The Shortcut to Happiness
It might sound like a fantasy destination, but you really can live life as a grinning emoji — with this simple guide.
Ever get that nagging feeling that you should be happier than you are? Like, your life looks great on paper/Instagram — you’ve got the status internship or job, the nice apartment, a huge social circle, etc. — and you can’t point to anything that’s really wrong. But something’s still missing.
According to renowned psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD, you’re not authentically happy, you’re just cruising along. Focusing only on pleasurable punctuation marks (like buying a new outfit or upgrading your phone) or racking up experiences and achievements (like winning another race or ending the semester with a perfect GPA) can make you happy for a little while, he notes, but that happiness is fleeting.
Authentic happiness, says Seligman, comes from living a life of deep fulfillment. Finding things that engage you and devoting your time to activities and relationships that matter to you lead to a lasting sense of purpose. That’s what will really fill your emotional cup.
“It’s a journey; there’s no measure of ‘making it.”
PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
3 Steps to Flourishing
The idea of finding and living your purpose can be a little daunting. Don’t think of it as working toward one crowning moment where you reach authentic-happiness nirvana and become blissed out 24/7. “It’s a journey; there’s no measure of ‘making it,’” explains licensed clinical psychologist Melissa Green, PsyD. “It’s not like you do this major thing and you’re there.”
Also (and this is so important!): Working toward authentic happiness doesn’t have to be this huge undertaking. You don’t need to overhaul your life or give up all your material possessions and meditate for an hour — or five — every morning. Just start by taking these core actions from Seligman’s theory.
1. Add more hits of instant joy (in moderation).
How it works: Doing something pleasurable can give you an instant vibe bump, says Green, thanks to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences mood. Think mastering an unassisted pull-up, taking your morning coffee outside, or adding another plant baby to your collection.
In fact, when it comes to improving your mood, having more brief bouts of pleasure or happiness (like those mentioned above) can have a longer-lasting impact than fewer big ones, like a huge promotion or getting married. “That’s why it’s important to savor the small joys,” says Green.
Give it a try: You probably have the pursuing-pleasurable-things part down already, right? The key is to make sure you’re not constantly in seeking mode for the next awesome thing, as that could leave you less content with what you have now, says Green. And if a commission, bigger TV or the next party are your main (or only) forms of gratification, it’s time to start shifting your focus inward, explains Aaron Weiner, PhD, a concierge psychologist and the host of the podcast Let’s Talk. The next step gets you closer…
2. Find activities that fully engage you.
How it works: Eating and shopping is fun, but doing an activity you’re engaged in is way more rewarding. Engagement is that feeling of being totally absorbed in something, like when you’re in the zone on a long run, sucked into an incredible book, or deep in focus during yoga. If someone asked how you feel, you wouldn’t necessarily say happy, but you’ll likely feel at peace, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, the author of Joy From Fear. You’re in a state of flow, where your brain stops chattering because you’re 100 percent in it.
Give it a try: Chances are you can ID times in your day or week when you’re fully immersed in something (and enjoying it, so, probably not a Zoom call). But if the things you used to do before life got crazy have fallen by the wayside or just don’t interest you anymore, it’s time to head back to the drawing board. “As soon as you say you want more [when you’re mid-activity], you’re engaged,” says Manly.
Start by brainstorming activities that play to your strengths. “The more invested you feel, the more passionately involved you’ll be,” says Manly. If you’re the kind of person who loves learning, try picking up a new sport. Got a jungle growing in your living room? Join a community garden and get your own plot for growing vegetables. Can’t help but snap a pic every time you see something beautiful? Visit local museums or sign up for a photography class.
A sounding board can be helpful here too if you’re still struggling to find your play. Ask your partner or a friend about the times you seem superengaged or just really, really happy, recommends Green. Or start journaling: Each day, write down three moments when you felt like you were in the zone, experienced something meaningful, or did something really well. Then reflect on why. This activity alone can give you a happiness boost, research shows. And over time, it can clue you in to what you care deeply about.
3. Do things for others.
How it works: According to Seligman, true fulfillment comes from having a sense of meaning in the world. Basically, it’s about living a purpose-driven life that embodies the big values that are actually important to you. Think virtues like kindness, gratitude, justice and courage.
Meaning comes from feeling like your actions are making a difference. “Acting with compassion in your heart and actively helping others is one of the most tried-and-true ways that most people can find meaning and add joy to their lives,” says Weiner. Supporting an idea or movement that you believe in is another. “The common thread is to contribute to something greater than yourself,” he says.
Give it a try: There’s no shortage of ways for us to find meaning: volunteering, working a satisfying job, supporting a political cause, or even exploring spirituality. The key is finding ones that align with what matters to you and what you do well, says Weiner.
In your professional life, look for a company whose core values (say, diversity and equity at the workplace, or a dedication to a lighter footprint) match your own, says Weiner, and one that allows you to work toward something you truly believe in. And in your personal time, says Weiner, be strategic about where you put your energy, and make those important commitments count to keep the passion flowing.
If you’re a natural leader who cares about the environment, you might get excited about organizing a neighborhood park clean-up or a wildlife-fundraiser race. Love talking with people and hearing about different perspectives? Sign up to deliver meals to people in need or join a door-to-door campaign to spread awareness about a cause you care about, suggests Weiner.
These might seem like gigantic steps from where you are right now. So just say yes to something: Block out time for a date with your dumbbells, hit go on a new hobby, or commit to the volunteer slot. There’s a slim chance you’ll regret it — and a high likelihood you’ll feel pretty damn, dare we say, happy.
Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella