If you’re feeling worn out, burned out, or sad, you’re not alone. The pandemic, economy, social unrest, and political division are enough to wear out even the hardiest souls. The concept of “happiness” may seem elusive. Or maybe we’re just going about cultivating it in the wrong way.
“People tend to overestimate the impact that money, achievement, and physical possessions will have on their happiness, when in reality social connections and relationships matter much more,” says behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker, professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and coauthor of the forthcoming book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (And how anyone can harness it. Even you.). Of course that’s both good news and bad news at a time when we seem to be more disconnected than ever.
Plus, according to Aaker, happiness is a moving target: “We go from associating happiness with excitement in our teen years, to pursuit in our 20s, to balance in our 30s, to contentment later in life.”
Fortunately, behavioral scientists like Aaker and other experts and researchers have found some ways that we can cultivate more happiness in our lives. To start, we can use small shifts rather than sweeping changes. Here are five ways to try, both at work and at home.
“After a long time studying happiness in the workplace, we can say that everything comes back to communication,” says Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. Relieving stress is the factor that can increase happiness the most, he adds. And while many people believe that stress at work comes from being too busy, poor communication is usually at the heart of it, including:
- Unclear direction of roles, goals, and management expectations
- Inability of employees to say no to managers when they’re busy
- Not being able to discuss emotions with colleagues when stressed
“Stress comes from places where communication does not flow properly,” Wiking says. His organization has found that the intervention with the most benefit is helping people across the organization talk openly about what is wrong, how it can be improved, and what they are feeling.
Humor is not happiness, but it sure can help you be happier, according to Aaker. “Humor and levity get you through the hard times that are part of a meaningful life. Humor and levity actually connect people much more quickly,” she says. Plus, laughing helps depress the release of cortisol, which can help us feel less stressed.
Having trouble finding anything funny? Practice priming, she and coauthor Naomi Bagdonas, who is a lecturer at Stanford GSB suggest. Essentially, priming is the concept that we find what we set out to look for. Just as if you’re primed with the word doctor, you might see the word nurse more readily in a word puzzle, you can introduce concepts that will make you more likely to find humorous moments in your day-to-day life.
How can you prime for humor and levity? The duo suggest a “humor audit” as a way to do so. “All that you do is you go through your day, and you jot down any moment when you laughed, or any moment when you had shared laughter,” Aaker says. Typically, their students report experiencing much more joy and laughter in their lives by the seventh day of this practice. “In many ways . . . humor is the habit [and] happiness is the outcome,” Bagdonas says.
Social connections also contribute to our happiness. If you’ve been hunkered down under the same roof with family for months, it may seem like more connection isn’t going to do much for your happiness. But it’s important to connect in ways that are enjoyable instead of just rote chores. Planning fun activities has its own challenges now, but you’ll be happier if you’re working to find enjoyment together rather than just coexisting.
A study from Southern Methodist University in Dallas found that people actually reported being happier around friends than family. But psychology professor Nathan Hudson, the study’s author, pointed out in Science Daily that the finding had more to do with the activity than the people with whom it was shared. We typically engage in chores and caretaking with family, whereas we tend to do more fun things with friends. Try changing that up. Maybe now is a good time to try out some baking projects?
As Fast Company reported previously, spending a couple of hours outdoors each week can make your happier. It doesn’t matter whether you spend the time in one visit or several, but a U.K. study found that people who spent two hours outdoors each week were significantly more likely to report better health and well-being than those who spent less time outside. The effect peaked at 200 to 300 total minutes.
From a behavioral science perspective, Aaker says that building meaningfulness into your life is also important to add depth and a sense of satisfaction. “Happiness is more about yourself and meaningfulness is more about others and giving,” she says. “The real secret weapon—the real key—is to live a life of levity and humor, anchored by what’s truly meaningful.”