Why are some people happier than others? What are the benefits (and costs) of happiness? And is it possible to become happier than you currently are, and to stay that way? These are the very questions that I have tackled in my psychological science research, as well as in my books, “The How of Happiness” and “The Myths of Happiness”.
I am an experimental social psychologist who has been doing research on happiness for 30 years. Along with my students and collaborators, I have conducted dozens of experiments that try to increase and maintain people’s happiness. In broadest terms, my research suggests that lasting happiness is attainable, if you are prepared to do the work. Much like with creating music, building up and nurturing a loyal fanbase, becoming lastingly happier demands making some permanent changes, requiring effort and commitment every day of your life.
I love music. It has cheered me during dark moods, inspired me to pursue seemingly impossible goals, helped me connect with significant people in my life, and delivered simple pure pleasure. Thus, when I learned of the significant mental health problems in the music community, I was moved to recommend the best well-being-increasing tips tailored to the needs of music makers. I would want no less than the creators of what makes me and my friends happy to be happy themselves. Furthermore, greater happiness – and the experience of more frequent positive emotions – has been found to be associated with greater productivity, superior creativity, and even stronger health.
What are some of the happiness-increasing strategies that researchers have studied and concluded to be most successful? This list won’t make any of you spill your evening tea, but take note that all the strategies have been supported by empirical research. Also, you do not need to attempt the entire list of happiness activities, but should choose to focus only on the 1 to 4 strategies that “fit” you best – the ones that seem most natural and enjoyable to you.
One way to practice this strategy is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down the 3 to 5 things for which you are currently thankful – from the mundane (being able to create music) to the magnificent (booking a major gig at a festival).
Do this once a week, say, on Sunday night. Keep the strategy fresh by varying your entries and how you express them as much as possible. And if there’s a particular person who has been kind or influential in your life, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Send them an email or a nice message or comment, or, if possible, visit and thank them in person.
What: These should be both random (tell someone how much you appreciate their music) and systematic (ask your friends if you could help with any creative tasks they might be stuck with). Being kind to others, whether friends or strangers, triggers a cascade of positive effects – it makes you feel compassionate and capable, gives you a greater sense of connection with others and earns you smiles, approval and reciprocated kindness. These are all happiness boosters.
This strategy involves such practices as looking at the bright side, finding the silver lining in a negative event, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), feeling good about your future and the future of the world, or simply feeling that you can get through the day.
One way to practice this strategy is to sit in a quiet place and take 20 to 30 minutes to think about and write down what you expect your life to be 10 years from now. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could with your music career. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Then, write about what you imagined.
Let go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance by writing – but, not sending – a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. The inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on.
When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called “flow,” a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. So, become fully engaged at work, at home, and at play. Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether it’s writing a new song in the studio, playing at a gig, or enjoying a hobby. Seek work and leisure activities that engage your skills and expertise.
One of the biggest factors in happiness appears to be strong personal relationships and a sense of connection with others. And in the music business it’s no different. Indeed, having the support of someone who deeply cares about you is one of the best remedies for unhappiness. Thus, this strategy involves putting effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family and friends. Act with love, be as kind to the people close to you as you are to strangers, affirm them, share with them, and play together.
There’s a time to think about the bad stuff in your life, but dwelling on your problems excessively is unhealthy. Very happy people have the capacity – even during trying times like a parent’s chronic illness – to absorb themselves in an engaging activity, stay busy, and have fun. To practice this strategy, pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it when you notice yourself dwelling.
Pay close attention and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on a nice melody, the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a bakery, or the warmth of the sun when you step out from the studio. Some psychologists suggest taking “mental photographs” of pleasurable moments to review in less happy times.
People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new guitar riff or getting a Grammy award, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project. However, being dedicated to making music won’t make you happy if you’re just doing it for superficial reasons such as making money, boosting your ego, or succumbing to peer pressure.
Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term and promote energy and strong mental health. Practiced regularly, they can help make your daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.
The secrets to happiness are simple to learn, but not simple to carry out. However, with determined effort and commitment, you can learn practices and habits that will help you achieve higher levels of happiness and – even more important – to maintain those levels. You shouldn’t just “pursue” happiness – you should “construct” or “create” it yourself.
Sonja Lyubomirsky (AB Harvard, summa cum laude; Ph.D. Stanford) is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness (published in 36 countries). Lyubomirsky and her research on the science of happiness have been the recipients of many grants and honors, including the Diener Award for Outstanding Midcareer Contributions in Personality Psychology, the Christopher J. Peterson Gold Medal, and a Positive Psychology Prize. She lives in Santa Monica, California, with her family.
➞ Sonja’s website