How to Create A Happy Life With Hacks From Stanford’s Famous ‘Design Your Life’ Class

Happiness. It may be the most-talked about, but least-often achieved principle of life.

This is exactly why Stanford’s most popular class, “Designing Your Life,” came into being — and why juniors and seniors vie for coveted spots each semester. The course started as an experiment spearheaded by Bill Burnett, executive director of Stanford’s design program, and Dave Evans, who led the design of Apple’s first mouse. “Designing Your Life” was first launched in spring 2010, and has grown so quickly in popularity that the school is now launching a pared-down program for freshmen and sophomores as well.

It’s clear to see why the course has taken off. Cliches about how to find happiness are everywhere: “Don’t put the key to happiness in someone else’s pocket.” “If you want to be happy, be.” “Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.” But none of these well-known sayings actually delve into practical, specific advice for how to achieve it. That’s exactly the goal of the Stanford class.

Evans says, “We reframe the problem. That’s where dysfunctional beliefs get blown-up. Then we give them a set of tools and ideas to take steps to start building the way forward.” So what are these tools?

A happiness framework

The foundational idea behind the principles given in the class center around understanding yourself and what truly gives you energy. Once you identify this, you have a framework for taking action to focus on activities that provide energy, and to minimize the impact of the activities that drain you.

Burnett and Evans suggest a “Good Time Journal” for guiding you through this principle. First, identify a “peak experience,” or a time you experienced a true high driven by adrenaline and joy. Next, think about the AEIOU of that experience — the activities, environment, interactions, objects, and users that were involved. By doing this, you break down exactly what about the situation gave you joy, and are able to apply this to your future experiences to create more happiness.

The simple act of writing down these activities makes you more mindful of the situations you find yourself in every day, and can make you more conscious of how you react to the world around you. And as I’ve written before, happiness can even make you more successful, both professionally and personally. Happy employees are up to 12 percent more productive at work according to a study by the University of Warwick, and research by Laura King shows that writing about achieving future goals and dreams can make people happier and healthier.

Keep consistency

But to truly make a lasting impact on your life and happiness, you must integrate this practice into your daily routine. Once you feel confident in this methodology of selecting your “peak moments” and breaking them down, start getting more detailed with your entries about your day-to-day activities. Talk about how they felt, and why they made you feel that way.

Even though your log is private, it can feel difficult to explore your true emotions about sensitive subjects. Challenge yourself to go deeper than is comfortable initially. Your vulnerability with yourself will be refreshing and ultimately help you in the long run.

Reflect

The most important thing that your Good Time Journal can help you do is reflect. Find time each week or month to look back on your entries, and make a note of ones that surprise you. Find patterns in the way you feel about certain types of tasks.

Do you always feel fulfilled and energized when making presentations to your clients about topics where you feel like you excel? Find ways to incorporate these activities in your job more often. Maybe you find yourself drained by spending time with a certain friend who never asks you questions about your life, but always talks about their own problems? Consider putting some extra space between you and your friend if this time de-energizes you.

So maybe the cliche “If you want to be happy, be” has more merit than we give it credit for. By identifying the activities that give you joy and the ones that drain your spirit, you can take charge of your own happiness and set yourself on the path to a well-balanced life.

Do you have any tips or takeaways for increasing happiness? Give me a shout-out on Twitter!

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out my other Medium articles and my column for Inc. Magazine!