maybe you plan to look for a job after you graduate college. It’s important to remember that your future salary won’t necessarily make you happier.
- The lower our income falls beneath $75,000 a year, the unhappier we feel, according to a 2010 Nobel Prize-winning study by Princeton University researchers.
- But earning more than $75,000 doesn’t increase happiness.
- Wait! Let’s define happiness. Our “changeable, day-to-day mood” isn’t affected by an income above $75,000. But the “deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going” continues to rise with earnings above $75,000. “High incomes don’t bring happiness, but they do bring you a life you think is better,” wrote researchers Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman.
- Downsides to a lower income? It doesn’t automatically cause sadness, but it makes us feel worse about the problems we already face.
Anything else going on?
It’s not as simple as a number, says Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, a research project that combines personal accounts, scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture. The relationship between wealth and happiness depends on a person’s circumstances and personality, including:
- Our personal preferences: For example, these determine how we use the money we have. Cozy evenings at home, or global travel?
- Our values: Some purchases make us happier than others do. Spending our money on meaningful experiences, including helping others, makes us happier than buying items we expect to enjoy, like a car or big-screen TV. (“Giving to others” is an acknowledged source of happiness for 53 percent of respondents to a Student Health 101 survey.)
- Comparisons: It’s all relative. Feeling like we’re worse off now than in the past, or struggling more than the people around us, makes us unhappy.
Does having the most friends or followers really translate to much? Seeking outward recognition and affirmation via social media is making us unhappy, studies suggest. “It can be mentally and even physically draining to focus so much on this validation,” says Rebekah S., a sixth-year undergraduate at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Frequent social media use can result in a separation between the social media “you,” who posts only the best moments of each day and builds a crafted public persona, and the real you, with all your mundane, less glamorous moments. As you compare your real life to the social media personas of others, your self-esteem can take a hit. Again, this reminds us how much of our happiness tends to be based on how we perceive others.
Over a two-week period, higher Facebook use was connected to lower life satisfaction levels among study participants, according to a 2013 study published in PLOS ONE. (Cause and effect have not been fully unraveled.)
“Turn off social media—it’s just a distraction from the real life you could be living.”
—Rachel M., fourth-year graduate student, University of Alaska Anchorage
To break free:
- Remember that Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat aren’t real life. Just as you filter pictures and carefully select what you post, your friends are doing the same.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others. Your news feed is not a race. Instead of envying your friend’s amazing study abroad pics, have faith in your own goals, pace, and priorities.
- Unplug for a set period each day. Those “likes,” “loves,” and photo tags aren’t going anywhere.
Physically active people are more enthusiastic and excited than sedentary people are—research proves it.
College students are happier on days when they’re physically active, according to a 2011 study. Students recorded their quality of sleep, physical activity levels, and emotional states. On days of higher physical activity, students reported more frequent pleasant feelings.
Physical activity also protects against depression caused by stress. Exercise reduces kynurenine acid, a substance that’s harmful to the brain and known to collect in the blood during stress, reported researchers in Sweden in 2014.
Having a case of the Mondays? Contrary to common belief—and the Sunday night blahs—work makes us happier, according to research.
Your choice of career will likely have an impact on your happiness. Of all measures of our emotional well-being, job satisfaction has been the most stable over time. That’s according to the General Social Survey, which has periodically surveyed Americans since 1972. In 2014, roughly 8 out of 10 Americans said they were satisfied with their job.
The nature of the job matters, of course. The survey concludes that while unemployment can have a catastrophic impact on our happiness, combining our passions and our skills in work that’s meaningful to us increases happiness.
What’s love got to do with it? A lot. Strong, satisfying relationships are the key to happiness, according to the Harvard Grant Study conducted over 75 years. Since then, numerous additional studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with friends, family, and their community experience fewer health problems, are happier, and live longer than those who are more socially disconnected.
The quality of your relationships is key. For college students—away from family and childhood friends, and grappling with internships, academic pressures, and extracurriculars—a call home or a late-night chat with an old friend can go a long way. Spending time with friends increases happiness, said 85 percent of students who responded to our survey.
“What we have found in our research is that college students were more satisfied and experienced greater well-being if they had made progress in getting to know themselves better, in building meaningful relationships, and in contributing to their community,” says Dr. Edward Deci, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester in New York who studies human motivation.
Happify your social life:
- Volunteer for a cause you believe in. It might help you to connect with people who share your energy and values. Check out all the options at DoSomething.org.
- Join a running group or casual sports league, like Ultimate Frisbee.
- Stay in touch with loved ones. Answer phone calls and texts, respond to emails, and notice what’s going on in other people’s lives.
- Be inclusive. Invite shy or socially awkward people to join you. For emotional and developmental reasons, it’s harder for some than it is for others.
Do fame and recognition make us happy? With social media and reality television giving us 24/7 access into the lives of others, one must wonder, is it all worth it?
“Becoming wealthier, more widely recognized, and more attractive doesn’t add to college students’ satisfaction and well-being,” says Dr. Deci. The goals of recent college graduates predicted their happiness levels, his research found. Those who sought and attained “intrinsic” goals, such as a deep, lasting relationship, were happier than those who sought more “extrinsic” goals, such as fame or recognition.
Ever reassured yourself that “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? There’s some truth to this.
A little adversity goes a long way. In studies, young animals who were moderately stressed were better able to recover from stress as adults, according to Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In human studies, mild doses of negative experiences seemed to build resilience, with moderately stressful events increasing our ability to bounce back from unpleasant emotions. This mild stress helps us strengthen our happiness muscles for defense against future emotional beatdowns, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Major adversity, including traumatic experiences, has the opposite effect. It makes us more vulnerable.
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Rebekah S., sixth-year undergraduate student, Rowan University, New Jersey
“Happier is a digital journal to help boost your mood and confidence on the go. It allows people to share their positive thoughts and the good things going on in their lives, with the goal of helping people feel more positive—not only by seeing the good things in their own life but also in others’ lives. This app allows you to take a break from your busy day to reflect on the direction life is taking. Happier is based on the idea that sharing our positive thoughts, either with others or in a personal journal, helps us lead happier lives. Note: The Android equivalent is linked below if you don’t have an iPhone.”
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the high grade you got on your last exam or just having a great time going out with some friends—in fact, reminding ourselves every day that there’s something to appreciate helps improve perspective and boost confidence. With the busy lives college students lead (hello classes, work, and extracurriculars), this app is a reminder to take a step back from everything and reflect on the good.
The app is enjoyable to use and easy to manage. It’s a fun, new way of engaging in the lives of those we care about and taking part in the joyous things they have going on. Plus it’s way easier than writing something down in a journal—especially after getting home at 3 a.m. from working in the lab and having to be up in three hours!
It’s easy to get bogged down in negativity, especially with everything that could potentially be going wrong on a given day. Happier allows for just what the name intends: happier people and happier lives. And if that’s not effective, I don’t know what is.
Andrew Oswald, professor of economics, University of Warwick, UK.
Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, Stanford University, California.
Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology, University of Rochester, New York.
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