The Happiest Age, And The Factor That Matters Most

happier-family-science-102514I receive a daily digest highlighting new research on happiness, and I’m not going to lie—sometimes, my eyes roll pretty far back in my head while I’m scanning through them. Having basic needs met makes you happier? You don’t say! Having more control over your own choices increases feelings of esteem? How unexpected! But every now and then a piece of research comes through that just stops me in my tracks while I ponder it.

This past week, the results of a survey in Britain concluded that people are happiest at age 58, presumably, it is concluded, because this is when our best work-life balance is achieved. I found this fascinating, and weirdly specific, but it makes sense—it’s young enough to not be old/sick and/or retired and bored, but old enough that probably the daily stressors of child-raising or even just caring about what other people think are either over and greatly diminished. I can dig it.

This, however, was not the piece of information from this study that I found the most interesting. Nope, the best part was this:

The biggest key to contentment was spending time with family, according to almost two-thirds (63%) of those who took part[.]

So all of those family-themed posts we’ve been bringing you this week? It’s not just for fun (although I hope you found it fun). It’s because family plays a huge role in our level of happiness, no matter what our age. And we’re not talking textbook-definition family, either—no need to have a specific structure mirrored in a Norman Rockwell painting, or anything; this is about spending time with the people you live with and love the best. That’s it.

Sure, family may sometimes drive us nuts, but they’re also the most important factor in making us happier. That’s a big deal.

Happier Challenge: Break Bread Together

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGoooood Monday morning! We’re kicking off our first-ever theme week here at Happier, and we’re starting with a focus on family connection.

It’s no secret that the history of human beings is full of rituals around food. “Breaking bread together” is considered a sacred activity in nearly every religion, and eating together is a universal symbol of connection. Is this some sort of mysticism at work? Nope—science repeatedly shows that family dinners strengthen relationships, make kids more resilient, and are generally one of the easiest ways to lower teens’ risk of everything from eating disorders to substance abuse. Even if you don’t have kids and are a full-grown adult, eating with people you love confers plenty of benefits, from increased emotional well-being to actually increasing your odds of eating more nutritious foods. So that brings us to this week’s challenge, all about your family and food:

If you don’t normally have a sit-down, home-cooked family meal, have at least one, this week. If this is already part of your routine, invite a guest to join you!

Here’s some inspiration to get you jazzed to embrace family meals:

Will you take our challenge and share a moment about it in the Happier community? It would make us happier!

Happier Jump-Starts: Tips For Busting Clutter

happier-jump-starts-declutter-101214It’s unclear if cleanliness is truly next to godliness, but science suggests that order in your environment makes you happier and while clutter may foster creativity, order fosters generosity. Interesting stuff.

If you’re busy with work and family—or just, you know, life—cleaning your home may feel like a herculean task for which you have no time. The secret to keeping clutter at bay is to do small things on a regular basis, rather than trying to do everything all the time. Here’s a few ideas my family uses:

Basket or bust. There seems to be a tendency for horizontal surfaces to accumulate stuff ’round here, so a while back we implemented a rule that tables/countertops can only hold items if there’s a basket or other receptacle there for that specific purpose. No basket? Don’t leave your book (or mail, or hairbrush, etc.) there. Support this rule with clear designations for where things should go, so there’s fewer temptations to leave things around in random spots.

Weekly basket binge. To implement “basket or bust” we added a bunch of baskets and other “stuff holders” to our household, knowing full well that some (all) of them would be filled with junk in no time. Every Sunday is basket-emptying day, and if the kids don’t take their stuff and put it where it belongs, said stuff disappears (that’s a pretty good motivator to clean up).

Do the important stuff daily. Everyone has a different flavor for this: the FlyLady insists that if you shine your kitchen sink daily, your dishes will always be done; while Stephanie O’Dea of Totally Together Journal changed my life by suggesting you have the kids wipe down their bathroom sink and counter with the clothes they’re about to throw in the laundry each night. Pick the things you hate to see dirty and figure out how to keep ‘em clean every day, rather than waiting until they become a biohazard.

Break it down, pitch in. Everyone in the family can do chores. (If you’re a family of one, you’re on your own, but probably you have a smaller space, at least.) Make chores bite-sized and set an expectation that everyone do a little every day. If you cook, someone else does dishes. If someone does laundry, grab the dryer sheet out of the dryer and do some quick dusting with it before you toss it.

Use it or lose it. take an (honest!) inventory once a month or so of your belongings. Do you have items you can donate? Broken or otherwise ruined items you’re hanging on to “just in case” that should really be tossed? Be ruthless. Most of us have too much stuff. Getting rid of some of it can be freeing, and ultimately it leaves you fewer things to clean.

Can you keep the clutter down at your place without it making you crazy?

Mind Over Matter? Mind Can Change Matter!

brain-training-bikeThe notion that you can “think your way” to, well, any number of things, is hardly new. You can think your way toward success! Think your way through that last set of push-ups! Think your way… happier. Some people scoff, but research has shown time and again that this so-called “brain training” is a real thing. With enough practice, thought patterns can be altered.

If you live in the vicinity of Northwestern University, you might want to check out what promises to be a fascinating symposium next week—Richard J. Davidson, renowned psychology researcher and New York Times best-selling author, is presenting on the topic of Happiness as a Skill on October 16th, 2014. There will be both a lecture and a panel discussion.

The notable bit here is that Dr. Davidson’s research shows that this isn’t just about habits and actions, but real physiological brain changes which can be deliberately curated. From the lecture description:

This talk will examine the brain’s ability to change itself and enhance emotional well being through mental training and contemplative practices. The presented material will address the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that our behaviors, thoughts, and actions have a robust and measurable effect on brain function and structure. By cultivating positive thoughts and behaviors we literally, at the level of biology, can alter our brain a positive manner.

Cultivating the skills which boost happiness actually changes our brains. How cool is that?? So working on being happier can alter our brains in all sorts of positive ways, making the human brain the only entity I can think of which can decide to change itself on a molecular level and then just… do it. (Nike should totally be using brains in their commercials instead of athletes.)

Happier Science: The Sticking Points

happier-science-092714We spend a lot of time here at Happier sharing what science has taught us about learning to be happier, and of course we try to keep the emphasis on the positive stuff. That’s the goal, after all!

But this recent piece by Thai Nguyen about the 10 culprits potentially robbing you of happiness is fascinating—for anyone who struggles with just following the good advice out there, seeing the connection between common pitfalls and their overall impact may be particularly helpful. This is a tidy list of ways in which we often get it wrong (and why we do). It turns out that we’re not always very good at figuring out what’s best, and as a result a lot of us spend a lot of time “stuck.” Lucky for us, Nguyen is also there to tell us how to turn it around and be happier (phew).

Note that the very first item on the list is:

1. The Cart Before the Horse.

“I’ll be happy as soon as I ________________.”

That’s typically how we view happiness — on the other side of achievement. We put the cart before the horse and then attempt to drag them both along.

Hmmmmmm. I almost feel like I’ve heard that one before… somewhere…. (Everyone together, now: Stop saying “I’ll be happier when…” and start thinking “I am happier now because….”)

Go read the whole piece; I bet you’ll see yourself in at least a few of the items listed, and there’s easy pointers to turn around those decidedly-not-happier habits, too. The science is clear. We just have to figure out the best ways to implement it!

Happier Science: Mentoring Your Way Happy

happier-science-mentorship-090614It turns out that there’s science to back the notion that “good karma” is actually a thing. A real thing, even.

A recent article on Techvibes highlights research demonstrating that the oft-repeated wisdom about being kind to others being good for you has a specific application when it comes to your job: Mentoring has been proven to make you both happier and more successful.

This goes beyond the random-act-of-kindness sort of thing; mentoring is about forging an ongoing relationship with no intention other than sharing and spreading your particular expertise with others. Science has demonstrated that this not only decreases stress and resets your own happiness set-point—mentoring tends to impart a bump in perceived life purpose, which is obviously great for increasing happiness—but it also tends to lead to greater work success, too. That means there’s no downside to reaching out to others as a mentor, because it’s good for them, good for your overall health, and good for your career.

The takeaway? If you’re feeling unhappy in your work life, your best bet for a dual happiness/success boost may just be mentoring others.

Happier Science: Size Matters

… but not in the way you might think.

There’s tons of science out there supporting the theory that small, mundane things make us happier than large, unusual events. While some have tried to tease apart whether this is due to the boomerang of emotions after a “big happy” or something else, the bottom line is the same: small, happy moments do, over time, bring us more and longer-lasting joy.

Remember this week’s challenge to spread some kindness? It turns out that the “less is more” happier science applies here, too: A recent study by Dr. Melanie Rudd and colleagues demonstrated you’re better off thinking small. Specifically, subjects were happier when they set (and met) a goal of making someone else smile, vs. a goal of making someone else happy. But when asked beforehand which would make them happier, subjects predicted the “make someone happy” goal would bring them more satisfaction than just going for a smile.

The takeaways here are interesting. First, it’s not just about size—it’s about concreteness. Make someone smile? You’ve done it when they smile. Easy enough. Make someone happy? Well… how happy? And how would you know for sure? How do you go about it? It’s more abstract, feels harder to both achieve and measure, and ultimately doesn’t make us feel as good. Second, our intuition is often wrong when it comes to what makes us happier (and that’s a little bit mind-blowing).

So there you go; if you want to be happy, set small goals. You’re more likely to meet them, and feel more satisfaction when you do. Size matters!