Happiness is a state of mind. Specifically, it is a state of “well-being and contentment.”
But the definition can be tricky and assumptions about the word can cause confusion. Many don’t even realize learning how to be happy is something that can be intentionally practiced. Some people, when they hear the word ‘happiness,’ assume it is speaking of an emotion such as pleasure or joy. For them, it is what people feel in the immediate here and now.
This is the reason some people say, “Don’t pursue happiness, seek joy. Happiness is fickle and fading, joy remains forever.” But this short-term definition of happiness is not how everyone understands the word. Some define it to mean long-term satisfaction. In fact, when I speak of experiencing happiness in life, I am not thinking of short-term emotions at all. I think of a quality of living—a much longer-term view of the word.
Both definitions are understood to be correct and speak of different realities. But are they really that different? I don’t think so. After all, a long-term experience of life satisfaction is almost certainly made up of many short-term feelings of joy and pleasure. Does that mean every day is a great day with no trials, temptations, or downturns? Certainly not. But it does mean when we look back at the many seasons of life, we can look back satisfied at how we navigated them.
The long-term feeling of life satisfaction is most experienced when we embrace the emotion of joy in the here and now. And we accomplish that by taking steps each day to be happy. Here are some tips on how to be happier starting today.
1. Choose happiness
The most important thing to realize about happiness is that it is not an outcome of current circumstances. Just the opposite, happiness is a choice. Is this easier on some days than others? Absolutely. But if you get caught in the trap of thinking your circumstances need to change before you can be happy, you’ll never, ever get there.
2. Focus on the good
There are good things in your life right now: you are alive, you are fed, you are healthy, you have family and friends, and you have opportunities each day to pursue meaningful work. Maybe not all of those are true for you right now, but certainly some of them are—which means there is good in your life that you can focus on.
Marine Sgt. Jonny Joseph Jones lost both of his legs in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan. I was struck by a quote of his I saw recently. He said this, “People ask how I stay so positive after losing my legs… I simply ask how they stay so negative when they have both of theirs.”
Happiness is about perspective and if you’re looking for reasons to be happy, you’ll probably find them. Happy people focus on positive thoughts.
3. Stop comparing
No matter how you choose to define happiness—short-term or long-term—comparison will rob you of it. Whether we compare our finances, our body type, our vacations, our talents, our house size or our shoe size, there are no winners in the game of comparison. But here’s the good news: Nobody is forcing you to play! You can stop any time you want. Be grateful for what you have, appreciate who you are, work hard every day to live your best life, and stop comparing yourself to others.
4. Practice gratitude and generosity
In the world of positive psychology, there are a few themes that emerge every time happiness is studied. Among those recurring themes, we find gratitude and generosity.
Both of which can only be understood correctly when we see them as disciplines rather than responses. A discipline is something we practice regardless of our circumstances. If you are waiting for enough money to become generous, you’ll never get there. Likewise, if you are waiting for everything to be perfect to be grateful, you’ll never experience it. Choose to be thankful today. And choose to be generous with your time and money. Making them both a discipline in your life will result in a happier today… and tomorrow.
5. Don’t pursue physical possessions
Possessions are necessary for life, but our society has seemed to confuse consumerism with happiness. Marketers work hard to convince us their products are not just needed for life, but that they are essential for happiness. Slowly but surely, we begin to believe their empty promises and waste our lives pursuing things that can never satisfy. We sacrifice time, money, energy, and focus chasing and accumulating things we do not need.
These excess possessions add stress, worry, and burden onto our lives. Want to become a bit more happy today? Go declutter a closet or drawer and start to challenge consumerism in your life.
6. Be present in your relationships
Robert J. Waldinger is an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School where he is best known for directing the world’s longest-running longitudinal study tracking the health and mental well-being of a group of 724 American men for 76 years.
One thing that he has learned, and has been confirmed by studies elsewhere, is that relationships hold the key to happiness:
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.
We don’t get to control every aspect of our relationships (we didn’t choose our family, for example). But we can all take steps to be a good friend. And good friends tend to attract healthy community.
7. Develop healthy habits
Annie Dillard is credited for saying, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And she is right. Our lives are filled with days, our days are filled with hours, and this present hour is filled with whatever you chose to fill it with. So pursue healthy habits that add value to your hours, days, and lifetime.
Spend time outside. Eat healthy. Exercise regularly. Quit smoking. Put down your cell phone. Work hard. Pray often. And get enough sleep.
8. Look outside yourself
The pursuit of self comes natural to us. We don’t need to be reminded to pursue our own self-interests. We pursue self-survival, self-promotion, self-actualization, and self-exaltation as if it is hardwired in our genes.
But the most efficient pathway to lasting happiness and fulfillment is not to look only at your own interests, but also to the interests of others. When we shift our focus off of ourselves, we live lives of greater meaning and greater contribution. When we serve others without concern over what we might receive in return, we experience the beauty of selfless love. The size of our universe (and happiness) begins to expand exponentially.