5 New Ways to Think If You Want to Be Happier Today
Have you ever improved your life circumstances only to realize after a time that it didn’t make you any happier?
Turns out happiness is not all about life circumstances. If our lives were different, we may feel sure we’d be happier. If we had a better job, were more attractive or had more money we would have to be happier, right?
The good news/bad news is that for many people this likely isn’t true because our happiness isn’t solely based on our situation. Some of it simply has to do with how we think. This means we can learn to be happier without making major changes to our lives if we are willing to think about our lives differently.
Last year I happened to see that Yale was offering its most popular course ever, The Science of Well-Being, taught by Professor Laurie Santos, online for free. I was intrigued. Maybe I could become Ivy League Happy. I was willing to give it a try.
Maybe there was some scientific way I could engineer my life to be happier. Did other people know something I didn’t?
I assumed that Professor Santos did and since she was willing to spill the beans, I was only too willing to pick them up.
Turns out, there are several scientifically proven ways to be happier that simply involve thinking differently about our current situation. As someone who has been accused of being a negative thinker at times (I prefer the term realist), this intrigued me.
We humans have faulty thinking that makes being happy on an ongoing basis impossible to maintain. Some of us may be negative thinkers (or realists), but it’s not all our fault. Some of the reasons it’s hard to maintain happiness are just hardwired into our brains.
One phenomenon that prevents our continued happiness is known as “hedonic adaptation”. This means we get used to things. Over time things that made us happy no longer do.
Think of a time you bought a fabulous new pair of shoes or even a brand-new car. The first few times you wore the shoes or the first couple of months you drove the car, you felt happiness or excitement. But as time passed, you likely took for granted that you had those shoes or drove that car. The happiness you felt from owning them reduced or even disappeared.
The same even happens in relationships.
Fortunately for us all, there are five proven ways to prevent hedonic adaptation.
1) Savoring What’s Good in Your Life
What does savor mean, exactly? And how do we do it?
Savoring is anything you do that helps you focus on a positive moment or a situation in your life a little longer.
If you are a parent, you have likely watched your baby sleep. In doing so, you are savoring the image of them sleeping contentedly.
Savoring could be quietly observing a situation, sharing it with a friend, telling someone about it later or even taking a photograph or mental picture to remember it.
Throughout my life, I have occasionally taken mental pictures of moments or situations I recognized as special. One, in particular, stands out in my mind.
At the end of spring break during my junior year of college, my entire family, including my dog, Dynamite, came outside to say goodbye before I left. As I drove up the hill to the end of the driveway, I looked up into the rearview mirror and saw them all there in front of the house. I thought: that is my family. I felt happy and fortunate. I paused just a few seconds to take it in before driving away.
Less than a month later when my mom called to tell me that they’d had to put Dynamite to sleep, I was devastated. But to this day, 25 years later, I’m happy to still carry with me the mental picture I took that day. Those few moments I spent savoring a special image have proven to be invaluable to me because they burned the image into my memory.
I enjoyed that sight more then and can continue to enjoy it to this day, even if it’s bittersweet.
2) Replaying Happy Memories
Professor Santos shared that research shows just eight minutes of reliving happy memories three times a week leads to greater overall happiness.
The benefit of recalling happy memories is likely why keeping a gratitude list has been shown to improve reported happiness levels. It helps you feel appreciation for what is good in your life (we all have something!).
I try to write three reasons I’m grateful each morning and each night in my planner. The reasons can be something that happened or something I enjoyed. I am not perfect at it, but my trying to make it a regular practice has made a difference.
It’s hard not to begin or end the day with a smile when you are writing down things (or situations, events or people) you are grateful for, even when it is something as simple as seeing a beautiful sunset or how happy you were to run into an old friend at the grocery store.
The happiness we get from replaying good memories is why we like to send photos to our friends after a fun night out or retell the same funny stories each time when we get together. Likewise, some people may enjoy looking at photo albums or scrapbooks or watching old family videos to relive happy memories. These are things we’d all benefit from doing more often.
Appreciating the good times also reminds us that every good time passes, which may sound morbid, but can be a good thing.
3) Pretending This Day is Your Last
Sometimes I look around my house and think about the day I will no longer live here. I imagine it empty, waiting for a new owner. Someday, I don’t know when or under what circumstances, I will walk out of this house and never return. (This is the best-case scenario, as I don’t wish to be carried out or die inside!) One day this chapter of life will be over.
Thinking like this might be one reason I’ve been accused of being a negative thinker.
What I didn’t know was that I should follow this thought by imagining I had to leave today.
Pretending that this is the last day your life like this is a recommended strategy for increasing your happiness. It makes it easy for us to see what we’d miss, what we love and what we wished we’d taken the time to enjoy more — before it’s over.
Nothing in our lives will last forever. Reminding ourselves of this can help us appreciate them more today. And feeling appreciation, or gratitude, increases our happiness.
I have also found that this little practice helps me keep problems and challenges in perspective. The tough parts of life we face today can make it hard for us to recognize and appreciate the best parts of our lives that are also happening right now.
It turns out that a little negative thinking can also lead to more happiness…
4) Using Negative Visualization
My husband and I were living on opposite coasts when we met and we only did so because we both decided to go to the same writing conference in New Mexico the same year, we were assigned to rooms on the same hall and the first morning, we decided to leave our rooms for breakfast at almost exactly the same moment.
In retrospect, the chance of our meeting would seem to be almost impossible.
After nearly 20 years together it’s easy to think, well, of course, we are together. But we very easily could not be.
And guess what? Thinking about how things could not have worked out like they did can also increase happiness.
If I never met my husband, that would also mean that my two girls would not be here in my life. I can’t hold this thought in my mind for more than a second without going to find them and hugging them.
I feel happy. And damn lucky.
Yes, the sink is full of dishes, the taxes need to be done, I have no idea what to make for dinner, and there’s a squirrel who’s taken up residence in our attic, but we are all here, together.
This isn’t the only way to think about the past that can make us feel happier about the present.
5) Reminding Yourself of What Used to Be
We got a new refrigerator last month. The old one had been in the house when we moved in eleven years ago. I’d never loved it, but recently it had started leaking sporadically and creating stress that is might break down completely and ruin the floors. So, we finally decided to replace it.
Every morning when I get the soymilk out of the refrigerator at 6 am to pour into my coffee, I remember that old refrigerator. Concretely re-experiencing how it used to be to live with the old leaky refrigerator helps me enjoy the new one even more. How long I will be able to keep this thinking up? I don’t know, but I can confirm that it brings me a feeling of happiness every time.
Reminding yourself of a previous bad relationship, a bad job, even an illness or injury, can help you feel happier today when you can point to ways your life is now better.
Maybe remembering a problem you solved or a challenge you overcame can also give you confidence for the unknown future that you face.
I plan to employ these five types of thinking more in my life, especially when I’m not feeling happy, because they’ve made me realize that our day to day happiness does have a lot to do with how we think.
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The Five Qualities You Need in a Partner
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