If happiness is a choice, then why are so many of us miserable? A 2016 Harris Poll reveals that fewer than one in three Americans consider themselves very happy. What’s trampling our joy? Are we really so put-upon by life, or are we just a bunch of glass-half-empty complainers?
Here’s the problem. We spend far more time on activities that dull us down than the ones that light us up, says Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Conservative Heart. “Our days tend to be an exercise in distraction. We think about the past and future more than the present; we are mentally in one place and physically in another. We mindlessly blow the present moment on low-value activities,” like television and surfing the web, which, not surprisingly, top the time-wasting charts. “The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness,” Brooks tells Life Reimagined. “You can practice some of the Buddha’s wisdom, resolving to live as if this were your last year. Then remorselessly root out activities, small and large, that don’t pass the ‘last year test.’”
Productivity matters too. Dr. Samantha Boardman, founder of Positive Prescription and clinical instructor in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, remembers what her mother used to tell her: “Go and make yourself useful.” Says Boardman, “Being useful isn’t just about being busy. It’s also about adding value. As much as I didn’t enjoy weeding the garden, it was gratifying and purposeful. Those weeds would grow back, but making a tiny difference felt good,” she says. “That’s the awesome thing about being useful. When you contribute something beyond yourself, no matter how insignificant it may seem, you forget yourself and all the little things that are bugging you.”
As a psychiatrist, Boardman applies this knowledge in her practice. “In addition to discussing the big issue that brings a patient in the door, it is equally important to focus on the everyday. Talking about how the person spends their time and conducts their daily life is essential.” Here are Boardman’s seven steps for finding happiness by making the most of your day.
- Learn something. Expand your knowledge, every single day. “Listen to a podcast, read an interesting article, learn something from a friend. Remember, everyone you meet knows something you don’t.”
- Make someone’s day. “Do something, anything, for someone else. This is an immediate mood booster. Going out of your way to be kind to others also helps you feel more in control.”
- Use your strengths. “You excel when you get to do what you do best.” And that’s a big boost up on the happiness scale.
- Fortify yourself. Make the decision to eat well, move more and sleep better. “Every bite of food, every extra step and every extra hour of rest has a significant impact.”
- Think forward. Are you working in service of your long-term goals? “Do at least one thing that brings you a step—even a baby step—closer each day.”
- Do something meaningful. Act to improve the world. “It may be as simple as picking up a piece of garbage on the street.”
- Take a moment. Spend at least 30 seconds reflecting on what you have accomplished and appreciating what you have. “Expressing thanks is one of the simplest ways to feel better,” she says.
NFL legend Michael Strahan believes that how you wake up might just be your most winning strategy. The talk show host and author of Wake Up Happy: The Dream Big, Win Big Guide to Transforming Your Life, is a true believer in the power of routines. “The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is listen to music. It’s the key to starting my day off right.”
Alexi Panos, author of 50 Ways to Yay!: Transformative Tools for a Whole Lot of Happy, also believes in the power of morning ritual. “This is something I’ve practiced on and off for years, but when I actually do it, I am unstoppable. As my life gets busier, I rely more than ever on my morning ritual to start my day off powerfully.” Here’s Panos’ one-hour practice. Do it before you check email, answer the phone or leave the house.
10 minutes: Connect (Panos snuggles with her husband).
10 minutes: Meditate.
10 minutes: Affirm (Saying, for example, I live in alignment with what inspires me; I share my gifts and talents with the world with effortless ease; I create my day with joy, gratitude and inspiration) and visualize (imagine your life as you want it to be and hold that image for five minutes).
10 minutes: Write (Panos clears whatever is on her mind) and explores her gratitude.
10 minutes: Learn (Panos reads or watches an inspiring video online that gives her something to focus on for the day).
10 minutes: Resolve (Panos writes into her calendar a daily stretch—an action that feels uncomfortable but will expand her contribution to the world—as well as three things she’ll accomplish to bring her closer to her vision, “starting with the scariest!”).
“Yes, this may seem overwhelming, but it takes extraordinary action to yield extraordinary results,” says Panos. “It’s been documented time and again that the most successful people have routines and rituals that they carve out time for. Remember, what initially feels like a total inconvenience will eventually be the thing you must make happen every day because it leaves you feeling so darn good.”
Knowing the science behind the pursuit of happiness may give you just the motivation you need. Renowned positive psychology trailblazer Martin Seligman, Ph.D., broke ground with his PERMA model, citing these five building blocks of a good and happy life.
- Positive emotion. Gratitude, satisfaction, pleasure, inspiration, curiosity, awe, hope, love and peace create an upward spiral of mood.
- Engagement. When you’re completely absorbed in a task, situation or project you love, you experience flow: Time seems to stop; you lose your sense of self and concentrate on the moment.
- Positive relationship. Strong social connections are linked with good physical and mental health and protect against stressors.
- Meaning. You derive meaning from serving something larger than yourself—religion, a cause or a strong sense that you have a higher purpose. It puts your life into perspective.
- Accomplishment. Achieving your goals, mastering a skill and living life in accordance with your values are important for well-being. Simply working toward a clear goal keeps your mindset positive.
If misalignment is keeping you from being happy, as Brooks maintains, then the solution is simple: Stop wasting your precious and finite time. Start leveraging it instead.