The happiness model we’re taught from a young age is actually completely backward. We think we work hard in order to achieve success and that achievement makes us happy. That’s what I learned growing up.
We think the process goes like this:
Study hard! → Straight A’s! → Be happy!
Interview lots! → Great job! → Be happy!
Work overtime! → Get promoted! → Be happy!
But it doesn’t work like that in real life. That model is broken.
We do great work and have big success, but instead of being happy, we just set new goals. Now we study for the next job, the next degree, the next promotion. Why stop at a college degree when you can get a master’s? Why stop at director when you can be VP? Why stop at one house when you can have two? We never get to happiness this way. We keep pushing it further and further away.
Now, what happens when we break “be happy” off the end of this sequence and stick it at the beginning?
Now everything changes. If we start with being happy, then we feel great. We look great. We exercise. We connect. What happens? We end up doing great work because we feel great doing it.
What does great work lead to? Big success. Massive feelings of accomplishment and the resulting degrees, promotions, and phone calls from your mom telling you she’s proud of you.
Harvard Business Review reports that happy people are 31 percent more productive, have 37 percent higher sales, and are three times more creative than their counterparts.
So what’s the first thing you must do before you can be happy?
Be happy first.
Being happy opens up your learning centers. Your brain will light up like Manhattan skyscrapers at dusk, sparkle like diamonds under jewelry store lights, glow like stars in the black sky above a farmer’s field.
American philosopher William James said, “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.”
The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor says, “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.”
William Shakespeare said, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Now, it’s one thing to stand here on my soapbox and leave it there. “Be happy, everybody!” You got that? Great, thanks for stopping by.
But we all know it’s not that easy.
Why not? Because our brains get focused on negative things. We can’t stop! I do this all the time. And you want to know what? Everybody does. Every single person gets stuck focusing on the negative sometimes.
I’ve spoken on stages with the best-known motivational speakers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and political leaders from around the world. Do you know what they’re all doing backstage? Freaking out. Sweating. Thinking something might go wrong.
The problem isn’t that we get stuck in negative patterns sometimes.
The problem is that we think we shouldn’t.
That prevents us from taking action.
Action? That’s right. I’m talking about intentional activities. Studies show these happiness hits — “smiles in a shot glass” — slowly shift our brain to a more positive focus.
I’ve spent years sifting through hundreds of positive psychology studies to identify what I call The Big Seven — the seven best ways to train your brain to be happy. Let’s break it down:
1. Three Walks
Penn State researchers reported in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology that the more physically active people are, the greater their general feelings of excitement and enthusiasm. How much? Just half an hour of brisk walking three times a week.
The American Psychosomatic Society published a study from Michael Babyak and a team of doctors that found that three 30-minute brisk walks or jogs even improve recovery from clinical depression. Yes, clinical depression. Results were stronger than studies using medication or studies using exercise and medication combined.
2. 20-Minute Replay
Writing for 20 minutes about a positive experience dramatically improves happiness. Why? Because you actually relive the experience as you’re writing it and then relive it every time you read it. Your brain sends you back.
In a University of Texas study called How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words, researchers Richard Slatcher and James Pennebaker had one member of a couple write about their relationship for 20 minutes three times a day.
Compared to the test group, the couple was more likely to engage in intimate dialogue afterward, and the relationship was more likely to last. What does the 20-Minute Replay do? It helps us remember things we like about people and experiences in our lives.
3. Five Random Acts
Carrying out five random acts of kindness a week dramatically improves your happiness. We don’t naturally think to pay for someone’s coffee, mow our neighbor’s lawn, or write a thank-you note to our apartment building security guard at Christmas.
But Sonja Lyubomirsky did a study asking Stanford students to perform five random acts of kindness over a week. Not surprisingly, they reported much higher happiness levels than the test group. Why? They felt good about themselves! People appreciated them.
4. A Complete Unplug
“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal,” say Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in The Power of Full Engagement.
And a Kansas State University study found that complete downtime after work helps us recharge for the next day. Turning your phone off after dinner. Not using the Internet on vacation. There’s a lot more to this, and I go deep on this one in The Happiness Equation.
5. Hit Flow
Get into a groove. Be in the zone. Find your flow. However you characterize it, when you’re completely absorbed with what you’re doing, it means you’re being challenged and demonstrating skill at the same time. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this moment as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Do you get that from playing drums? Lifting weights? Taking pictures? In his fantastic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes it using an image I’ve redrawn here:
6. Two-Minute Meditations
A research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at brain scans of people before and after they participated in a course on mindfulness meditation. What happened? After the course, parts of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while parts associated with stress shrank.
Studies report that meditation can “permanently rewire” your brain to raise levels of happiness. Too New Age for you? That’s what I thought. Then I downloaded the Headspace app — which I have no affiliation with — and it was the perfect meditation gateway drug. Now I’m hooked. It helps me prioritize and simplify my day.
7. Five Gratitudes
Remember this: If you can be happy with simple things, it will be simple to be happy. Find a book or a journal, or start a blog, and write down three to five things you’re grateful for from the past week. The key is actually writing them down! I wrote five a week on my blog 1,000 Awesome Things. Some people write in a notebook by their bedside.
Back in 2003, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked groups of students to write down five gratitudes, hassles, or events over the past week for 10 weeks. Guess what happened? The students who wrote five gratitudes were happier and physically healthier. Charles Dickens put this well: “Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many, not your past misfortunes, of which all men have some."