5 Steps to Improve Your Happiness Level

By Jonathan Haidt in Happiness on February 5th, 2007 / 4 Comments

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomIf you have read The Happiness Hypothesis you know all about the cortical lottery, happiness traps, and why happiness doesn’t just come from within. You know that you have to change the elephant and change your environment to change yourself. You know that happiness and meaning come from getting the right relationship between yourself and others, yourself and your work, and yourself and something larger than yourself.

OK, so what exactly do you do now? How can you apply the ideas from the book to make yourself lastingly happier? (If you haven’t yet read the book, the activities below should still make sense.)

Step 1: Diagnose Yourself
You inherited a particular brain with a setpoint for an average happiness level (ch. 2). You are not doomed to live at your setpoint – many other factors move your actual level of happiness up or down from your biological predisposition. But you do need to KNOW what your setpoint is, so you know which challenges you’ll face. And knowing your strengths will help you overcome these challenges.

To Do:

  • Go to www.authentichappiness.org and register at the site, so that you can take personality tests and the site will remember your scores and show you how you compare to others. Keep going back to the “Test Center.”
  • Take the “General Happiness Scale,” the “Satisfaction with Life Scale,” and the “Optimism Test.” Also look at the questions on page 34 of The Happiness Hypothesis. From those various scales, and from reading Chapter 2, you should have a sense of how you did on the cortical lottery. Are you an optimist? Were you born to be happy, or are you going to have to put in some real effort to get there?
  • If you suspect you are below average, or if you are feeling down these days, also take the CES-D (depression) Questionnaire on the Authentic Happiness site. If you scored above 16, you should seek professional treatment, particularly if you have felt this way for more than a few weeks. Please make an appointment with a mental health professional, or you can start with your doctor and get a referral.
  • Take the VIA strengths survey (not the brief strengths test). It’s long, but worth it. Print out the report on your top strengths. This is the one test for which the site doesn’t give you much help in interpreting your scores, but you can learn more about strengths and how to use them here.

Step 2: Improve Your Mental Hygiene
Happiness doesn’t come entirely from within, but if you ever have to choose between changing your thinking or changing the world to make it conform to your wishes, be sure to choose the former. Particularly if you scored below average on the various happiness and optimism measures above, the odds are good that you’ll benefit from some form of cognitive therapy.

Even if you scored above average, you probably have some unhealthy thought patterns: are you very sensitive to rejection? Do you tend to hold on to anger? Do you ruminate about the things you should have said, and kick yourself for days over the things you did say? Cognitive therapy, meditation, and anti-depressant drugs all help you change your thoughts and reduce pessimism and rumination.

To Do:

  • Learn to do cognitive therapy on yourself. It’s easy, and it works like magic. Start by reading a book such as Feeling Good by David Burns, or Learned Optimism, by Marty Seligman. Learn the names of the common thought distortions and fill out a “dysfunctional thoughts record” each time you have one.
  • Try meditating for 15 minutes a day, every day for a month. Meditation is harder than cognitive therapy, and the majority of students in my classes who try it don’t stick with it. But for those that do, the payoffs are substantial. Meditation is the oldest and most widely used mental hygiene technique in the world. Here are two sites that will get you started: www.how-to-meditate.org, www.mkzc.org/beginzen.html
  • If you scored below average on the cortical lottery, and if you have tried various forms of talk therapy or cognitive therapy without substantial improvement, you might be a good candidate for an SSRI (such as Prozac, Lexapro, etc.; they’re all very similar). Talk to your doctor. These drugs do have side effects, and many people try them and dislike them. But there are also many people who try them and report feeling healthy for the first time in their lives, and who wish they had tried them ten years ago. For many people it is worth a 6 week experiment to find out if you are a “good responder” to these drugs.

Step 3: Improve Your Relatedness
The theme that arose most often in my research for the book is that we need others to be happy. We were made for love, friendship, and family, and when we spend a lot of time alone, or free ourselves from the “constraints” of relationships, it is generally bad for us. Even introverts who think they want to spend a lot of time alone perk up and get happier when they are around other people.

So do a relatedness checkup: do you have at least a few people whom you care about, who care about you, and whom you see on a daily or weekly basis? Email and telephone count for a little, but they’re not nearly as good as being physically together. Relationships must be nurtured and enjoyed, not just known about and filed away.

To Do:

  • Ask yourself the “deathbed” question: On your deathbed, will you wish you had spent more time at the office, or with your friends and family? Consider making tradeoffs now — taking longer vacations, working shorter hours, or giving up solitary activities to spend more time with loved ones, so that you can say you got it just right when you do finally have to answer the question.
  • Work on your most valued relationships. Write a gratitude letter. Do something thoughtful and out of the ordinary — even if it’s embarrassing that you are breaking a social norm.
  • Work on your marriage. Read a good book about marriage together, such as John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
  • Try to create a group of friends who do things together. Many of us see individual friends for meals, or a drink, at which we catch up with each others lives. But how much more fun it is to have a gang — as on so many television shows — who gets together weekly or monthly to share an activity (e.g., cooking, playing cards, making wisecracks about a TV show). We are fundamentally tribal creatures; we feel most complete in packs, gangs, and groups. If you don’t have a gang, start with one or two friends and ask them to invite one or two of their friends to an activity you organize.
  • Speaking of packs, there’s a reason dogs are humanity’s best friend: they co-evolved with us, and their ability to bond and to love meshes well with our own. If you don’t have a dog, and you are not getting your recommended daily allowance of relatedness, get one. My father thanks me once a month for pressuring him and my mother to get Koko.

Step 4: Improve Your Work
Work at its best is “love made visible,” as Kahlil Gibran said (p.222). Are you doing your work with love, or out of duty or fear? Most people don’t have the luxury of choosing a job for its spiritual satisfactions, but no matter what your work is (and that includes childrearing or being a full time student), you can take steps to make it more lovable, or to make yourself more loving.

To Do:

  • Figure out if work for you is a job, a career, or a calling (see Ch. 10). If your work is not a calling, that’s OK as long as you have some noble purpose that you pursue elsewhere (see Step 5, below). But no matter what your work is, write out the ways in which your work, or your company, helps people, contributes to the common good, or does something that people find pleasurable. Can you reframe your work to see it as more than a means to a paycheck, as the hospital janitors did in Amy Wrzniewski’s studies? You might want to see if you can reframe your work as a calling.
  • Take your top five strengths (from the strengths test in Step 1) and find a way to use at least one of them every day, in a new way. If you are strong on “love of learning,” do some extra reading about the latest trends in your business, or the history of your profession. If you are strong on loving and social intelligence, reach out more directly to co-workers who are going through a hard time. Give yourself small challenges related to your strengths and you’ll have the frequent rewards of the progress principle (p.82), and more frequent gratifications (p.96).

Step 5: Improve Your Connection to Something Beyond Yourself
In the Happiness Hypothesis I suggested that we are, in a way, like bees: our lives only make full sense as members of a larger hive, or as cells in a larger body. Yet in our modern way of living we’ve busted out of the hive and flown out on our own, each one of us free to live as we please.

Is it any wonder so many people ask “what’s the point?” or “what is the meaning of life?” Most of us need to be part of a hive in some way, ideally a hive that has a clearly noble purpose. Religion, teaching, science, political campaigns…. these are some of the hives people seek to merge themselves into. The self is often a problem (Ch. 9); find ways to lose yours, rather than constantly celebrating or expressing it.

To Do:

  • Consider increasing your participation in religious practice. Start with the religion you were raised with; that is the one that your elephant is most likely to respond to. That is the one most likely to give you “cross level coherence”.
  • Join an organization that has a noble purpose and a long and noble past. Any volunteer work can take you out of yourself. But one that has history, traditions, and rituals is an easier place to find “vital engagement”.

Happiness is not the shallow state of feeling pleased and chipper all the time. Happiness is the state of a human being that has achieved cross-level coherence within herself, and between herself and the people, challenges, and institutions around her. Happiness comes from between.

Book available at amazon: The Happiness Hypothesis

About the author:
Jonathan Haidt is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His research examines the emotional basis of morality and the ways that morality varies across cultures, including the cultures of liberals and conservatives. He received his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and then went to the University of Chicago for additional training in cultural psychology. He has been active in the positive psychology movement since 1999, and in 2001 he was awarded the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology. He has received four awards for his teaching, including the 2004 Outstanding Faculty Award conferred by the Governor of the State of Virginia, Mark Warner. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife Jayne.

For more information please visit: The Happiness Hypothesis

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4 Responses to “5 Steps to Improve Your Happiness Level”

  1. Eric Says:


    you have a very nice blog and very informative article…

  2. Ranjit Says:

    An eye opener for me. This can / will heal lots of stale & broken relationships. Apparently & based on the studies by the esteemed researcher, “Pleasure” zones are as unique to each one of us as we Individuals are. There should be no shame or remorse in indulging in what Pleasures you….

  3. Lilithe Says:

    Wonderful article… except for one glaring problem… the use of SSRI’s is not a healthy option. It does tweak the neurons into perfoming differently, to allow more serotonin in the brain, relaxing one’s mind, but often causes more problems than it solves… even temporarily. It deals with the symptom and not the problem. The problem is depletion, and messing with neuron function could never adequately solve this problem… could in fact increase it.

    Please check out The Mood Cure. It deals with how to supplement the depleted nutrients that cause the brain to be so difficult to work with. It talks about diet and the chemistry of how we as a culture have become so dependent on SSRI’s. I was on them, and it was one of the most debilitating times of my life. I would never advocate them.

    I do appreciate the opportunity to contribute my humble opinion (and personal experience!) Blessings! – Lilithe

  4. Debbie @ Happy Maker Says:

    You are right that part of happiness is being part of the world. enjoying family and friends. when it comes to working we want to work to live not live to work.

    You can find happiness within. Some people however do not find this until they have hit a rock bottom and the only place to go is up. Then you start appreciating and being grateful for what you do have and stop wishing and wishing for what you want and don’t have.

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