Happiness, for many of us, involves effort. We have to decide we want to be happy, we have to decide we deserve to be happy, and we have to spend time and energy doing things that research shows increase happiness. And if happiness doesn’t come easily to us, it’s something we fight for!
Anticipation of an Experience
First in the fight for happiness is to spend money wisely by spending it on experiences. It lets us anticipate the experience, which brings more happiness, and look back on the experience, which brings even more happiness.
Even small periods of anticipation lead to greater happiness. Researchers in one study asked people to participate in a ‘chocolate rating’ study.
Half the participants were given some Hershey’s Kisses, and told to eat them immediately, and then rate how good the chocolate tasted. The others were also given some Hershey’s Kisses, but they were told to wait 30 minutes before eating and rating them.
People in the second group waiting 30 minutes rated greater enjoyment for the same chocolate.
Research also suggests that shared experiences tend to contribute even more to happiness. Going on a trip or seeing a World Series game is great but even better when we do so with people we care about. We adapt to material goods, even wear them out, but the memorable experience we had remains, untarnished by latter adaptation.
So, one should try to increase the number of experiences they look forward to and look back on: plan a trip, or buy tickets to a Broadway play, concert, or major sporting event.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Second, fighting for happiness means you avoid comparisons. Many of us may feel perfectly happy with our own lives, right up until we start comparing our lives with those of other people around us. And then we all of a sudden start to feel worse.
There’s a cartoon which shows two men talking, with one person saying to the other, “I do count my blessings, but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings, and that pisses me off.” As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Unfortunately, this advice to avoid comparison is really hard to follow, given the ease with which we all make comparisons based on what other people post on social media. Which is, of course, mostly the good stuff.
We should try to reduce how much time we spend on social media and keep in mind that whatever people post on social media is what they are choosing to share, which is at most a partial portrayal of their actual lives.
Third, and one of the best ways to find more happiness is to give to other people, and basically anything and anyone counts. People who volunteer in their community report greater happiness. People who donate to charity experience greater happiness.
Research using MRI data has shown that when you ask people to think about donating money to charity, it activates a part of the brain that is responsible for processing rewarding experiences.
When people instead think about receiving money themselves, the same reward part of the brain is activated, but at a lower level, suggesting that at a neurological level, giving feels even better than receiving.
Fourth, happiness is related to expressions of gratitude. Many of us have a tendency to focus on what’s bad in our lives. We obsess over the problems we face and our growing ‘to do list’. Happiness, however, involves focusing on things in our life that we are grateful for right now. And the right now part is important.
They can’t be things that we will be grateful for once we retire, or once we win the lottery, or once we buy a new house. We should spend a few minutes each day, maybe right when we wake up or before we go to sleep at night, and focus on a few things we are grateful for in our life right now: having dinner with a close friend, watching a funny movie, drinking a great glass of wine.
So, happiness is about investing in memorable experiences, avoiding comparisons, giving to others, and expressing gratitude. But the single best predictor of our happiness? Relationships. The best route to happiness is building and maintaining close relationships. And that’s the challenge.
Good relationships don’t happen by magic. They take work. Hard work. A quote, which speaks to the value of relationships yet also the work they take to maintain, comes from Tolstoy:
But on entering upon family life he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined. At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat. He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly … that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.
These words perfectly illustrate the difference between what having good relationships looks like from a distance—easy and effortless—and the reality of what having these relationships involves—time, energy, effort, conflict, and compromise.
Yet, despite the hard work involved, having high-quality relationships with anyone—romantic partners, family members, friends—is the very best route to happiness.
Common Questions about the Fight for Happiness
We should spend money on experiences because it lets us anticipate the experience, which brings more happiness, and then look back on the experience, which brings even more happiness.
One of the best ways to find happiness is to give to other people. People who volunteer in their community report greater happiness, as do people who donate to charity.
To achieve happiness, we should avoid comparisons. Unfortunately, avoiding comparison is really hard, given the ease with which we all make comparisons based on what other people post on social media. Thus, we should try to reduce how much time we spend on social media and keep in mind that whatever people post on social media is what they are choosing to share, which is at most a partial portrayal of their actual lives.