Is there a happiness ATM?

What makes us happy? This question is both trivially simple and impossibly hard.

For centuries, philosophers have speculated about this but thankfully, we don’t have to anymore – research has thrown up some really specific answers in the past 50 years.

But first, let us first talk about the most common way of seeking happiness – buying toys. As kids, we bought plastic cars and planes. Now, the toys are BMWs, bungalows, and vacation homes.

And anybody who says that toys don’t make us happy is dead wrong. Toys do make us happy – but only for two weeks :). Ok, maybe six weeks but sooner rather than later, we are back to square one. And then we look for the next toy.

In fact, a few years ago, I met a super-wealthy industrialist in Kerala who was used to buying a new fancy car every few months. That particular day, outside his office, was a brand-new BMW X7. That was his latest toy.

But why don’t toys work? Because of ‘hedonic adaptation.’ Whatever good or bad happens in our life, we get used to it – it could be a new job, a promotion, a new house, whatever.

Then how can we seek happiness? As I recently shared on LinkedIn, Sonja Lyubomirsky and others proposed that three factors determine our happiness:

1. 50% of our happiness comes from heredity. Unfortunately, we can’t change it. Some people smile naturally, while others (like me) are more likely to frown.

2. 10% comes from life circumstances – what kind of family you are born in, your body type, your nationality, ethnicity, etc. These are also outside our control.

3. 40% comes from intentional activity. This is what we can play around with.

Please see the chart below.

These numbers are approximate and debatable but the answer is clear: If you are seeking happiness, focus on how you spend your time. Look no further.

In fact, I have one hard data point. A few months ago, I met an investor friend of mine who has become super-wealthy in the last decade. I expected him to be ecstatic but instead, he said, “I feel like I have done nothing useful in the last few years. My days just go by.” He did not seem happy at all!

So how can we spend our time wisely?

The best way to find out is through experimentation. Try something new every week and see how the activity makes you feel.

Inspired by Martin Seligman’s PERMA model and and some of my own experiences, here are some suggestions:

1. Find growth activities that are also fun. For me, currently it is learning two things – psychology and programming (Python). It is not just fun, but also doubles as work (especially psychology).

When I can, I want to spend more time learning – statistics, neuroscience, data science, writing, and marketing.

Ask yourself: What things excite you? Which ones will also make you a better person? Pick the overlap.

2. Health activities: Sports, running, biking, or any kind of endurance activities. But if you feel right, even long walks are great. The goal should be to gently push yourself every day.

3. Wholesome entertainment – music, movies, art, books, etc. Just make sure you don’t get caught up in binge watching on OTT. Also, try different genres and see what tickles you the most.

4. At any point, there should be some project that gives you a sense of growth and accomplishment. It could be work related or just a passion project. If nothing else, learning a skill also works.

5. Experience flow state. Any of the above activities or even work can help get into flow state if you can eliminate distractions. You absolutely have to break your digital addictions.

6. Meditation, especially, mindfulness of breath and loving-kindness.

7. Combining nature with adventure – hiking, trekking, spending time in mountains, etc.

8. Spending evenings with good friends. Time with family.

9. Learning. I have talked about it (see first point) but am reemphasizing it. Pick an interesting course on Udemy and pursue it.

10. Exploring new experiences. Do something you have never done before. (I am particularly bad at this).

11. Practicing gratitude. Try the ‘three blessings’ exercise – I do it before I go to sleep. Think of three good things that happened that day, why they happened, and what it meant to you. Convey your gratitude for those experiences.

Now, what if you are feeling overwhelmed by this long list? Just pick one activity and do it for a week and see how you feel.

While this may not qualify as a happiness ATM, it comes pretty close.

Now, it is time to act. What new activity can you do next week? Pick one and try.

Thank you for reading.


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