If you want to be happier, advice is easy to come by. Like how buying a little time can lead to significantly greater life satisfaction. And how avoiding the effect of relative deprivation can lead to greater fulfillment. And how focusing on two overlooked variables can be the key to greater happiness.
The problem is, too much advice can make it hard for you to decide which things to actually do. Or to trying to do too many things at once, which -- as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or get more fit knows -- quickly leads to doing nothing at all.
That problem is one a team of researchers set out to solve, asking 14 of the world's top happiness scholars to consider and then rank 68 different ways people can increase their own happiness, based on effectiveness and feasibility.
In short, to turn a laundry list of potential options into two or three things anyone can do to be happier.
What Won't Make You Happier
For fun, let's start at the bottom of the rankings and check out some of the strategies deemed ineffective or unfeasible. (We'll skip what the researchers call "alternative lifestyle" options at the very bottom of the list, like becoming a vegan, creating a "flow" or meditation room, and creating a "pride shrine," whatever that is.)
Here are a few things that won't make you happier:
Building wealth. Not only is getting rich considered to be relatively unfeasible, but it's also an ineffective path to happiness. Research shows that after a certain point -- say, a salary of $75,000 per year -- affluence is a weak predictor of happiness.
Having children. Granted, I struggle with this one. Our children make me very happy. Plus, having kids is clearly feasible for many people.
Nonetheless, the experts don't see having a child as a sure path to happiness, possibly because having a child is unlikely to fix underlying reasons for a lack of happiness. (That's probably a topic better explored by people smarter than I am.)
Limiting your work hours, or working part-time. Work-life balance discussions aside, limiting work hours ranked only 42nd, while working part time ranked 66th on the list.
Why? Likely because how much you work matters less than the work you do. If you enjoy and gain fulfillment from what you do, 50-hour weeks may not be problematic, but if you hate what you do, even a one-hour workweek is too (darned) long.
Then again, "find a job that fits you" ranked only 31st, while "socialize with colleagues outside of work" ranked 10th. So maybe who you work with matters more than what you do. (Which research shows often comes down to the type of leader your boss is.)
If you want to dive deeper into the "what not to do" list, check out Wharton professor Ethan Mollick's graphic.
Now let's look at what the experts say you should do to increase your happiness.
What Will Make You Happier
The following are considered to be much more effective and feasible.
Focusing on relationships. No surprise there. According to a famous multigenerational Harvard study, friends can make a huge difference on happiness. "The clearest message," says Robert J. Waldinger, the current head of the study, "that we get ... is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
Being nicer. As Mark Cuban says, "One of the most underrated skills in business right now is being nice. Nice sells." Less capitalistically, that premise also extends to making personal connections, since the best way to be treated kindly is to treat others kindly first.
Getting married (to the right person). As Warren Buffett says, "You want to associate with people who are the kind of person you'd like to be. You'll move in that direction. And the most important person by far in that respect is your spouse. I can't overemphasize how important that is."
And then there's this: One study found that people with relatively prudent and reliable partners tend to perform better at work, earning more promotions, making more money, and feeling more satisfied with their jobs.
Because work satisfaction is a big part of life satisfaction -- and therefore happiness.
Doing meaningful things. "Meaningful" can and should mean different things to different people. But the experts do agree that activities like volunteering, being generous, and focusing on the welfare and happiness of others will make a huge impact on your happiness.
Research backs that up. While giving is usually considered unselfish, giving can also be more beneficial for the giver than the receiver: Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it.
And then there's this: If you need help -- or simply want help -- you can't make other people help you. But what you can control is whether you help other people.
And that means you can always control, at least to a degree, how happy you are, because giving makes you happier.
Minding your health. "Get physical exercise" ranked fifth on the list. But other strategies also ranked high. Get enough sleep. Get regular check-ups. Experience nature.
All the usual suspects, and for good reason. The better you feel -- the better you feel about yourself -- the happier you will tend to be.
Sum it all up, and the goal is clear: "Be active, both physically and mentally." That ranked third on the experts' list, also for good reason. Challenging yourself, working to achieve personal and professional goals, doing things intended to make the lives of the people you care about better--that's a direct path to satisfaction and fulfillment.
And, ultimately, happiness.
Because, as research shows, when you're surrounded by happy people who are close to you, you're more likely to become happy in the future.