Drawing on available empirical research, Erik Barker and Belle Beth Cooper have compiled a list of factors that research correlates with happiness. Happy living is certainly better than miserable or — even worse in my view — indifferent living. Unfortunately, the Barker and Cooper essays are disorganized and point at too many factors that matter. This essay organizes their insights and identifies priorities. (For more details on the science behind them, consult the essays and citations in Barker and Cooper, here and here)
The factors that contribute to happiness fall into four overlapping categories: 1) Physical and Mental Wellness; 2) Companionship; 3) Attitude; and 4) Purpose. I list the individual factors correlated to happiness and add a thought or two on each.
I suggest an approach for setting priorities and working on self-improvement. It is not hard to identify issues to work on from the four lists, each according to his or her needs and priorities. By way of conclusion, I argue for focusing on habits as a practicable framework for improvement.
Physical and Mental Wellness: Exercise, Rest and Recover
Exercise more. Research suggests that 7-10 minutes of intense exercise a handful of times per week might be enough to make you happier and fitter. Nonetheless, a regular and rigorous exercise regime burns more calories and contributes significantly to wellness and a positive outlook. In my own life the correlation between fitness and happiness is unmistakable. It helps me to beat back depression and melancholy; it improves the quantity and quality of my sleep; and it improves my outlook. A sustained exercise regime, moreover, seems to produce what economists call positive externalities – good “spillovers” — into other aspects of life.
Sleep more. Do whatever you need to do to get a good night’s sleep. New mattress, more exercise, warm milk, etc. Do research and get professional help if necessary. Physical rest is crucial. Nap when you need to.
Clear your head periodically. Some people golf, some gamble, some do yoga, and some meditate. In addition to sleep, make it a point to power off from time to time even during busy workdays. According to biographers, Churchill was a glutton for work. Even during the war, however, he took time to dine with colleagues and friends as a way of unwinding and recharging his batteries. While enduring the most terrible pressures, he understood the need for break and he almost always managed to get a good night’s sleep. Do whatever you need to in order to clear your noggin from stress and worry. Films, sports, books, and much else help me to clear my head of debris. Visualization, see below, can be helpful.
Visualize: “Plan a trip (but don’t take one)” This one is about the importance of visualization and treating the object of your visualization as something real. Planning a vacation can be relaxing and uplifting, as many have noted. But so can lots of things. Visualization can be soothing and relaxing – a form of meditation that helps us to rest and rewire our brains. Think about achieving important objectives or important steps along the way. It goes without saying that you should not overdue this. Over indulgence can be a form of sloth and procrastination. I think a lot about the touring motorcycle I will purchase during my next mid-life crisis, probably in 3-4 years.
Spend time outdoors. Go for a hike, go on a bike ride, go for a walk, or go for a jog somewhere pretty. I don’t take advantage of my lovely neighborhood enough. It is incredibly pleasant for walks. I love trees and birds. I enjoy the scenery on long bike rides. Cows make me smile and I sometimes greet them with a moo. Go smell roses. During the war, Lincoln took carriage rides. He loved visiting the field. Part of the motivation was politics, part was statesmanship, and part was relaxation and socializing with his commanders and interacting with the troops.
Companionship: Friends and Family
Spend times with friends and family. It is important to sort out who those are that you love like family and seek them out for companionship. Rely on the philosopher Kant for some guidance: you know someone is a true friend when you prize him or her intrinsically rather than as a means for something else. Meaningful sociability with friends does interact with other factors. It helps with rest and recovery. Friends can inspire and motivate.
Attitude: Kindliness and Gratitude
Help others. Kindliness and magnanimity to others is essential for happiness. Being a giver is incredibly rewarding and, paradoxically, one of the most selfish things you can do to boost happiness.
Practice gratitude towards others. It makes a positive difference to be kindly and grateful towards others. I would add the obverse to this, which might be just as crucial. It’s important to let go of slights, resentments and ill will towards others, real and perceived. This is difficult and I fail regularly at this, but one must try to develop patience, empathy, and understanding with nasty and unpleasant folks. Harboring ill-will towards others is as toxic as it is unnecessary. My role model on this is President Lincoln, who bore malice towards no one. This served him politically and personally. Lincoln helped and promoted whomever he could even though these had treated him shabbily or even conspired against him. This not only yielded enormous political dividends for him, but it also gilded his immortal reputation. Lincoln, too, had steel and when it served him he was not shy about marking enemies out for destruction.
Smile and laugh. This one caught me off guard. But the more I thought of it, the more it made me realize that it is not simply smiling. Humor, joking, and laughter are extremely important for happiness, particularly under duress and hard times. Historians agree that this was Lincoln’s great weapon to lighten the crushing weight of the war, politics, and personal tragedy during his presidency, not to mention his melancholy persona. Though an inveterate workaholic, Lincoln made time to joke, tell stories, and laugh with everyone around him, especially his good friends, Secretary of State Seward and his aids, Hay and Nicolay, which he loved like family. This buoyed him and he lifted those around him during the trials and tribulations of politics, civil war, and marriage.
Be optimistic. Delusion and optimism can pay dividends. They can keep one motivated and focused on ambitions and goals. I call this the Quixotic impulse. There is something to be said for remaining grounded even as we remain optimistic about the future as we plod along towards our goals and aspirations. An old friend of mine likes to quote the African proverb: “When you pray, move your feet.” Having dreams and ambitions can be the most essential life preserver when one gets rudely tossed about an unforgiving sea.
Don’t dwell on regrets (but don’t ignore them either). If you dwell on regrets you are certain to be miserable. Regrets from failure stir fear and pusillanimity. However, it is important to remember and learn from mistakes, failures, heart-breaks, etc., particularly if they motivate you to focus on goals and dreams. Pain, constructively channeled, can be invigorating and inspirational. But don’t dwell on the bad stuff lamenting that you could have done things differently or that life isn’t fair. This is poison. Remember Shakespeare: “Tis good for men to love their present pains.” Pain can be a prudent counselor if we listen.
Have faith and strive. Being industrious and ambitious is fulfilling. It keeps you focused and happy. Have a big goal and think of stepping stone goals along the way. Faith is critical. One must have faith in oneself, one’s maker, one’s muse, devotion to family and or some sense of purpose to keep one buggering along.
Practice what you are good at as often as you can. As a professor, I’m lucky that I enjoy what I do – reading, writing, and teaching. This, I imagine, is why professors don’t mind being less well off than lawyers, doctors, and bankers. Find work that is meaningful and enjoyable. If you are stuck at a job that you need to support yourself and family, figure out ways of making it more enjoyable. For example, research suggests that having an excellent friend at work is correlated with happiness at work, more so than other factors. Develop a strategy to prevent work from becoming cancerous.
Be plodder not a sprinter. Have ambitious goals; say, to run a marathon. Do relish the training runs and the goodness that comes with the small accomplishments and positive spillovers from exercise. Do plan on writing that book, but break it down to component parts end enjoy the steps along the way. Talk with friends about your projects. Be accountable for your progress. Research shows that holding yourself accountable to others increases the likelihood of making progress on projects.
Savor as much as you can as often as you can. Smell the roses, yes, but focus mentally and do so on particular activities. In other words, work when you are working, rest when you are resting, and enjoy others when you’re supposed to being doing that. Don’t let your mind wander too much while moving through your day. Be exuberant about what you are doing when you are doing it.
Conclusion: Purpose and Habit
Given the list of factors, where does one begin reprogramming one’s life to boost happiness? I recommend beginning with elements from the last category, purpose. You have to live deliberately for something, whether it’s to quit drinking, a religious calling, your vocation, raising your kids, redemption of an unrequited love, etc. And you have to do so with faith in yourself and, if you believe in one, your maker. Machiavelli wrote: “Make no small plans for they have no power to stir the soul.” Without inspiration, purpose will not motivate one sufficiently to sustain the herculean effort required re-tool one’s patterns of behavior – or habits – and sustain changes during hard times.
The key to change, as Duhigg has argued in this magnificent book, is learning to understand how habits work and to tinker diligently and systematically to re-program oneself out of bad habits and into new ones. Together with purpose, one must have goals, big and intermediate ones, and one must have concrete measurable steps along the way for making progress. The research on habits notes that group accountability, together with faith and passion in oneself and one’s purpose, are key ingredient for reorganizing one’s life activities to create new habits.
To change habits, one can focus on any of the factors listed above depending on one’s needs and priorities. That said, as Duhigg demonstrates, is that changing habits is extremely difficult and time consuming even if one is self-aware both about the need to change and the methodology for doing so. So, one’s best bet is to attempt to implement or change one big habit, one that generates large positive spillovers into other activities. If work is miserable, focus on making a good friend or two there. Some studies show that having a good friend at work can make you a lot happier. If you are addicted to cigarettes or booze, focus on regulating or quitting those activities. If you’re fat or unhealthy, focus on diet and or exercise. Whatever you do, keep systematic track of your activities and find a friend or a group to report to on your progress. Be conscious of failures in your effort to implement change and don’t give up. Here is where inspiration and purpose matter: these should provide you with the fuel to press on and, when necessary, to reach out for life support from friends and or support group.