The date was December 31st, 2015…
While taking a weekend vacation in a cabin in the woods, I sat across from my girlfriend as we wrote down our goals for the coming year.
When we revealed our sets of goals to each other, they couldn’t have been more different.
My goals all had numbers attached to them. I want to make this much in the coming year, I want to help this number of people per month, I want to weigh this much by this point for this number of consecutive days. If you couldn’t tell, I was very much in my hard-driving, masculine, logical brain as I wrote down my goals.
Her primary goal? To feel more radiant in 2016.
My first thought was “Well fuck… I clearly have a lot to learn from this woman.”
What We All Get Wrong About Happiness
I’ve been studying happiness a lot lately.
I’m about to embark on a 60 day self-care challenge (more on this very soon), and so I’ve been doing a lot of deep-dive research into the topics of health, wellness, and happiness.
Scientists (specifically people who work in the field of positive psychology) have realized that there is a huge gap between what people do versus what they should be doing if they want to feel durably happy and fulfilled on a consistent basis.
The problem? Most people chase extrinsic goals. Aka things that are outside of themselves.
The three biggest things that they spend the majority of their time chasing are money, image, and status. They want to make a lot, be seen as competent/attractive/awesome, and they want to be perceived as extra special for whatever they achieve in their lives.
And while people spend a disproportionate amount of their time chasing these things, they ultimately all lead people to being on the hedonic treadmill of dissatisfaction. Put simply, exclusively chasing these things will make you feel eternally miserable… and increasingly spiritually bankrupt.
Positive psychologists recommend people prioritize chasing intrinsic goals, or things that make you happy from the inside.
So what are the three biggest things that science has proven to be beneficial for you, in terms of feeling emotionally resilient and durably happy?
Personal growth, relationships, and contribution.
Feel like you’re growing, involve yourself in a community of people that love you, and do something that makes you feel like you’re making the world a better place.
If you want even more concrete action steps in terms of what to do, here are a small handful of (science-backed) things that you can do to make you genuinely happier on a more consistent basis.
7 Things That Are Scientifically Proven To Make You Happier
According to science, roughly 50% of our happiness levels is genetic (i.e. we have an inherent set point that we often gravitate back towards because of our genes), 10% is related to our circumstances, and 40% is influenced by our actions.
So, influence your overall happiness levels by up to 40% by frequently doing the following seven things.
1. Prioritize variety / enjoy new experiences on a regular basis
Variety is the spice of life! Well, really, spice is the spice of life… so that’s just a ridiculous saying.
We get big hits of dopamine and other happy chemicals when we try out new and exciting things. Hobbies, adventures, new and unique events… it all counts.
Brainstorm a list of twenty things that you’ve been meaning to try out, and then commit to trying one out within the next week.
Not sure where to start? How about bouncing on trampolines, taking improv classes, watching stand up comedy, going dancing, learning a new musical instrument, playing soccer with friends, or playing dodgeball with a local fun league.
2. Invest in hobbies that are rewarding for their own sake
Most people have their work life, their home life, and then a third thing. And if you don’t have a third thing, life can feel quite dull quickly.
Do you have a passion project or a hobby that you’re able to pour time into when you aren’t working or relaxing?
For me, playing guitar/singing/playing music with friends is one of those non-work activities that I get a lot of joy from.
Figure out what you enjoy doing that you don’t get paid for (bonus points if it makes you sweat and/or you can do it with friends) and put time into it on a regular basis.
3. Spend time with close friends
It is an unavoidable fact that humans are a social species. We thrive in communities.
The highest leverage action step that I found across all of my research into the science of happiness could be boiled down to ‘surround yourself with a community of people that you love and who love you back.’
It doesn’t matter how introverted you are (believe me, I’m a card carrying introvert and I still have to admit the power of this one), everyone benefits from regular time spent socializing with people that you like.
Don’t have any social outlets in your life? Join a weekly meet up group around a hobby or subject that you love. Make your own weekly event with your favourite people (weekly dinner, book club, weekly jam session, etc.). Call up your friends more often and ask them to come along on your plethora of activities that help you fill your variety quota.
4. Exercise in a way that feels like you’re playing
My buddy Charlie Hoehn talks about this beautifully in his book Play It Away…
We don’t generally thrive (in terms of happiness/joy) by running on a treadmill for an hour while watching TV. I mean, sure, some people love treadmills… but I would wager that they are the exception in a general population and not the majority.
Find a form of exercise that is so fun that you forget that it’s even considered exercise. You should have the feeling of “Oh wow! I was having so much fun that I forgot how frequently I had to wipe this sweat off my face. Apparently I am exercising right now…”
Personally, I love playing trampoline dodgeball (yeah, it’s a thing). I also love going out to concerts and dancing for hours. And sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I also love calling up a specialized personal trainer I have who teaches me street fighting/combat skills/self-defence type stuff. In all three of those events, I usually laugh so much that I literally forget that my heart is pounding.
I’m sure there’s been some physical or aerobic activity that you’ve engaged in in your life that was so fun that it didn’t feel like exercise… remember it, put it in your calendar, and make it a regular priority.
5. Regularly engage in flow states that aren’t necessarily tied to your work
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that’s a guy’s name… pronounced Me-hi, Cheeks-scent-me-high) talks extensively across his series of books about the importance of what he dubs flow in our daily lives.
According to Wikipedia, flow is the state of being is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. It’s also often referred to as being ‘in the zone.’
A professional pianist rocking out on his piano is in a state of flow. A go-go dancer performing their third set of the night to their favourite song is in a state of flow. You get the idea.
Regularly engaging in your personal flow states brings you huge surges of happy chemicals that then spread throughout your daily life.
So what activities do you do that make you lose track of time? Dancing? Creating? Having sex? Rock climbing? Figure out the answers to that question, and then do those things.
6. Random acts of kindness
After a certain financial threshold, money doesn’t buy happiness.
Science has shown that there is a big gap (in terms of happiness) between making $5,000/year compared to $50,000/year… but the happiness gap between someone who makes $50,000/year and $50 million/year is not significant.
One way that money does consistently buy happiness is if you spend it on other people. And while spending your money on people certainly isn’t the only way to be kind, it is one way into the wild world of random acts of kindness.
It feels good doing good things for others. Whether you volunteer your time with an organization that you believe in, plug people’s parking metres around town, put on a ‘FREE HUGS’ shirt and give out free consensual hugs to people in your city’s downtown core, or hand out free dog treats to people’s pets (after checking with the owners for allergies) in public, random acts of kindness feel great.
Want some ideas as to how to incorporate random acts of kindness into your life? Check out my article 31 Ways To Spread More Love Into The World.
7. Gratitude practice
One of the fastest ways to sustainably boost your dopamine levels is to incorporate a regular gratitude practice.
This could look as simple as verbalizing ten things that you’re grateful for to your friend/partner once per week, or be as elaborate as doing a gratitude meditation every day for ten minutes.
Personally, I love the Five Minute Journal by my friends Alex and UJ, which is a physical book that asks all of the right questions… and it only takes a few minutes per day.
So that’s it!
Invest your time and energy into intrinsically motivated things (personal growth, close relationships, and contributing to the world), incorporate some or all of the above seven actionable steps, and you are scientifically proven to be a happy, more emotionally fulfilled person in no time.
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. Regarding the story off the top of this article, I quickly rejigged my goals for the year and prioritized creative fulfillment and contribution above all else. Which is a huge part of why I’ve been writing so much more on a wider variety of topics these past few months. If you’re interested in checking out some of the biggest winners of the year, thus far, here they are in order of fan-favourites…