If there’s one thing that watching celebrity “reality” shows teaches you, it’s that rich and famous people aren’t any happier than the rest of us. You’d think that having all that money and notoriety would make people wildly happy. But it doesn’t. And if you’re walking around thinking, “Well, if I won the lottery, I’d be gloriously happy for the rest of my life,” nope, you wouldn’t. Practically everybody who comes into sudden wealth gets happy momentarily and then returns to their former level of happiness (or unhappiness) as before. So what does bring lasting happiness?
In a nifty little study, Daniel Mochon of MIT (now at Tulane University) and his colleagues asked if small, repeated actions might be the best way to improve your sense of well-being over the long term. The researchers looked at two sorts of behaviors that they imagined might increase people’s sense of well-being: spiritual expression (in the form of attending some sort of religious service) or engaging in physical activity (either at a gym or practicing yoga). In before/after comparisons, the participants reported an increase in their sense of well-being.
Happiest over all were Mormons and people of Baha’i faith. The least happy were Catholics and Quakers. But “least happy” here was still pretty darn happy (an average of 70 on a 100 point scale when rating themselves on questions like “How happy are you with your life in general?”) The biggest before/after boost was experienced by the Greek Orthodox; people placed in the generic “Christians” category experienced no change in their sense of well-being (~82/100).
While their results aren’t that surprising (to me, anyway, since I both attend religious services and practice yoga), the researchers themselves were surprised. That’s because they subscribe to the “hedonic treadmill” idea, which posits that you have a “set point” of happiness that neither good nor bad events effects very much. Their conclusion: “…people who engage in these activities often enough will end up with higher well-being.” Put another way, regular, small boosts will increase your sense of happiness over the long term.
Here’s how to put these results to work for yourself:
- Find an activity to try. It could be taking a walk, attending a religious service, or taking a yoga class. The choice is up to you, just make sure it’s something you can participate in regularly.
- Keep track your sense of well-being before and after the activity. A scale of one to five works just fine. After you’ve attended several sessions (say three to five), evaluate. If you’re seeing some increases, then make a longer term commitment. If not, try something else.
- If you want an even bigger boost, add in the “three good things” exercise. Personally, I keep a gratitude journal, which I find keeps me focused on positive emotional experiences on a daily basis (and probably provides the same kind of small boosts).