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The Science of Happiness Explained

I'm at the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) 2018 Annual Conference in New Orleans, and almost skipped the keynote session - because an hour-long talk about happiness sounded irritating. But actually I didn't want to strangle the speaker at all. 

The Happiness Professor as she is known, is Catherine Sanderson. She teaches at Amherst College and has degrees from Princeton and Stanford. She presented research from the field of positive psychology that looks at the factors that do (and do not) predict happiness, and provided practical ways that we can increase our own psychological well-being.

Things we think will make us happy, but really don’t: 

Money. (Note: for people worried about survival, this doesn’t apply.) But beyond that, the more of it one has, the more one wants. 
Climate. Not convinced about this one. As a person who has been living in Florida for 6 years, from Canada, I can tell you that she may have gotten this one wrong. 
Life event. In other words, when X thing happens, then I’ll be happy. When I get a promotion, when I graduate. However, there is one life event that does make us happy: marriage. Interestingly, this only benefits men. For women, happily married women are happier than single women, but unhappily married women are less happy than single women. 
Having children. Parenting is really hard and can be boring and involves tons of work and piles of laundry. Parents do experience more peaks of joy than non-parents. But those highs come with equally low lows. In contrast, people without kids have a more even keel experience. 
Things that actually do make us happy:
Behaviors like eating particular foods, exercising, and shopping - for someone else. Finding the perfect gift makes us happier than shopping for ourselves.
Nature. Studies show that our brains react differently to looking at an urban city skyline versus a rural nature scene - nature is physiologically relaxing to the brain. Studies show that looking at nature can also speed up recovery during a hospital stay. 
Personality. Extraverts, people with high self-esteem, and optimists are happier, because they can find the silver lining in any cloud. 
Age. A study showed that people ages 18-21 are very happy. Happiness then drops like a stone until age 50. But then it increases from 50 to 85. An explanation for this is that later in life you make a choice to prioritize the quality, not quantity, of your relationships. 

The Happiness Professor explained that genetics is responsible for about half of our happiness. Which means that 50% of our happiness is up to us, and within our control. She provided the following things you can do right now to get happier.  

Top 10 strategies for increasing happiness:

  1. Change your behavior - start getting enough sleep. Exercise. Spend time outside. Meditate.  
  2. Find your match - professionally and personally. We are all happiest when we are in our right fit. 
  3. Read a book you love. 
  4. Keep a gratitude journal - don’t go to sleep at night pouring through the problems you are facing. Instead, write down 3 things you are thankful for right now.
  5. Make a gratitude visit. Think about a person who influenced your life in shaping who you've become. Don’t wait for the eulogy - write them a letter and then travel to the person and read the letter out loud to them. 
  6. Smile - even when you aren’t happy. Your smile can be the source of your joy. 
  7. Perform random acts of kindness - donate to charity, volunteer in your community, give a gift (to anyone). This activates the same part of the brain as when you eat chocolate (and use cocaine, but we won't get into that here). 
  8. Spend money on the right things. i.e., experiences. Concerts, travel, shows. Don’t spend money on belongings.  
  9. Avoid comparisons. "Comparison is the thief of joy." -Teddy Roosevelt. Keep this quote in mind when scrolling through social media. 
  10. Build and maintain close relationships. This takes time and is not easy. It involves compromise, conflict, and work. But having meaningful and high-quality relationships is the single best predictor of happiness. 


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