Buying their first home had drained most of the family’s savings, but that didn’t stop Jen Bromely, a nurse and mom to 4-year-old Sofia, from getting estimates on a kitchen renovation. “I’d flip through Pottery Barn catalogs and groan to my husband that the harvest-gold appliances were making me crazy,” she says. So Jen took on more hours at the doctor’s office and financed a sparkling stainless steel kitchen. When the renovation was complete, Jen says, “It made me happy for about a month before i started thinking, Wow, next to the kitchen, our dining room is a dump.”
Who among us hasn’t assumed we know what will make us happier? If we just had those designer boots, that promotion, another baby—we’d finally be content. Yet that very mindset turns out to be one of the biggest sources of our unhappiness. Call it the happiness paradox. We spend tremendous amounts of energy pursuing get-happy-quick schemes that fail to make us feel better, says noted economist Richard Easterlin. “Evidence indicates that when we get more goods, we want more goods,” he explains. “As our income goes up, we want a bigger, better house, but aspirations in other domains don’t change. We have a fixed idea of ‘good health,’ ‘a happy family.’” And yet we will chase after money or things at the expense of our health or time with our family, even when the latter are what will bring us the most happiness. So what can we do to get off that self-defeating treadmill?
We spoke with leading experts and reviewed recent studies to unlock any secrets and discovered happiness takes some counterintuitive thinking.
1. Doodling isn’t just for dreamers.
Next time you’re in a meeting stressing over third-quarter numbers and the fact that you’re not home with your sick child, ease up on the note-taking and draw some daisies, a happy face or a cartoon of that know-it-all co-worker. Research shows that upbeat doodles ease stress and boost happiness. In a 2008 study by researchers Anne Dalebroux, Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner, college students were asked to sit through an extremely stressful moment. then they were instructed to sketch something, without any concern for artistic ability.
Those who were specifically instructed to sketch a happy image saw their moods improve, leading the researchers to conclude that just the act of doodling happy images may allow the artist to escape from the stress of many unpleasant situations.
2. Bring on disappointment.
Many of us don’t apply for the amazing, right-up-my-alley job that just opened up because we think we’ll never recover from the failure and rejection if we don’t get it. We don’t attempt to learn to surf, ski or sing because we’re pretty sure we won’t be any good at it. Then we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy saying we’re unhappy because we hate our job and we can’t ski. But research suggests that we should just give it a go. Disappointment never hurts as much as we think it will, according to studies. The disappointment we imagine is far more painful than the reality. “People consistently overestimate how awful they’ll feel and how long they’ll feel awful,” says Daniel Gilbert, PhD, a Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness.
3. The shorter the vacation, the better.
If you can’t take more than a week away from work for your family vacation, don’t feel guilty or sorry for yourself. Research shows there’s no demonstrable difference in overall happiness if you take a two-week vacation or a one-week vacation. If anything, one study that recently appeared in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that you might be better off booking several short trips and “consequently experiencing many brief happiness boosts,” according to researcher Jeroen Nawijn of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, home to the world Database of Happiness.
4. Consistency is a killjoy.
Routines can be a very good thing, especially when it comes to kids and bedtimes or visits to the gym. But when you are too consistent, especially in conjunction with things that make you happy, you can ruin a good thing. imagine eating your favorite food at every meal. Eventually pizza loses its pizzazz. Even acts of kindness—which are huge happiness boosters, according to experts—may eventually cause more harm than good. Researchers have found that repeating the same thing over and over again, day in and day out, in order to increase your happiness might actually have the opposite effect. in one study, students were asked to spend a semester performing do-gooder acts.
In the research done by Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri, Julia Boehm of the Harvard School of Public Health and Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California–Riverside, one group was asked to perform the same act over and over again, while another group was told to mix up the sorts of positive things they did and not to repeat the same thing. Those who consistently mixed up the tasks they performed reported feeling much happier in the long run. and that led the researchers to this conclusion: “Repeating an intentional activity without spontaneity and freshness may actually be detrimental to wellbeing.” So go ahead and surprise a friend with flowers, volunteer at a soup kitchen and sneak a surprise snack into your child’s backpack—just be sure you shake it up.
5. Getting older rocks!
the media does a good job of making us feel that our best days are behind us. So we try to hide our age with nips and tucks. But in fact, recent research suggests that we grow happier as we age. Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen, PhD, led a study examining the emotions of 184 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 94. So many of us fear that aging will bring loneliness and sadness, says Dr. Carstensen, that we pretend it’s not happening rather than embrace what is possible. “Contrary to the popular view that youth is ‘the best time in life,’” she says her research indicates the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade. Take that, Botox!
6. Forget the raise.
More money usually means more work, more responsibility and more stress. And studies have shown time and again that if you’re making from $50,000 to $70,000, additional money doesn’t bring additional day-to-day happiness. this secret, from economist Easterlin, is actually quite simple: “A reallocation of time in favor of family life and health would, on average, increase individual happiness.”
7. Visit Iceland.
The Caribbean may have sandy white beaches, but tropical temperatures can’t compare to the cold when it comes to contentment. Turns out, people in colder climates tend to be happier, according to the world Database of Happiness. One theory suggests that in colder places everyone must work together to survive, and that gives way to something powerful and lasting: “love,” writes Eric Weiner in his book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
8. Your kids’ materialism isn’t so bad.
Little minds can be very complicated: children say “I need a Wii,” but what they might really be saying is “I love my family.”
Lan Nguyen Chaplin, PhD, an assistant professor with Villanova University’s School of Business, who has studied children and materialism, says that it’s long been the blanket assumption that “kids want things and don’t want to spend time with their parents.” To test that assumption, she set out to define what really made kids happy, whether it was indeed tied to stuff.
“And I’m not saying that kids don’t like things—they do,” she says, “but given the choice, they choose people.” In other words, it’s not so much a game console they crave, but a chance to be with you. “I have two kids,” adds Dr. Chaplin, “and I’m guilty of buying a lot of stuff for them, but I do try to step back and recognize that they want and need my time.”
So go ahead and get your workout gear on. Because chances are a round of Just Dance will make you smile, too. However, when you do buy that Wii, be sure that the kids say thanks. gratitude increases happiness in both adults and kids, according to studies. Jeffrey J. Froh, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University and lead researcher of a new study, surveyed 1,035 students ages 14 to 19 and found that grateful students reported higher grades, more life satisfaction, better social integration and less envy and depression than their peers who were less thankful and more materialistic. Additionally, feelings of gratitude had a more powerful impact on the students’ lives overall than materialism. The same holds true for adults, according to the research. Counting your blessings shifts your focus from problems, annoyances and injustice, and boosts your ability to fight off depression, stress and grief.
9. Money can buy happiness.
Researchers have discovered that “how people spend their money may be as important to their happiness as how much money they earn—and that spending money on others might represent a more effective route to happiness than spending money on oneself.” Employees who gave the largest portions of their bonuses away to others, as opposed to spending it on themselves, reported the highest levels of happiness, according to researchers Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, and Lara Aknin of the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton, PhD, of Harvard Business School. The amount of money you give away doesn’t really matter. In a related study, the same researchers found that spending as little as five dollars on others over the course of a day offered an immediate happiness boost. So go ahead and buy those Girl Scout cookies—then give them to co-workers.
10. Not getting what you want is good for you.
Research has finally caught up with the Rolling Stones. Turns out they were really onto something back in 1969: while you can’t always get what you want, you just might find you get what you need.
“We tend to underestimate how much we embrace things that at first glance we wouldn’t have chosen,” says Dr. Gilbert. Studies show that people report being more satisfied with what they have in the end, as opposed to what they originally thought they wanted.
In other words, you may have craved the glamour of a Mercedes, but that minivan turned out to be a pretty fine ride. adds Dr. Gilbert, “research suggests that people are quite adept at finding a positive way to view things once those things become their own.”