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  • Writer's pictureSarah Tian

10 Ways To Unlock Your Happiness Potential

Welcome to our exploration of happiness, a concept as elusive as it is cherished. Happiness, a term that conjures up a myriad of images and feelings for each of us, often remains an enigmatic puzzle we all yearn to solve.


Yet, despite its elusive nature, psychologists have sought to pin down what happiness means, offering a framework to understand this sought-after state of being. At the heart of our journey is a definition from the annals of psychological research: happiness as the blend of frequent positive emotions, a profound sense of satisfaction with life, and minimal negative feelings.


Happiness is the experience of frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction, and infrequent negative affect (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005)

As we embark on this exploration together, we'll unravel the intricate tapestry of genetics, personal choices, and life circumstances that contribute to our happiness.


Our goal? To uncover the secrets behind crafting a life filled with joy, fulfillment, and contentment. Join us as we dive deep into the world of happiness, guided by insights from psychology, personal anecdotes, and practical strategies for nurturing our own happiness.


Let's begin this fascinating journey, shall we?



Genetics

Imagine happiness as a mysterious, ever-elusive treasure we're all on a quest to find. But here's the kicker: research suggests that about half of our happiness level might just be baked into our DNA, thanks to our genes (Braungart, Plomin, DeFries, & Fulker, 1992; Tellegen et al., 1988). And, believe it or not, some studies even argue it could go up to 80% (Lykken and Tellegen, 1996). It's like there's a happiness thermostat inside us, pre-set at the factory!


Personality

Personality traits play a big role in this happiness saga, too. If you have a tendency to be higher on extroversion and/or a lower on neuroticism, you're likely to have a leg up in the happiness race. And these traits? They're pretty much your lifelong companions, since they are quite stable over time  (McCrae and Costa, 1990), adding their own flavor to your happiness cocktail


Hedonic treadmill

Now, let's talk about the hedonic treadmill – a concept as funky as it sounds. It's like we're all running on this treadmill, trying to catch up to happiness, but the darn thing keeps adjusting so we stay in the same spot, no matter how much our circumstances change.


Win the lottery or face a setback, and you'll find yourself returning to your happiness set point before too long (Brickman & Campbell, 1971; Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman, 1978). It's like trying to keep up with a moving sidewalk that's going the opposite direction!


The Exciting News

So research concludes genetics are responsible for about half (50%) (Braungart et al., 1992; Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Tellegen et al., 1988) and circumstantial factors contribute to roughly 10% of happiness variation (Argyle, 1999; Diener et al., 1999).


But don't let that get you down. The really exciting news is that despite all this, a whole 40% of our happiness level is under our control – it's in the actions we take and the perspectives we choose. That means we've got a pretty substantial slice of the happiness pie to play with!


I've been head over heels in love with this topic for more than a decade, diving deep into the psychology of happiness, both academically and as a personal passion. And here's the thing: happiness isn't a destination; it's a journey. It's about the mindset we adopt, the behaviors we practice, and the habits we cultivate day in and day out.


Reflecting on this journey, I've distilled 10 powerful strategies for boosting and maintaining happiness over the long haul. And I'm beyond thrilled to share these with you.


So, are you ready to embark on this adventure together and unlock the secrets to a happier life? Let's get started!



1. Prioritize Physical Health


The older I get, the more I realize just how crucial physical health is—it's pretty much the bedrock of a good life. Let me tell you, last year was a bit of a nightmare on the health front. I was hit by every virus going around, wound up with acute bronchitis for two weeks, followed by a cough that just wouldn't quit for three whole months! Even though everything else in my life was ticking along nicely, the constant coughing really took a toll on my day-to-day happiness.


And then, during that same time, I was following the journeys of two young YouTubers battling cancer, right up until they sadly passed away. Watching their struggles really hammered home the message: health first, everything else second.


When you're sick, it's like health is the only thing on your mind. And that worry, that single thread of concern, can dim the brightness of everything else, bit by bit.


So now, I've got my focus locked on four main pillars of physical health:


Sleep - How much sleep you need can vary from person to person, but trust me, you can feel the difference between a good night's sleep and a poor one. There's even research out there saying that the quality of your sleep is the single most important predictor of your quality of life!



Exercise - Keeping active isn't just about cardio; strength training is key too. It helps with everything from carrying groceries to maintaining good posture and dodging injuries. Plus, there's the bonus of endorphins—those feel-good hormones that boost your mood and cut down on stress and anxiety. And hey, you don't need a gym to stay fit. This year, I've been all about home workouts, daily runs or brisk 20-minute walks, and opting for the scenic route on foot during weekends to ramp up my activity levels.



Water - Our bodies are mostly water, so staying hydrated is non-negotiable for keeping the engine running smoothly. Feeling sluggish? You might just need a drink. I've made it a point to keep a water bottle by my side everywhere—desk, bag, bedside table. Making it easily accessible means I'm way more likely to stay hydrated. And picking out a bottle you actually like? That's just the cherry on top.



Food - Ever notice how some meals leave you charged up, while others have you hitting a wall by mid-afternoon? Yep, food plays a huge role in our energy levels. To dodge that post-lunch slump and keep the engine running smoothly, I'm focusing on meals that are lighter on carbs and fats. It makes a world of difference in staying sharp and productive all day.



In a nutshell, taking care of my health has become my top priority and a foundation for my happiness. It's all about the simple things: good sleep, regular exercise, staying hydrated, and eating right. Trust me, it's a game-changer.


2. Know Yourself & Pursue Goals that Work for You!


Embarking on a journey to truly know yourself and chasing after goals that resonate with your core — your personality, values, strengths, and interests — is like finding the secret sauce to a happier life. It's all about crafting a life that fits you perfectly, like a custom-made suit, rather than trying to squeeze into one made for someone else.


Indeed, research suggests when we pursue life goals that are meaningful to us and truly aligned with our personality, values, strengths and interests  (Brunstein, Schultheiss, & Grassman, 1998; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Sheldon & Kasser, 1995), and not driven by others' expectations, we will naturally feel happier.


Let's break it down with some real-life examples to illustrate why this self-alignment is crucial. Imagine someone who thrives on social interaction and making a tangible difference in people's lives. For them, a career in social work or teaching might not just be a job, but a source of deep, fulfilling joy.


On the flip side, someone with a knack for numbers and patterns, who finds joy in quiet concentration, might find their calling in fields like data analysis or programming. It's all about playing to your strengths and passions.


Or consider hobbies and pastimes — someone who finds peace and rejuvenation in nature might feel their happiest and most alive while hiking or gardening, while someone else might get that same fulfillment from painting, playing music, or diving into a good book.


Now, you might be pondering, "How do I figure out what really makes me tick?" The answer lies in taking the time for some introspection.


Dive into personality assessments, journaling, or even professional coaching to peel back the layers of your interests and values. These tools and exercises are like mirrors reflecting your most authentic self, offering insights into what goals will genuinely lead you to happiness.


So, why not start this exploration today? Get to know yourself better now by taking these assessments!


3. Avoid Comparisons

Ah, the old adage "comparison is the thief of joy" really hits home, doesn't it? We've all been there, scrolling through social media, eyeing someone else's highlight reel, and suddenly our own life seems a bit... dull.


But let's chat about why falling into the comparison trap is not just joy-stealing but also kind of illogical when you really think about it. Indeed research also suggest unhappy individuals tend to engage in more social comparisons (Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997) .


Unique Circumstances and Journeys: From a rational perspective, it is unfair to compare ourselves in any aspect with any other person. We are all unique in our genetic predispositions, life experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. Comparing our life to someone else's ignores these differences, making the comparison inherently unfair and irrational. It's like comparing apples to oranges. It just does not make sense.

Incomplete Information: Then there's the issue of not having the full picture. When we compare ourselves to others, we're usually only seeing the shiny parts of their lives, not the messy behind-the-scenes struggles. It's like judging the quality of a movie based solely on the trailer. This partial view can set us up with some pretty unrealistic expectations about what our lives "should" look like.


Neglects Personal Progress: And don't forget about your own growth and progress. It's super easy to overlook how far you've come when you're busy eyeing someone else's path. Focusing on your own journey and celebrating your personal victories, no matter how small, is a much healthier and happier way to live. It's about running your own race, at your own pace.


Control and Agency: Lastly, there's the whole control aspect. We can't control what others do, how they live, or the successes they achieve, but we can absolutely control our own actions and reactions. Steering our energy towards what we can change and improve in our own lives is way more empowering and productive.


So, next time you catch yourself playing the comparison game, remember: it's like comparing your behind-the-scenes with someone else's highlight reel. Focus on your own story, your own progress, and the things you can actually influence. That's where the real magic happens.


Be sure to check out this article, "When Envy Doesn't Kill You...It Makes You Stronger"

on more ways to cope and make the best out of your envy.



4. Mind Your Language: The Power of Words


Imagine if every thought or word directed at yourself had the weight of a conversation with your best friend. Would you still be as harsh or critical? The truth is, the internal chatter we engage in can either be our greatest ally or our most formidable foe.


Think about it: how often do you find yourself caught in a spiral of negative self-talk? Maybe you flubbed a presentation or missed a deadline, and suddenly, the "I'm such an idiot" mantra starts playing on loop in your head. Sound familiar?


I've been there too, especially during the intense pressure of my PhD studies. Every mistake felt monumental, and I'd berate myself with a harsh "I'm stupid" critique. But let me tell you, that kind of talk doesn't do anything but drag your spirit down. It took me a while, but I learned the transformative power of swapping out those harsh critiques for something far more constructive. Now, if I slip up, I remind myself, "Hey, I'm human. Mistakes are part of the deal. What's important is learning from them for next time." This simple pivot in perspective has been a game-changer for my daily emotional well-being.


So, the next time you catch yourself mid-self-scold, pause. Try reshaping that thought as if you were comforting a friend. Instead of "I can't do anything right," how about "I'm doing my best, and that's enough." And in those moments when the going gets tough, lean on those gentle, encouraging reminders like, "This too shall pass" or "Things will get better." These aren't just phrases; they're lifelines that pull us towards patience, hope, and resilience. They're the gentle nudge reminding us that no storm lasts forever, and yes, brighter days are indeed on the horizon.


Embarking on this journey of kinder self-dialogue doesn't just change the narrative; it transforms your entire outlook on life. So, why not start today? A little self-compassion can go a long way in painting your world with happier hues.



5. Embrace Learning from Setbacks & Focus on the positive


"Embrace Learning from Setbacks & Focus on the Positive" might sound like a tall order when you're in the thick of things. But here's the thing: life's a bit like a roller coaster — full of ups, downs, and loop-the-loops. It's how we ride out those dips and turns that really counts. Seeing those hurdles as chances to grow, rather than giant walls blocking our path, can flip our whole perspective on its head.


Let's take a little trip down memory lane. Think about the hurdles you've leaped over in your life. Big ones, small ones, and everything in between. Got a few in mind? Now, think about what those challenges taught you. Maybe you discovered a strength you didn't know you had, or perhaps you learned a valuable lesson that's stuck with you ever since. Focusing on what you gained from those experiences can shine a light on the positive side of facing obstacles.


So, the next time life throws a curveball your way, try to catch it with a mindset of growth and curiosity. Instead of getting bogged down by the "what ifs" and "why mes," ask yourself, "What can I learn from this?" It's not about ignoring the struggle or pretending everything's peachy. It's about digging for that nugget of wisdom or strength that's hiding in the rough.


The more you practice this shift in perspective, the more natural it becomes. Before you know it, you'll be facing life's setbacks with a sense of anticipation for the growth that's to come, rather than dread. It's all about embracing the journey, bumps and all, and finding the silver lining in every cloud.


6. Strengthen Your Coping Skills


"Strengthen Your Coping Skills" is a bit like building your own superhero toolkit. Just as superheroes face increasingly complex villains, we too encounter challenges that seem bigger and badder than the ones before. The secret to standing tall? Sharpening our coping skills, one tool at a time.


Imagine your coping skills as a versatile toolbox you carry around. It's something you've been adding to over time, so when life decides to throw a wrench in your plans, you're ready to tackle it head-on. This toolbox can be packed with different gadgets and gizmos: reaching out to friends or family for advice and emotional support, diving into resources that offer guidance, or sitting down to strategize solutions and weigh your options.


Every time you successfully navigate a challenge using your toolbox, you're not just getting through the moment; you're fortifying yourself for future battles. The more tools you have and the better you know how to use them, the more resilient and, ultimately, happier you'll be.


Start learning about some tools you can use by checking out this article on how to Improve the Way You Cope with Stress. The better equipped we are to manage stress and adversity, the more resilient and happy we can become.



7. Daily Doses of Joy & Savor the Moment


Sprinkle a little bit of happiness into every single day. It's about making a conscious effort to do something, anything, that lights you up inside. Whether that's losing yourself in a good book, soaking up the tranquility of the great outdoors, or diving deep into a hobby that makes time stand still, these snippets of joy are like vitamins for your soul.


Let's get real for a second — it's the little things that often bring us the most happiness. Take, for example, the first sip of coffee in the morning. That rich, aromatic flavor that seems to whisper, "Today's going to be a good day." Or maybe it's biting into your favorite food, where with just one bite, you're transported to a world of bliss.


Take, for instance, my moment today. I spotted a butterfly gracefully making a pit stop on my balcony. Something so simple, yet I found myself completely captivated by its beauty and the delicate flutter of its wings. It was just a few minutes out of my day, but it left me with a sense of wonder and a little boost of happiness.


So why not make it your mission to find those daily doses of joy? It doesn't have to be anything grand or time-consuming. Just something that makes you pause, smile, and remember that, amidst the hustle and bustle, life is pretty darn good.


8. Foster Meaningful Connections


At our core, we're wired to connect with others. Our bonds with family, friends, and the wider community aren't just social niceties; they're the bedrock of our happiness. Diving into the depths of meaningful relationships provides us with a sense of belonging and an invaluable support system. In fact, Harvard's longest study of happiness suggests relationships may be the key to our happiness.


Imagine this: every day, you make it your mission to perform one act of kindness. This could be anything from sending a "thinking of you" text to a friend, baking cookies for your neighbor, or simply listening intently when someone needs to talk.


But let's take it a step further. Deep, meaningful conversations with friends and family can elevate those connections to new heights. Ever sat down over coffee with a friend and ventured beyond the usual "how are you?" to explore the "whys?" Those conversations where time seems to stand still, and you come away feeling like you truly understand each other on a deeper level.


Sharing your vulnerabilities plays a huge part in this, too. It's about letting your guard down and showing your true self, warts and all. This kind of honesty invites others to do the same, creating a space where genuine connections flourish. For instance, opening up about a challenge you're facing at work or a personal doubt can pave the way for a friend to share their own struggles, forging a bond of mutual understanding and support.


So, why not make a conscious effort to deepen those connections? It's not just about quantity; it's the quality of your interactions that counts. Engaging in meaningful conversations, performing daily acts of kindness, and embracing vulnerability can transform your relationships and, in turn, enrich your life immeasurably.



9. Seek Personal Growth and Self-Discovery


"Seek Personal Growth and Self-Discovery" is essentially embarking on the most rewarding adventure there is: the quest to know and improve oneself. It's about embracing the thrill of learning new things, whether that's strumming the first chords on a guitar, whipping up a storm in the kitchen, or setting personal milestones like running a 5K. Each new skill, hobby, or goal isn't just an activity; it's a stepping stone towards a deeper sense of fulfillment and happiness.


Imagine the satisfaction of hitting a personal goal, be it physical, like completing a fitness challenge, or more introspective, such as journaling daily to navigate your thoughts and emotions. These achievements build up your sense of self-worth and propel you on the path of lifelong learning and self-discovery.


Every book that shifts your perspective, every new language that opens doors to different cultures, and even the simple act of taking a new route on your morning walk can lead to profound insights about the world and yourself. So, why not dive into this journey? Personal growth and self-discovery are about crafting your own happiness, one discovery, skill, and achieved goal at a time.



10. Create a Balanced Life & Diversify Your Happiness Portfolio


Imagine your life as a pie, divided into slices of work, play, relationships, and personal passions. If one slice gets too big, the whole pie just doesn't taste as good. That's because overdoing it in any one area can lead to stress, fatigue, and a feeling that something's missing. Finding that sweet spot where everything gets its due attention means you're not just meeting all your needs; you're crafting a life that feels complete and joyous.


Let me share a game-changer for my own happiness since I received my PhD: cutting back on work hours from 12 to 8. It sounds simple, but the impact was profound. Suddenly, there was more room for everything else that makes life rich and full from reading for fun, exploring my city to spending more time with friends and family. Indeed, Dr. Holmes found that having 2 to 5 hours of discretionary time each day is the sweet spot for happiness.

From “Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most,” by Cassie Holmes. Photo: Cassie Holmes


Think of happiness like a smart investment strategy: it's all about diversifying your portfolio. Spreading your sources of joy across different areas of life ensures that you're not putting all your eggs in one basket. If one aspect of your life hits a rough patch, it won't send your overall well-being into a tailspin. Just like a savvy investor balances their portfolio to weather the ups and downs of the market, balancing your sources of happiness helps you maintain a steady, resilient sense of contentment no matter what life throws your way.


So, what does a balanced life and diversified happiness portfolio look like for you? Picture a day that left you thinking, "Today was a great day!" What did you do? How did you divvy up your time?


For me, a day that hits all the right notes usually involves a mix of activities that nourish me mentally, physically, and socially. It might start with some exercise—a jog or a leisurely walk outside—to get the blood pumping. Then, spending quality time connecting with loved ones, because relationships are the glue that holds everything else together. I also carve out moments for focused work, diving into passion projects or hobbies like reading and writing that feed my soul. And, of course, there's got to be some downtime for pure fun, maybe binge-watching a favorite show or getting lost in a movie. It's this blend of productivity, connection, personal growth, and relaxation that makes for a truly balanced and fulfilling day.


So, why not take a moment to think about your ideal day? Reflecting on what balance means to you and how you can achieve it is the first step toward living a life that's not just busy, but genuinely happy and enriched.



Conclusion


From prioritizing our physical health to understanding ourselves, from dodging the comparison trap to choosing our words carefully, and from embracing setbacks as growth opportunities to building our coping arsenal — each strategy is a step towards a richer, more vibrant life. And let's not forget the daily doses of joy, the deep connections we forge, the relentless pursuit of personal growth, and the harmony of a balanced life. These aren't just strategies; they're invitations to a more fulfilled and joyful existence.


Happiness is a journey that is as unique as each one of us, shaped by our mindsets, our actions, and our interactions. By embracing this journey with an open heart and a willing spirit, we can find that happiness is not just a fleeting moment but a constant companion on the road of life.


Let's embrace this adventure together, crafting a life filled with joy, fulfillment, and contentment.


So, what does your path to happiness look like?


 

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References


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