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Not too long ago, I took a weekend trip to Los Angeles, California to give a talk at a conference. The day I left California, it was 70 degrees. The sun was shining, and everything seemed right with the world. When I got back to Dallas, the temperature was in the 30s. The cold hit me like a sharp slap in the face.

As I was walking out of the airport to catch my train home, I had the thought: Why don’t I live in Southern California? After all, people who live there must be happier, right? I mean, everything else being equal, wouldn’t they get at least a small boost from the beautiful surroundings?

Circumstances and Happiness

At a broader level, I started to think about how the circumstances of our lives impact our level of happiness. It certainly seems like my circumstances affect my happiness a lot. When I got an article accepted for publication, for example, I felt elated! When I injured myself and couldn’t exercise, I felt frustrated and upset. And so it goes.

But when I looked at the research, the data say our circumstances actually don’t play a big role in whether we are happy or not. Scientists have done studies on individuals who have experienced extreme circumstances, such as winning the lottery, or experiencing an injury or accident that left them disabled. And guess what? Their happiness changes, but only for a short time. Within 6 months, they are just as happy (or not) as they were before the major change in their circumstances. As much as it may seem like our circumstances affect our happiness, the truth is they don’t play a major role.

What Makes Us Happy?

So what does make us happy? There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that scientists think about half of our level of happiness is genetic. Some people simply have a predisposition toward being more or less happy. But the good news is about 40% of our happiness is due to things we can control and work on. So if you want to be happier, here are a few ideas to try:

  1. Relationships. Our relationships are a big factor in our happiness. Happy people tend to have satisfying relationships with their family and friends. Also, people who report having a satisfying marriage are happier than those who are single, divorced, or in an unsatisfying marriage. So if you want to be happy, work on improving your social relationships.
  2. Exercise. Exercise and physical activity improve our happiness and well-being. Not only do we get a rush of endorphins in the moment, but there are a whole host of benefits that go along with exercise and physical activity. For example, better physical health is positively associated with happiness. Exercise can help improve our self-esteem. So get yourself moving every day. My exercise of choice is Crossfit. What about you? Find a type of exercise that you enjoy (or at least can tolerate), and do it regularly.
  3. Goals. Working toward and accomplishing goals are a big factor in being happy. I love to relax, but after a couple of days of vacation and watching ESPN, I’m ready to start doing something again. Identify short-term and long-term goals and develop a plan to get yourself there. It’s rewarding to work toward something and see it come to fruition. Also, we seem to experience a high level of positive feelings when we are engaged in an activity that is a good match for our skill level (i.e., not too hard and not too easy). Psychologists call this state flow.
  4. Sleep. Get enough sleep. I need 7-8 hours a night. If I don’t get enough sleep, I get grumpy and upset. It’s a simple intervention, but you will be surprised at how different the world looks when you are well rested.
  5. California. Move to California. I’m kidding… Scientists actually did some research and found people who lived in California weren’t any happier than people who lived in other parts of the country.

Discussion

What is one tangible step you could take today to increase your level of happiness?