When we think of happiness, we typically think of things that bring us immediate pleasure — a decadent meal, a favorite book or a relaxing day on the beach. These pleasures do bring happiness, but only temporarily. Recent studies have shown that true happiness, or life satisfaction, works a bit differently.
In one study, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman categorized hundreds of people into three groups based on how they pursued happiness:
The Pleasant Life: People in pursuit of the Pleasant Life seek happiness by looking for pleasure. They are good at savoring the moment and making their pleasures last. These people are often described as “thrill-seekers.”
The Engaged Life: People in pursuit of the Engaged Life seek happiness by working hard at their passions. They immerse themselves so deeply in these that they sometimes come across as cold and uncaring; but for them, time seems to melt away as they experience a state of total engagement.
The Meaningful Life: People in pursuit of the Meaningful Life use their strengths to work toward something they believe contributes to a greater good. This greater good motivates them deeply.
Seligman found that people who pursued the Pleasant Life experienced little happiness, while those who pursued the Meaningful Life and the Engaged Life were very happy.
While Seligman’s research is just a single study, it shows that where you focus your energy and attention has a big impact on your happiness. Those who pursued the Engaged Life and the Meaningful Life had something important in common — they were deeply passionate, and they used their strengths to better themselves and the world around them.
Indeed, happy people are highly intentional. If you want to follow in their footsteps, learn to incorporate the following habits into your repertoire.
1. Create your own happiness (don’t sit back and wait for it).
Every second you waste waiting for happiness is a second you could have been using to create it. The happiest people aren’t the luckiest, wealthiest or best-looking; the happiest people are those who make an effort to be happy. If you want to create your own happiness, you have to start by making it a priority. We work so hard to avoid letting other people down, but we so often do so at the expense of our own happiness.
2. Surround yourself with the right people.
Happiness is contagious. Surrounding yourself with happy people builds confidence and stimulates creativity, and it’s flat-out fun. Hanging around negative people has the opposite effect — they want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke?
3. Get enough sleep.
I’ve beaten this one to death over the years and can’t say enough about the importance of sleep to improving your mood, focus and self-control. When you sleep, your brain literally recharges, removing toxic proteins that accumulate during the day as byproducts of normal neuronal activity. This ensures that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your energy, attention and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough quality sleep. Sleep deprivation also raises stress hormone levels on its own, even without a stressor present. Happy people make sleep a priority, because it makes them feel great and they know how lousy they feel when they’re sleep deprived.
4. Live in the moment.
You can’t reach your full potential until you learn to live your life in the present. No amount of guilt can change the past, and no amount of anxiety can change the future. It’s impossible to be happy if you’re constantly somewhere else, unable to fully embrace the reality (good or bad) of this very moment. To help yourself live in the moment, you must do two things: First, accept your past. If you don’t make peace with your past, it will never leave you and, in doing so, it will create your future. Second, accept the uncertainty of the future. Worry has no place in the here and now. As Mark Twain once said, “Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe.”
5. Learn to love yourself.
Most of us have no problem marveling at our friends’ good qualities, but it can be hard to appreciate our own. Learn to accept who you are, and appreciate your strengths. Studies have shown that practicing self-compassion increases the number of healthy choices you make, improves mental health and decreases your tendency to procrastinate.