By Mark Travers, Contributor
Sept. 12, 2022
One common question people have when they come to therapy is “How can I be happier?” Something in their life is off-balance and they are searching for a way to feel like themselves again.
In these cases, psychologists are quick to point out that happiness is not like a light switch — it can’t be flipped on at our command. However, there are some checklists we can go through to try to diagnose and fix the problem.
Here are four ‘levels’ of happiness to tune into when you’re looking for a way to rediscover your joie de vivre.
#1. Sense of purpose
Psychological research has repeatedly shown that living a purposeful life is essential to life satisfaction. One study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, for instance, found that people living in certain U.S. states (e.g., Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming) rated their lives as more purposeful than those living in other states (such as Kentucky, Vermont, and New York) — and that people in those states tended to be happier and healthier.
How do you know if you’re living a purpose-driven life? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you like what you do every day?
- Have you recently reached some of the goals you set for yourself?
- Do you get to use your strengths regularly?
If you answered ‘no’ to one or more of the questions above, you may look for ways to increase your sense of purpose. This could take on many forms, such as pursuing a project you’ve always been passionate about or carving out more time to help others. One recent study published in PLOS-ONE found that people who worked diligently to make a positive difference in the lives of others were most likely to view their own lives as purpose-driven and meaningful.
#2. Psychological richness
Psychological richness is different from other forms of happiness in that it refers to living a life of variety. A 2020 paper published in Philosophical Psychology defines it as:
“A life characterized by complexity, in which people experience a variety of interesting things, and feel and appreciate a variety of deep emotions via firsthand experiences or vicarious experiences. A psychologically rich life can be contrasted with a boring and monotonous life, in which one feels a singular emotion or feels that their lives are defined by routines that just aren’t that interesting.”
Have you had enough variety in your life lately? Have you taken the initiative to expose yourself to new people, places, and ideas? Or, have you been stuck in a monotonous routine? These are important questions to ask yourself when reflecting on your current state of happiness.
Feeling like we belong may be the trump card of happiness as it is difficult to imagine anyone being happy when they feel marginalized, unheard, or unwelcome.
Research supports this conclusion. One study covered in last year’s World Happiness Report examined the extent to which the following 11 characteristics influenced happiness in the workplace:
- Feeling like we achieve our goals at work
- Having a clear sense of purpose
- Feeling appreciated
- Feeling a sense of belonging
- Having time and location flexibility
- Working in an inclusive and respectful environment
- Learning at work
- Having a manager who helps us succeed
- Being paid fairly
- Feeling supported
- Trusting our colleagues
They found that ‘feeling a sense belonging’ was the most important factor. Flexibility, inclusiveness, and purpose were also rated high.
If you’re struggling with your sense of belonging — either at work, at home, or in your community — you might try to expand your social network to include people with similar tastes and interests. Therapy can also help ease feelings of isolation.
#4. Hedonic happiness
We all need to have some good, old-fashioned fun every once in a while — the kid-like kind of fun where your attention is completely locked in the present moment. Psychologists refer to this as hedonic happiness. And, while the experts don’t recommend living a life of pure hedonism, there is a time and a place for simply letting yourself enjoy the sweetness of life.
One study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science found that happiness frequency (i.e., how frequently you experience the emotion of happiness with responses consisting of about once each month, once each week, once each day, about 2–3 times each day, or more than 3 times each day) was reliably associated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
What can you do to up your happiness frequency? Identify the types of things that bring you little doses of joy — this could mean engaging in leisure activities, socializing, praying, exercising, resting, etc.) — and make an effort to do more of them.
The recommendations psychologists make to help increase people’s happiness may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people benefit from the constant reminder. To dig yourself out of a happiness rut, take some time to reflect on (1) bringing more purpose into your life, (2) spicing up your life by adding variety to your daily routine, (3) increasing your sense of belonging, and (4) not downplaying the value of good, old-fashioned fun.
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