In our overly scheduled lives where obsessively tracking every minute, step, and activity is the norm, there’s one thing we often forget to pencil in: happiness.
According to positive psychology, happiness isn’t exactly something you can plan for, though it may seem like it considering all the hours we clock hustling for better looks, a fancier wardrobe, and a bigger paycheck.
The thing is, none of those things actually make us happier, according to science. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of happiness—what it isn’t, what it is, and one simple strategy to increase your joy.
Two Surprising Factors That Don’t Make Us Happier
1. Money: A groundbreaking study in 1978 introduced the idea that contentment has nothing to do with material gains. The authors looked at two groups of people: those who’d recently won over $50,000 in the lottery and those who’d just suffered a catastrophic accident that left them totally or partially paralyzed.
They asked both groups about how much joy they got from simple everyday moments (e.g., chatting with a friend or getting a compliment). Turns out, there was barely a gap between the lottery winners and the accident survivors. The survivors actually reported getting more happiness from these positive daily moments.
But winning the lottery is a long shot. What about more routine money matters—like scoring a higher salary? Surely that’s a happiness booster, right? Not so much. Research shows getting that big raise also isn’t the key to happiness. In 2010, researchers found that an individual annual salary of $75,000 seemed to be the cut-off point for cash’s ability to affect your contentment. People who made more didn’t report experiencing any well-being boosts. While still something to strive for (and celebrate), career success might not enhance your joy.
2. Beauty: Model good looks don’t bring happiness either. Another study found that models—you know, those who build careers on being beautiful—are actually less happy than non-models.
In other words, no matter how rich, beautiful, or successful you are, you’re not necessarily any happier than the rest of us. So now what?
A Research-Backed Definition of Happiness
What is happiness? Instead of fame and fortune, happiness is about your baseline-level of contentment with your life, says positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. In her book, The How of Happiness, she defines happiness as,
…the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
Rather than the big moments or milestones, happiness is about the little things from day to day.
The reason a kickass finishing time on a half marathon or major promotion don’t actually make us happier is what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. It’s the idea that we get used to any new fortune (or misfortune) rather quickly. So ultimately those big events don’t do a thing to boost our baseline contentment levels.
One simple strategy to expand your joy
At first glance, this might seem like BS. No matter how hard I work, hitting my goals won’t make me happier? What gives?! But the good news is that we’re not totally out of control here.
You know that baseline level of happiness? Some of it is genetic and some is circumstantial, but the rest of it—40 percent—is about our intentional activity, according to Lyubomirsky’s research. Huh? Basically, the way we think, act, and behave affects how happy we are.
That means you can raise your happiness level. All you have to do is up that sense of daily contentment. And there are a whole lot of ways to do it. We’re going to show you a research-backed one right now.
Happiness boost: Write a thank-you letter
Yup, your correspondence skills can measurably boost your bliss. In a study done at Kent State University, participants wrote three letters to people they were genuinely grateful for. The researchers found that the simple acts of putting those thanks on paper and passing them along actually increased happiness. And the more you write, the bigger the boost. Researchers think that expressing gratitude in a concrete and intentional way explains the increase.
- Set aside 10–15 minutes.
- Choose someone you want to thank.
- Write a detailed and meaningful expression of gratitude—a page or so will do.
- Deliver the letter: Email, snail mail, in-person, by owl, whatever means you like.
- Repeat x 2 over the next eight weeks to reap maximum happiness benefits.
- Feel those good feels and continue spreading the joy.
When it comes to happiness, let’s let go of the idea that money, fame, and looks make a difference. Instead, simple strategies that enhance your sense of well-being and purpose, like writing thank-you letters, might just help you find the good life after all.
What’s your go-to happiness booster? Share in the comments and check back with us for tips from the latest science behind a better mood.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.