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How to be Happier

From the spring 2012 OPEN magazine article, "What Makes You Happy?"

The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances.  —Martha Washington

happiness quizWhile some people are naturally happier or more optimistic than others, everyone has the capacity to change and to view the world differently, says Raj Raghunathan, an associate professor of marketing who studies happiness.

Consider these tips for seeing the brighter side of life.

1. Make it a priority

“If you want to win an Olympic gold medal, you need to train, watch your health, get a good night’s sleep,” Raghunathan says. “Why should happiness be any different? People think that happiness is going to magically land in their lap, and that they don't need to work at it or think through things.”  

In a recent study, Raghunathan and colleagues sent a daily email for a few months to one group of employees, simply asking, “Did you do your best to be happy today?” A second group received no messages. Both groups reported their happiness levels at regular intervals. At the end of the study the group that received the daily reminder reported being happier than the other.

2. But don’t get desperate

“It’s like sleep,” Raghunathan cautions. “If you desperately want to sleep and you're constantly thinking about sleeping, you won’t sleep. Constantly worrying, ‘How happy am I?’ is going to make you think about things that don't lead to happiness. The key is to make decisions that are more aligned with increasing happiness and then let yourself be absorbed in that.”

3. Get in the right mindset 

Adopt a mindset of abundance and flexibility. Someone with an abundance mindset feels “their emotional bucket is overflowing, and they’re looking for opportunities to serve other people,” Raghunathan says. In contrast, the person with the scarcity mindset always wants more, for fear that resources will run out, and is skeptical of others’ motivations. 

Another happiness-producing mindset is the flexible mindset, the belief that you and your situation are changeable. Most leaders have flexible mindsets, convinced they can overcome obstacles.

Finally, be a satisfier instead of a maximizer. A satisfier is relaxed and appreciative of their surroundings, while a maximizer is constantly on the lookout for what needs fixing. Raghunathan acknowledges that sometimes the maximizer mode is necessary—especially in business—but it’s important to “snap out of it” once the problem is solved. “The proportion of time we spend in the maximizer mindset is way over the limit of where we would be most productive,” he says.

4. Ignore your ego

Imagine your spouse wants to lose weight, but she never takes your suggestions about diet and exercise. One day she comes home, excited about a new book that has inspired her to start a healthier lifestyle. You can either angrily counter that you have been telling her the same thing for months or congratulate her on pursuing her goal. One response will satisfy your ego, the other will make for a happier marriage. 

5. Go guilt-free

When Raghunathan polls his students, he finds that more than 50 percent say they are less happy than they should be. One reason for that, especially among wealthy Westerners, is because we feel we don’t deserve to be happy when other people have so much less than we do. This sounds noble, but it’s actually hurting the less fortunate. 

“Findings show that you would significantly enhance the welfare of others around you if you felt you were happy,” writes Raghunathan in a blog post titled “Wanted: Happy People!” He explains that happy people are more generous, that their happiness is contagious to others, and that happy people absorb fewer resources because they are more productive and less likely to become ill.

“Would you rather be selfish by thrusting your misery on others, or would you prefer to be someone whose company others seek because of the joy you spread?” asks Raghunathan.

One caveat—don’t force yourself to be happy if you’re not up to it. Just don’t let feelings of guilt get in the way.

Recommended Reading 

Want more happiness? Raghunathan suggests these books for the reveling reader:

  • “Drive,” by Daniel Pink
  • “Mindset,” by Carol Dweck
  • “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” by Robert Pirsig
  • “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth,” by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener
  • “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career,” by Herminia Ibarra
Read our feature story, "What Makes You Happy?" to learn more about Raghunathan's work on happiness and its role in business.



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