An estimated 50 percent of our happiness levels come from our genes (also known as our “set point”), which means the other 50 percent is a combination of our circumstances and voluntary choices. So, if you’re a glass half-full kind of person (which I am), you’ll see that as a testament to the fact that we make our own happiness. We’re largely in control of it; it is not given or taken away from us.
But how exactly can we proactively create happiness? When working with my life coaching clients, I don’t try to sell them some happiness panacea. There’s no single key to creating joy, but there are certain things that will significantly boost your happiness quotient. The best part? All of these things cost little to no money.
Here’s my 5-step guide for enhanced happiness, no matter your set point or budget.
Make a Real Connection
Social influence is a very real and exceptionally strong force, with the unique preferences and attributes of a group arising from the interaction and connection of that group. Couple that with the fact that everything we do or say ripples through our network up to three degrees away, and it’s clear just how influential our networks are, making everything from weight to political views to happiness contagious.
Research indicates that creating connections is perhaps the greatest contributor to and indicator of happiness. But keep in mind that all socialization doesn’t support positive well-being. Networks are powerful, so choose your friends and the people you interact with regularly wisely.
Boost your happiness: Motivational speaker Jim Rohn, in his talk on the law of averages, famously said we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Make a list of the three to five people who dominate your time. How do they measure up to the kind of person you want to be? If that list isn’t aligned with your standard of excellence and aspirational self, consider strategically allocating more time to people who are.
Yes, connection is central to happiness, but so is being alone and quieting the mind (e.g. connecting with yourself). Meditation is a powerful way to improve your happiness set point but it doesn’t just make you happier: Meditation also helps the brain find and sustain focus, combats ADHD, and improves cognitive functioning. Cognitive performance is improved after just 20 minutes of meditating for four days. Perhaps most surprisingly, meditation also boosts immunity. And you need not be religious to engage in meditation. It can be a spiritual experience for you, or you can just think of it as the ultimate mind-hack.
Boost your happiness: Cultivating a mindfulness practice is extremely challenging for most of us. There are endless demands on our time and finding 20 minutes to sit quietly and surrender productivity and connectivity is no easy feat. Plus, it can seem boring. As with any new habit, personalizing it and making it a formal commitment to the practice is the best way to make it happen. Play around with guided versus quiet practices, or check out group meditation classes at a local yoga studio. (Arianna Huffington also offered some tips on how to get started with meditation for our readers.)
Being happy is linked to actively exercising an appreciation for what’s already in your life. In Brother David Steindl-Rast’s TED Talk on the link between gratitude and happiness, he argues that “it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” And research is on his side: Study after study shows that expressing gratitude enhances happiness — and even your health. Gratitude is simply the conscious acknowledgement of the goodness in your life. The source of that happiness is usually partially external, which fosters a larger sense of connection to people and things, and as we’ve already established, connection matters.
Boost your happiness: I encourage my clients to keep a gratitude journal. I like the Five Minute Journal in physical book form, though some may prefer a digital app. Regardless of your preferred format, write down three things you’re grateful for for 21 days. This simple exercise fosters positivity and personal growth while warding off depression and anxiety.
What’s the most universally appreciated attribute an individual can exercise? Many might argue it’s kindness. And if the betterment of those around you isn’t inspiration enough, think of it in more selfish terms: Altruistic behaviors boost our own self image and are a key part of the formula for personal happiness, not just that of others. Kindness actually creates happiness and gives us a larger sense of purpose, but only when it’s voluntary — what social scientists refer to as “prosocial behavior.” When it’s voluntary, altruism can have a greater effect on the individual than on the person they’re helping.
Boost your happiness: You don’t need to start your own foundation to practice altruism. Acts of kindness can be as simple as telling a significant other you love them or buying coffee for a coworker. Find one small way of giving every day for a month or until it reaches the point of automaticity — then it ceases to be something on your to-do list and becomes part of your everyday routine.
Find Your Flow at Work
When we think of work, words like “money” and “achievement” likely come to mind before “happiness.” Most of us spend over 30 percent of our lives working, and yet we don’t prioritize that as a place where happiness should flourish. One key way to increase happiness is not by avoiding work, but by engaging in meaningful work by finding flow. A term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” flow is the absorbed state you enter when all your skills are needed to excel at an activity. It feels effortless, spontaneous and automatic; you become one with the activity, or as Csikszentmihalyi refers to it, the “action carries us forward as if by magic.”
The last time you lost track of time while working on a presentation or focused entirely on the brainstorming session with your team, you were engaged in flow. Smart employers help their employees identify meaningful work and achieve flow because it not only makes them happier, but also boosts productivity.
Boost your happiness: Give yourself the gift of flow at least once during each work day. Clear away distractions — cell phones, social media, email — and dive into a task, uninterrupted, for as long as possible (90 minutes is generally accepted as the target timeframe for optimal flow-states). Compare how you feel after that 90-minute period to when you are less focused. Start developing your own best practices for finding flow throughout the day.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.