If you're like me, happiness and math don't seem to go together. But work with me.
Approximately 50 percent of your level of happiness, your happiness set-point, is determined by personality traits that are largely hereditary. Think nature, not nurture.
That means approximately half of your subjective well-being -- a term psychologists like better than "happiness" -- is at least partly within your control. To determine your level of subjective well-being at any given moment, one test recommends asking yourself a simple question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days: Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"
Partly, though, because circumstances -- "how things are these days" -- also matter. Lose a loved one and no matter how high your happiness set-point, you''ll definitely answer "not too happy" to the above question.
Still: Circumstances come and go.
Plus, we're built to maintain a certain level of psychological homeostasis, a term that refers to our ability to return to a certain level of balance. We're built to get over things, or at least get used to them.
Add it all up, and according to Arthur Brooks, happiness and math do go together. Here's the equation:
Happiness = Genes + Circumstances + Habits
How you're made affects your happiness. So do current circumstances. So do your habits.
Unfortunately, you can't do anything about your genes. You often can't control your circumstances (although you can control how you respond).
But you can always control your habits -- and in the process, increase your subjective level of well-being.
Here are just a few:
A 2020 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology divided participants into two basic groups:
People who try to be happy. For them, happiness is the focus. They think about happiness even when they feel happy. They think they're failing when they aren't happy. As a result, when faced with negative emotions they tend to struggle -- and rate themselves as relatively unhappy.
People who try to stay positive. For them, positivity is the focus. They look for ways to feel, and stay, positive. They structure their day around maximizing positives and minimizing or avoiding negatives. As a result, they see negative emotions as part of life. (Stuff) happens.
The result of valuing positivity over happiness? Research shows experiencing negative and positive emotions -- what psychologists call emodiversity -- is an essential component of overall health and subjective well-being.
Yep: If you want to be happier, sometimes you need to feel a little sad.
And when you do, the key is to work the problem. Figure out what to do. Figure out how to make things better. Turn your focus from feelings to action. Turn "This sucks" into "How can I make this not suck?" and eventually into "How can I turn this into a net positive for me?"
Like the Stoics say: You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.
Nurture Your Relationships
It's easy to focus on building a professional network of partners, customers, employees, connections, etc., because there will (hopefully) be a payoff. But there's a bigger payoff to making real (not just professional or social media) friends.
Increasing your number of friends correlates to higher subjective well-being; doubling your number of friends is like increasing your income by 50 percent in terms of how happy you feel.
And if that's not enough, people who don't have strong social relationships are 50 percent less likely to survive at any given time than those who do. (That's a scary thought for loners like me.)
Friends will make you happier.
If you make nurturing those relationships a habit.
Buy a Little Time
In a 2017 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers surveyed thousands of people who sometimes paid other people to perform tasks they didn't enjoy or didn't want to do. Yard work. Housecleaning. Running errands. Tasks the participants need, but don't particularly want, to do.
Unsurprisingly, people who were willing to spend a little money to buy a little time were happier and felt greater overall life satisfaction than those who did not.
And not just because they had the money to outsource a few tasks; while relatively wealthy people who spent money to buy a little time were happier than relatively wealthy people who did not, people at the bottom end of the economic spectrum who spent money to buy a little time were happier than those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum who did not.
And then there's this: When participants were given money to buy things or time, buying time left people feeling happier, less stressed, and more satisfied.
The key to buying time is to consciously decide how you will use the time your money freed up. Buying time will make you happier only if it feels intentional and purposeful -- not because you don't have the time, but because you want to use the time you gain differently.
Instead of doing yard work, you might decide to spend the time with family or friends. Or to work on that side project you've put off. Or reading. Or working out.
In short, doing something you enjoy -- doing something you want to do -- with the time you bought.
That's when money can buy you a little happiness.
No matter how much money you make.
Pursue Your Goals
Dreaming is fun, but dreaming won't make you happy.
Pursuing your dreams will, though.
As David Niven writes in 100 Simple Secrets of the Best Half of Life, "People who could identify a goal they were pursuing were 19 percent more likely to feel satisfied with their lives and 26 percent more likely to feel positive about themselves."
Make pursuing a meaningful goal a daily habit.
Be grateful for what you have -- because research shows expressing gratitude will also make you happier -- and then actively try to achieve more.
If you're pursuing a huge goal, do a little something toward achieving it every day.
You'll be one step closer.
And a little happier.
Focus on What You Want
A British Journal of Social Psychology overview says relative deprivation occurs when "persons may feel deprived of some desirable thing relative to their own past, other persons or groups, or some other social category."
Or in non-researcher-speak, relative deprivation occurs when we realize other people have things we don't, and then start to think we should: even if we don't need them -- or, before we noticed, had never even thought we wanted them.
For many people, relative deprivation significantly impacts their level of happiness. A 2017 study published in IZA World of Labor determined that relative deprivation helps explain why average happiness has not increased despite a dramatic rise in average income around the world.
The key to avoiding relative deprivation isn't to avoid seeing things you might want; that's impossible. The key to avoiding relative deprivation isn't to avoid meeting people whose success you might envy; that's also impossible.
The key is to know what you already want: to know your goals, your dreams, your ambitions, to know what provides you with the greatest sense of fulfillment and happiness.
And then work to achieve, possess, or become those things.
Because where happiness habits are concerned, only two comparisons matter. The first is who you are today and who you were in the past; making that comparison will remind you just how far you've come.
The second is who you are today and who you hope to someday become; making that comparison will keep you focused on doing, each and every day, what will make you feel more fulfilled, grateful, and happy.