If you want to be happier but believe your current situation (or perhaps your past) is keeping it from happening, then I’m happy to inform you that scientists think you’re wrong about that. It turns out your genetic make-up and your life circumstances add up to only about 60% of your baseline happiness level. Although this number varies from person to person, what’s important to keep in mind is that the rest is up to you and your thoughts, actions, and behaviors.
When it comes to boosting happiness, here are 5 commonly believed myths that may be fooling you.
1. “I need to relax. I should take my vacation right away!”
You may be thinking, “I need to take a vacation right away. That will definitely make me happier.” Well, if the vacation turns out perfectly—everyone gets to do what they want, the weather is wonderful, nothing unwanted happens, and you return fully relaxed—then you could be right. But there’s something you could do differently to make yourself much happier starting today.
Right now, you could schedule your vacation for 6 months or even 1 year from now. Then, every day you can think about it and savor little bits of what’s to come. Dr. Loretta Breuning says this triggers the happy brain neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine is that “feel good” chemical you get when you’re anticipating a reward. Research also shows that people feel happier in the weeks and months leading up to a vacation than they do during the actual vacation itself. Take a look at your calendar and start making it a point to enjoy those daily pre-vacation mood boosts today.
2. “I should be carefully practicing gratitude every day.”
You might think that practicing gratitude every single day is the best idea—for example, writing down 3 to 5 things that make you grateful before you go to bed. In doing research for my book, The Positive Journal, I learned that Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky found that people who journaled about gratitude once or twice a week were happier than those who did it daily. Why? The procedure becomes rote and the brain stops paying attention. Gratitude expert Robert Emmons describes it this way: “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them. It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
3. “That special treat makes me so happy, I should eat one daily.”
Your brain pays attention to change and doesn’t pay attention to something after repeated occurrences. Remember that annoying sound in your workplace that you thought you’d never get used to—but did? There’s a name for that: “habituation.” Research in neurobiology shows, “Other things being equal, the more rapid the frequency of stimulation, the more rapid and/or more pronounced is habituation.” Since that daily treat loses your attention, plan to have it only on Fridays (for example), and see how much more you savor and appreciate it. You’ll be enjoying your treat and nipping habituation in the bud at the same time.
4. “As soon as I get that, I’ll be happier!”
As soon as you get that new house or that great car, you’ll be happy…right? We don’t consider that this won’t give us long-term happiness, because the human brain adapts fairly quickly to the new level. This psychological phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation”—also known as the “hedonic treadmill.”
Psychologist Rick Hanson of UC Berkeley suggests changing what you focus your attention on—known as “self-directed neuroplasticity.” He says, “Neuroplasticity refers to the malleable nature of the brain, and it’s constant, ongoing.” Self-directed neuroplasticity means focusing your attention with clarity, skillfulness and intention. “The key to it is a controlled use of attention.”
He suggests you begin rewiring your brain for happiness by focusing your attention on a positive experience. It can be something as ordinary as finishing a batch of emails, or completing the first step in a project. Stay with this positive experience for at least 5 to 10 seconds. Hanson advises, “Find something fresh or novel about it. Recognize how it’s personally relevant—how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together, so they’ll really wire together.”
Start doing this simple act, taking advantage of the malleability of your brain—and making yourself happier.
5. “Making more money will make me happier.”
Studies suggest that more money can lead to a significant bump in positive outlook when it brings people out of poverty, but a pay increase will not deliver a long-lasting positive effect because you’ll find you’ve jumped on that ever-present hedonic treadmill.
However, if money allows you to pursue a purpose you’re passionate about, then it is helping you become happier. A life that contains purpose and value has long-term happiness.
Harvard professor Michael Norton says that spending money on social experiences will make you happier. People experience greater happiness with stronger social connections, so spending your money on concert tickets or a yoga retreat with a friend can give you an extra mood boost. And remember, anticipating an event triggers that happy brain chemical dopamine—and that’s a happiness bonus!