What makes people genuinely happy?
That question generally elicits a plethora of enticing ideas: a catnap in the sun, a decadent chocolate treat, a beach vacation, or an unexpected jackpot from a slot machine.
But for some people, these paths to happy little things feel frustratingly out of reach. Considering many people’s full schedules and financial difficulties, we can’t take time for a nap, or take off work for a vacation. Does this mean that genuine happiness must simply remain out of reach?
If you look closer at the above list of happy things, you’ll notice that they all are inherently lazy, or selfish, or both. Science shows that this is not the path to deep, genuine inner contentment. Rather than serving your own, immediate desires or needs, it’s the ones that are more selfless in nature that will bring you the most significant and longest-lasting happiness.
The science of happiness is developing, as research into what makes people happy, and why, delves ever deeper. But researchers are finding that connecting meaningfully with others, and giving of ourselves is what makes people feel good. While things like a weekend getaway or a funny movie can boost our spirits for a moment, a deeper and more sustained sense of contentment comes from more outward-focused experiences.
Following are six things you can do to make yourself happy in the long term.
- Volunteer. Donating your skills, energy, and time to an organization, a cause, or a person in need obviously benefits for the recipient, but there will be considerable benefits for you as well. People feel happier giving away their money than when they spend it on themselves. People who volunteer live longer than people whose efforts are devoted to their own self-serving pursuits.
- Be grateful. The power of positive thinking closely relates to gratitude. People feel more optimistic and happier when they take time to write down things they feel grateful for. Going out of your way to thank others, either in writing or verbally, can also create a lasting increase in happiness levels. Gratitude reconnects you with your sense of appreciation and thanks for the many blessings in your life, including family and friends who care about you and love you.
- Get a pet. Stroking an animal’s fur lowers a person’s blood pressure. And having a cat, a dog, or other pet can boost both your self-esteem and your sense of meaning in life. Caring for a pet by tending it, feeding it, and loving it fills your life with a sense of meaning. And animals love their human companions in a way that is genuinely unconditional, which is the kind of love that every one of us craves.
- Get intimate. Stereotypically, men crave sex more than women do. But both experience lasting boosts in happiness that are directly related to sexual satisfaction. Of course, lovemaking feels good in the moment. But it may surprise you that sexual intimacy soothes anxiety. Even holding hands and hugging delivers an endorphin boost that can last for hours. And physical intimacy makes us feel closer emotionally to our partners. An intimate, satisfying connection with a lover can truly be blissful.
- Get moving. Even mild exercise, like taking a walk, can make you feel good. This is especially true if you walk outside in the sun, which boosts your serotonin levels. Regular exercise alleviates anxiety and depression and creates a lasting feeling of well-being. Most doctors recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week. But if all you can manage is a quick 10-minute walk around the neighborhood every morning, then make it happen. You’ll certainly feel the benefits in your mood, and your body, especially your heart, will thank you. A walk outdoors is a great activity that you can enjoy with your spouse, your neighbor, or your dog. It will boost your health, your happiness, and your sense of community all at once!
- Enjoy cultural events. A direct link exists between lasting happiness and experiencing cultural events such as art exhibits, ballet performances, symphony concerts, and so on. Many venues schedule free events, so attending doesn’t have to bust your budget. So go, enjoy, and feel your horizons expanding as your heart opens to the beauty and joy of performance and art.
If you consider those activities, you’ll notice that they focus on connections, selflessness, and community. These are the secret to lasting happiness: it’s all about finding your place in this world by getting out in it and creating lasting bonds with your fellow human beings. So next time you feel down, go ahead and indulge in a decadent candy bar, watch a funny movie, or daydream about an island vacation if that’s what will make you feel good for the moment. But always remember that the true path to genuine fulfillment depends not on fleeting pleasures, but on a shift in perspective to things far more selfless and open-hearted.