Since I founded the Secret Society of Happy People over twenty years ago, I’ve been asked countless times, “What is the secret to happiness?”
It’s an obvious question that I’ve avoided directly answering for two reasons. First, the Society is about celebrating happiness, not telling people how to be happy. Second, there isn’t one simple answer.
Of course, as a mostly happy person who’s studied happiness for more than two decades, I have identified what I consider are the secrets to happiness—or at least the secrets to my happiness.
This year I was interviewed several times about a study by Gallup and Sharecare of 2.5 million Americans that shows, despite a robust economy, people are unhappier than they’ve been since 2009—the year that unemployment hit an all-time high during the Great Recession.
That study and the Society’s 20th Anniversary — or birthday as I think of it — has inspired me to share my Four Practical Happiness Principles – or my secrets to happiness.
First, what is practical happiness?
Practical happiness helps people discover realistic happiness.
Second, what are the Four Practical Happiness Principles?
- Happiness Zappers Zap Everyone
- Happiness is Personal
- Happiness Changes as We Change
- Happiness is Bigger Than You Think
We all know that we aren’t going to be happy all of the time—even if we want and try to be. Life happens, and it’s not an exclusively happy experience. But that also means it’s not exclusively unhappy, either.
Studies show us that people who consider themselves mostly happy, and those who consider themselves mostly unhappy, experience a similar number of unpleasant experiences.
So, what’s the difference in how happy and unhappy people rate their happiness? It’s how they react to similar happiness zapping experiences.
Therefore, our first practical happiness principle is: Happiness Zappers Zap Everyone
Identifying & Managing Happiness Zappers
The most important thing we do every day may be managing our happiness zappers:
- Competitive Happiness
- Technology Inundation
Oftentimes, one or more of these things will be part of our daily experience. Since our brain is hardwired to focus more on these experiences than the happy ones, we have to decide how we manage our happiness zappers. Otherwise, they manage us.
The first thing to do when that not-so-happy feeling appears is to identify the type of happiness zapper it is.
Unhappiness is created by experiences that we have little or no control over and probably have long-term consequences. They are the experiences that many times hurt our hearts like:
- Serious health issues
- Loss of a loved one or pet
- Rifts with family or friends
- Loss of a job
- Financial hardships
- Rebuilding after a natural disaster
Unhappiness usually isn’t something that we can quickly fix. It can force us to find a new normal, like learning to live without someone we love, adjusting our budget or changing our lifestyle to improve our health.
Our quick-fix, selfie-perfect culture doesn’t respect that sometimes it’s normal, natural and okay to feel sad. In fact, it’s actually unhealthy to never feel sad.
However, after our heart deals with its initial pain and shock, it makes room for happiness—even if it takes a while. Even after our new normal feels normal, a pang of sadness can still pop into our happy space, reminding us of something in our past that’s gone. Just because a wound has healed, doesn’t mean we don’t have a scar that painfully flares up from time to time.
When we experience unhappiness, we have to decide if the experience is going to make us better or resentful. We become better when we grow by becoming more empathetic or being inspired to do something to help others. We become resentful when our minds and hearts keep reliving the past over and over, therefore stopping us from healing and moving forward with new experiences.
Stress is created when too many future unknowns occupy our minds, we walk on eggshells around others to keep the peace, or we have too many to do’s. Stress is most likely part of an unhappy experience, but it can also be a standalone situation like:
- Bad bosses, possible layoffs or company buyouts at work
- Communication challenges with family members, neighbors or friends
- Airport delays
- Job hunting
- Planning an event
- Waiting on health test results
Stress reduction is as varied as its causes. It can be as complicated as making a decision and taking action to change a situation. It may be having a Plan B for a situation that we have either no or minimal control over. It requires us to set boundaries by saying no to things – even some things you want to do – because there are only 24 hours in a day. It also can be as simple as biding your time until the stressful moment naturally ends.
Not all stress is bad for us. Sometimes it’s the key to us upping our own game, like when we do a work presentation, win a tennis match or triage a chaotic situation.
Some ways to manage the physical effects of stress include exercise, yoga, music, and aromatherapy.
Chaos shows up unexpectedly. It is overwhelming but is usually short-term. Think of situations like:
- An ER visit by you or someone close to you
- Your dog getting lost as you’re leaving for work
- Your teenager invites the soccer team over last minute
- A neighbor pops over because they need to talk—even though you’ve got a million things to do
- Your child forgets to tell you about a major school project until the night before it’s due
- Aftermath of a natural disaster
- Your boss gives you a big project and minimal time to complete it
Chaos may be attached to unhappiness, but it can also be a fleeting moment that passes. Chaos will temporarily increase your stress, so take a little time to decompress after it’s been contained. You might sleep a little longer, watch a movie, or talk things with a good friend and a glass of wine.
Annoyances are momentary, yet probably repeatable experiences like:
- Traffic congestion
- Someone being late
- Losing your keys
- Having a cold
- Restaurant order being wrong
- Internet not working
- Dealing with customer service
- Favorite sports team losing a game
We have lots of control over if or when these moments zap our happiness. We typically don’t remember these moments a week (much less a year) after they happened. If this is the case, do they deserve to take away even a minute of your happiness? The moment we quit focusing on them is probably the moment our happiness returns.
Competitive happiness happens when we make judgements about someone else’s happiness, and then compare our happiness to theirs. It happens when we:
- Compare social media posts
- Assume things about our someone else’s life
It’s natural to have a certain keeping up with the Joneses mentality or happy competition. Sometimes that can be healthy, or even a motivator if it inspires us to improve ourselves or how we do something.
However, sometimes it makes us believe other people are happy all of the time—and that’s simply not true. Sometimes we think people are happier than we are. Sometimes we know a post isn’t the whole story and feel someone isn’t being authentic. Sometimes we compare someone’s likes or loves and feel they are more popular than we are.
But happiness can’t be compared. Your happiness is yours to enjoy, and it should never be diminished by someone else’s happiness.
The best way to manage competitive happiness is to quit wasting your energy comparing your happiness to anyone else’s. Instead, be so busy doing things that make you and others happy that you don’t have time to make comparisons.
Technology Inundation is when we feel overwhelmed by the technology we use. It happens when we:
- Manage our devices
- Decide if the information we look up on the internet is accurate
- Stress over our online accounts being hacked
- Wonder if our private conversations are being recorded
- Worry about identity theft – including fake profiles on our social media accounts
- Deal with online bullies and trolls
- Get overwhelmed with emails, texts, and IM’s – because people expect immediate responses
While technology connects us with people, information and makes our life easier in so many ways, it’s also created new stressors we didn’t have twenty years ago.
There’s not a simple solution to managing our technology inundation, because technology pervades nearly every aspect of our lives.
However, the best way to keep technology from zapping our happiness is to be proactive:
- If you aren’t a techie, find a friend or family member who can make sure your devices are set up correctly
- If you’re worried about identity theft, sign-up for a service that protects you and alerts you to activities taking place in your name
- Set aside specific times to respond to messages and check your social media accounts
- Assume you’re being recorded by someone when you’re in public. As my mom always told me, “If you don’t want me reading about it on the front page of the newspaper, it’s probably a sign you shouldn’t be doing or saying it.” Now she’d say, “If you don’t want me to see you doing it on a viral video – you probably shouldn’t be doing it where you did it.”
Finally, when you’re feeling overwhelmed by technology, remember all of the benefits you get from using technology—and give yourself time off from tech. Use that time to read a real book, listen to a song, take a walk, watch a movie, savor a meal or enjoy an in-person conversation with a friend or loved one.
Practicing Practical Happiness
We cannot predict when most happiness zappers will happen to us. However, we can learn to manage them and how they affect us. Zapper management means we allow ourselves to recognize and react as needed to these experiences, but we don’t let them take away all of our happiness.
Practical happiness allows us to embrace all of life’s emotions—including the unhappy ones. When we do that, although it sounds ironic, we also experience more happiness.