If you look around you, there are some people who generally seem happier than others. If you’re not as happy as you’d like to be on a daily basis, is there anything you can do about it? That is a big question, because there has been a lot of discussion among scientists about how much of the difference between people in their overall level of happiness is a result of a genetic lottery that leads to a “set point” that people tend to return to.
If you look across studies, there is definitely evidence that some people just are happier than others. Like a thermostat that helps keep the temperature in a room relatively constant, there are mechanisms that people have that lead them to return to a baseline level of well-being. At the same time, there are also habits that will affect how happy people are—and there are some things you can do about it.
They set the right type of goals
The goals people pursue affect their long-term happiness. In particular, people are happiest when they pursue goals that connect them to other people. In the workplace, this is reflected in studies suggesting that when people see their work as connecting to a broader purpose and helping other people to achieve their goals, they’re more satisfied with their careers. And, of course, satisfaction with your work generally lifts your overall sense of well-being.
More generally, you can distinguish between goals that are competitive versus cooperative. A comparative goal is one where you want to see yourself do better and the people you compare yourself to do worse. A cooperative goal is one where you try to lift up your family, friends, or neighbors so that success means that everyone does well. The happiest people tend to engage in a lot of cooperative goals rather than competitive ones. This allows people to celebrate their own successes, as well as the successes of the people around them.
They accentuate the positive
Very few things are completely good or completely bad. Most experiences have some positive elements and some negative ones. A great meal at a restaurant may have started with problems finding a parking spot, or a table that was a little too close to a potted plant. Happy people tend to focus on the positives and to let the negatives of events fade into the background.
That focus on the positive elements has two benefits for well-being. First, each event is more enjoyable in the moment, because the focus is on the desirable parts of what is happening rather than the undesirable parts. Second, the information you focus on is the information that stays in memory. So, when you look back on the event later, you’ll remember the positive parts of it most strongly, and that memory will also help to make you happy.
They forgive others
Over the course of your life, people will do bad things to you. Even the people closest to you in your life will do selfish or mean things. One thing that happy people do well is to forgive others. The interesting thing about forgiveness is that it enables you to forget the details of what someone did that upset you in the first place. As a result, you will not be reminded of all those negatives when you see them or think about them in the future.
The alternative to forgiveness is to hold onto the details of the bad things people have done to you in the past. The memory of social pain does not go away as quickly as the memory of physical pain, because you can regenerate feelings of anger, shame, or embarrassment just from thinking through a negative interaction with someone from the past. It’s hard to truly experience the physical pain of an injury when you think about it much later.
Forgiving someone does not necessarily mean that you will trust them completely in the future. There are people who are mean, selfish, or unreliable that you might choose not to spend time with or do business with any more. Still, forgiving them for what they did will help you to move past those interactions without harboring negative feelings that can drag down your mood or your satisfaction with life.