Our income may be rising, but our happiness levels are not.
As Ben Schiller wrote in a Fast Company piece earlier this year, Americans aren’t breaking any happiness records. In fact, the latest United Nations Happiness Report puts us at No. 18 on the “happiest countries” list, with Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland rounding out the top five. This, despite a strong economy and low joblessness.
Of course, there are big-picture reasons for this drop. The report cites disease, substance abuse, and depression as key factors undermining Americans’ happiness. And it’s difficult to overstate the complexity and enormity of these issues. However, for many of us, there are much simpler steps that we can do each day to bring more joy into our lives while staving off regrets.
1. Take inventory
A good place to start is to take inventory of the things in your life that bring you joy or which have caused you regret, says behavioral scientist and personal development coach Dinorah Nieves, author of Love You: 12 Ways to Be Who You Love + Love Who You Are. These are excellent clues to the areas on which we should be focusing on cultivating or fixing, she says.
Nieves counsels her clients to think back to when they were children. Before you learned how to talk yourself out of doing or pursuing the things that bring you joy, what did you love? What gives you similar feelings of happiness and satisfaction now?
2. Fix it
Similarly, taking inventory of regrets can give you insight into areas you might want to address or avoid, says Neal Roese, SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. Roese, the author of If Only: How to Turn Regret into Opportunity.
“Regret tends to come about when people see something as under their own control so they see that they could contribute to it some way, and they also see something that has also fallen short of a standard or expectation or something that they desired,” he says. Take note of the things you wish you had done differently in the past and use that to inform your decisions or actions in the future.
And if something is nagging at you, try to fix it, he says. “When we do something, even if it doesn’t quite work out the way we want, we’re more likely to forgive ourselves and to rationalize it away and not be bothered by it quite as much as when we don’t do something and we realize late, ‘Oh, there was something I could have done and I didn’t.’ That tends to haunt us for longer periods of time,” he says.
3. Revel in gratitude
Focusing on the good things in your life–especially writing them down in a gratitude journal–helps you stay focused on the joyful aspects of your life, says social psychologist Dan Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and author of Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. The benefits of this exercise are well-documented.
4. Recognize what you can control
Some sources of unhappiness and regret in our lives are beyond our control, Roese says. Ruminating over them won’t make them better, but it can sap joy from our lives. Conversely, taking ownership of what we can control and making decisions accordingly can lead to fewer regrets.
“One of the very small things that we can all control is just to be nice to other people and to be responsive to when other people go out of their way and do something well for you or just they do a good job. You can be more generous with compliments. Also, if you see that there’s some way that there was a misunderstanding then being quick to take proactive action can help to settle things more quickly,” he says.
Nieves says that regret can become a habit. If you’re a regretful person, you may find ways to look at a situation from a negative perspective. If you can find ways to reframe the decisions you made–looking at why you made them and learning from them–and treat yourself with compassion, you can dilute feelings of regret, she says.
5. Ask your “future self”
When you have a decision that may help you be more joyful or prevent regrets and you’re struggling, think about yourself 20 years from now, says personal development coach Kate Hanley, author of Stress Less: 100 Mindfulness Exercises for Calmness and Clarity. In two decades, will you be thankful to your current self for having made a particular choice?
“It can also be helpful to frame a choice in terms of choosing your regrets–what would you regret more, saying yes to this opportunity, or saying no? Thinking of it this way helps you acknowledge the fact that there probably isn’t one right choice that will protect you from all possible regrets; so if you’re going to have them, what kind do you want to have?” she says.
6. Redirect your resources
Many of us have a long list of excuses about why we don’t do more of the things that bring us joy, Nieves says. We “have to” attend to something else or we just don’t have time or resources for what we want to do. When she works with clients, she has them track how they’re spending their time or money. That often identifies pockets of resources that can be used to pursue the things that bring us joy, she says.
7. Create non-negotiable rituals
Whether it’s a walk outside, a few quiet moments with a great cup of coffee, or some other ritual that brings you peace and joy, make it a non-negotiable ritual, says healthy lifestyle expert Danette May, author of The Rise: An Unforgettable Journey of Self-Love, Forgiveness and Transformation. “What are your non-negotiables that you’re going to do each day? These are the things that keep you grounded, they keep you in awareness, they light you up,” she says. Put these activities into your calendar and protect them.
One of May’s non-negotiables is a well-known mindfulness tactic. She sets intentions for her day by using “I am” statements. A form of visualization, it helps her start her day both clear about what she wants to accomplish and feeling better about herself. Self-care in the form of proper rest and healthful eating are other non-negotiables for her.
8. Embrace new experiences
Much like a young child embracing a shiny object, when we’re learning something that is exciting to us, we typically experience an increase in dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to rewards and pleasure, Cable says. Dopamine also controls our time perception. “When you’re learning new things, you’re pushing on boundaries, and seeing the effect of your actions on other people and so on, time zips right by you,” he says.
When possible, immerse yourself in learning experiences and stretch assignments that trigger this type of response. It’s an opportunity to both grow your skills and integrate more joy into your work and in your life, overall.