For when you need advice that goes beyond “Be Danish”
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Here’s some very bad happiness advice based on very solid happiness research: Feel important. Be happily married. Be Danish.
Depending on how happiness is measured, all of these things really are associated with a happier life. But they’re unhelpful because they are not actionable in any practical way. Very few people slap their foreheads and say, “It all makes sense now—I thought a tense, angry marriage was the secret to happiness, but it isn’t!”
This is the big weakness of a lot of the social-science research to which I have dedicated my academic life. Much of it is descriptive and explanatory, but doesn’t necessarily help us live better lives. It can even drag us down when the secret to happiness is unattainable. I am very unlikely to become a Dane, for example (although my grandfather was one, so maybe I have a little hygge sitting somewhere in my genome).
Every once in a while, people in my profession need to get practical. Based on what they see in the data from experiments and surveys, what should we do that is both effective and feasible for increasing our happiness, starting today?
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In 2020, an international team of scholars tried to find out. They came up with 68 ways that people are commonly counseled to raise their own happiness, then asked 18 of the most distinguished and prolific academic experts on the science of happiness to rate them in terms of effectiveness and feasibility. In other words, according to the experts, these ways to get happier both work and are workable.
Here are the top 10, in order, with my own assessments as a happiness researcher added in for good measure.
1. Invest in family and friends. The research is clear that though our natural impulse may be to buy stuff, we should invest instead in improving our closest relationships by sharing experiences and freeing up time to spend together.
Read: How to buy happiness
2. Join a club. The “social capital” you get from voluntarily and regularly associating with other people, whether or not you do so through a formal club, has long been known to foster a sense of belonging and protect against loneliness and isolation.
3. Be active both mentally and physically. You can make this advice as complicated and expensive as you want. But if you like to keep things simple, just try to walk for an hour and read for an hour (not for work!) each day.
Read: Go for a walk
4. Practice your religion. This might sound impractical if you don’t have a traditional faith or practice it traditionally. However, for the purposes of happiness, religion can be understood more broadly, as a spiritual or philosophical path in life. Search for transcendent truths beyond your narrow day-to-day life.
5. Get physical exercise. This is a slightly souped-up version of No. 3 above: Your daily walk should be supplemented with a purposive exercise plan. This is consistent with the research showing that regular exercise of all different types enhances mood and social functioning.
Read: Sedentary pandemic life is bad for our happiness
6. Act nicely. Agreeableness is consistently found to be highly and positively correlated with happiness, and it can be increased relatively easily.
7. Be generous. Behaving altruistically toward others rewards the brain with happiness-enhancing boosts of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
8. Check your health. Of all health issues, those that create the greatest unhappiness are typically chronic pain and anxiety. Don’t neglect your visits to the doctor and the dentist, and seek mental-health assistance if your emotions are interfering with your work, relationships, or social activities.
9. Experience nature. Studies have shown that, compared with urban walking, walking in a woodland setting more dramatically lowers stress, increases positive mood, and enhances working memory.
Read: How microdosing on nature can help with stress
10. Socialize with colleagues outside of work. Data have shown that work friendships increase employee engagement, which is associated with both happiness and productivity for workers. I believe that the move to remote work during the pandemic has inadvertently lowered the true compensation of work for millions, explaining in part the so-called Great Resignation. Bonding with your co-workers is a way to take it back.
This list is quite similar to the advice routinely dispensed by top academics writing for popular audiences, such as the UC Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky (who was also one of the 18 experts in the study), and by nonacademics who write about the science of happiness, such as Gretchen Rubin. “These ideas are terrific—and familiar,” Rubin told me recently. What impressed her wasn’t their originality (your grandmother might’ve told you most of them); rather, it was the fact that they were both effective and practical. “For many of us, the bigger challenge isn’t knowing what actions would make us happier, but actually doing those things,” she said.
Other common happiness advice is ineffective, infeasible, or both. In the 2020 study, the lowest-ranked ideas included working part-time (infeasible for many people) and building wealth (wealth explains only about 1 percent of happiness differences). The 18 experts also weren’t fans of creating a “pride shrine”—an area of your home devoted to mementos to your successes and accomplishments. That isn’t surprising: As I show in my recent book From Strength to Strength, reminding yourself of your own past greatness is actually a very good way to lower your current satisfaction.
Read: How to succeed at failure
Debunking common-but-bad happiness guidelines could be a full-time job. Beyond those mentioned above, my favorites are “If it feels good, do it” (which can lure us toward bad habits and away from deep purpose) and “Let your anger out” (which research clearly shows leads to more anger, not relief). In my experience as a researcher, nearly all advice to let yourself be managed by your emotions and desires is bad.
If one thing bothers me about the list of happiness ideas above, it is that they are incomplete, insofar as they are disconnected tactics. If you really want to get happier, you need a full-on integrated strategy.
A happiness strategy has three parts to it. First, you need to commit yourself to understanding happiness. That can mean many things, whether it’s learning about the science of happiness, studying philosophy, or immersing yourself in a faith practice. Second, you need to practice good happiness hygiene. That’s where the ideas on the list above come in. Treat them as systematic habits, not occasional hacks, and think consciously about whether each action is consistent with your understanding of happiness. Finally, share your knowledge and progress with others. Beyond being an ethical thing to do, teaching will cement your philosophy and habits into your consciousness.
Read: Don’t wish for happiness. Work for it.
The most important thing to remember is this: You don’t have to leave your happiness up to chance. No matter where you live or what you do, you can manage your own joy and share it with others.
For when you need advice that goes beyond “Be Danish”