As the co-founder and CEO of a company called Happier, there are two questions I get most often:
- Are you happy all the time?
- Are you a naturally happy person?
These are loaded questions but my answers are actually pretty simple:
- I’m absolutely NOT happy all the time. In fact, one of the things I believe very firmly is that authentic, true happiness is not the absence of all negative emotions, but our ability to experience a full range of emotions while savoring and appreciating the good things in our lives. (And here’s why you should not feel pressured to feel grateful all the time.)
- Science shows that about 50% of our natural level of happiness is genetically determined. And while this surprises people, my natural happiness set point is actually not super high. Like many people, I have to work at being more positive. It’s a constant, ongoing effort, and it’s not something that comes naturally.
This last answer surprises most people who know me as Happier’s CEO, although it wouldn’t surprise friends and family who know me personally. But here’s the thing -- I actually think it’s the very thing we get wrong about happiness and one of the biggest obstacles that stands between us and living with a more positive attitude:
Our assumption that happiness is something that happens to us vs. something that we have to work at, consistently, constantly, with a lot of intention, effort, and care.
That’s right. Here's the secret on how to be happy: Being happier is work. You have to commit to it, focus on it, make it a priority, and be disciplined about it.
I’ve given dozens of talks and speeches and workshops and I think this is the least favorite part of most of them for the audience. Whenever I say this sentence I can actually see the letdown in the faces of the people who are listening to me. They came to hear me speak about how to be happier and the last thing they want to hear is that there is no magic pill, there are no simple answers, and like most worthwhile things in life, it requires commitment and work.
I totally get the reaction. It would be awesome if we could all feel happier by just doing a few things quickly and then enjoying the outcome. But just like staying in shape, keeping your mind and soul in shape and more positive takes work.
But here's the good news:
While becoming happier and maintaining a positive attitude is not easy -- it doesn’t just happen and then stay that way -- it IS simple. Anyone can do it, it doesn’t require huge insurmountable life changes or changing who you are, and it doesn’t take a long time to start seeing results.
I spent a few years diving into research on happiness before I was convinced to give it a shot. I decided to start with 3 things I would do every single day, no matter how hard that day was, how much I felt like doing them, or whether they came easily or took a great deal of effort. Here were my 3 things:
- Write down three good things about my day: Thousands of studies have shown that doing this increases optimism, reduces stress and anxiety, and chemically changes the brain to be more positive.
- Have one meaningful and positive interaction with someone: Because research shows that happier people have rewarding social relationships and even a short positive interaction with a stranger contributes to helping you feel more positive.
- Spend a few minutes being mindful (focusing on my breath, on where I am, not multi-tasking, not running away from my emotions): The benefits of mindfulness are numerous, and range from reduced stress to increased productivity.
If you commit to doing these three things every day you will feel more positive and yes, happier. But even more importantly, what I hope you will realize is that becoming happier takes effort and that when it’s not coming easily it’s not because you’re doing something wrong, or you don’t deserve it, or it’s not for you -- it’s simply because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Living with a more positive attitude and feeling more joy is a huge part of living well and incredibly worthwhile; like all worthwhile things it takes effort and commitment.