Rule #2: Discomfort Leads to Happiness
Even bad experiences can have good results. Here's some of what I endured as a global volunteer: I was kicked by a horse, scratched by children, I lost half a thumbnail after slipping on a slope in the Andes (which felt a bit like an interrogation technique used by secret police), I nearly stepped on a tarantula, I was forced to drop my pants by Israeli security, I suffered stomach viruses in China and Kenya, I slept on the floor for two weeks in an unfurnished apartment with 18 guys and one bathroom, I had a spider bite on my arm the size of a golf ball … you get the idea. And yet thinking about these incidents makes me smile.
"A lot of people see anxiety, fear and nervousness as a warning that says, 'Danger! Danger!' but it's actually a sign you're moving forward," says Susan Biali, M.D., a Canada-based wellness expert and life coach. In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57 percent of participants were happier after spending money on an experience instead of on stuff, compared with 34 percent who chose material goods. That's because we truly own our experiences, a Cornell University study theorized, and unlike, say, an iPhone, they don't become outdated. And as experiences turn into memories, we tend to appreciate them more, even the lousy ones.
As the Cornell researchers noted, we typically define our happiness by comparing ourselves with others — which means if you have a 24-inch flat-screen TV and your neighbor buys a 30-inch, you feel like a jerk. Experiences, however, evoke less envy because they're more unique, so they make us happier. And happiness helps us live longer: A study published in 2011 found that happy people were 35 percent less likely to die a premature death than their less content counterparts.
Rule #3: Your Brain Craves Challenges
If your brain is a garden, new activities are mental manure: the fertilizer for new brain cells. Trying something new can improve your "neurocognitive scaffolding," as one research team calls it, but you also need to challenge yourself: meaning you should turn off Celebrity Apprentice and take a class or meet friends for a stimulating chat. Volunteers who tutored struggling students in reading and math improved brain plasticity and delayed age-related neurological decline, a Johns Hopkins University study found.
"Breaking habits opens up millions of neurological synapses," says happiness expert Rick Foster. "Take a new route to work. Get out of bed on a different side. Brush your teeth with a different hand. It stimulates your brain."