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UCLA

Don't Worry, Be Happy

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2017 9:00 AM


Research shows there are concrete ways to increase your happiness.


Illustration by Andrea Ucini.

The pursuit of happiness is one of our unalienable rights; it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, but of course it predates our nation’s birth. “All men seek happiness,” wrote the 17th-century French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. “This is the motive of every action of every man.” (Presumably he meant women, too.)

Our drive to be happy is so innate that it’s easy to overlook the notion that there could be a science behind it, and that research could actually point us toward things we can do in our lives that will make us happier. Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a UCLA Anderson associate professor of marketing, was in the third year of her Ph.D. program at Stanford, focusing on consumer satisfaction, when she decided to abruptly change course. Holmes realized she was less interested in the factors contributing to people’s satisfaction with the objects they consumed than with how their choices and thought patterns increased their subjective well-being. “Everyone wants to be happy,” she says. “But it’s not always intuitive what will make us most happy, and sometimes even when we know the path, we need to be reminded.”

Through a variety of research methods — including large surveys and smaller behavioral experiments, as well as more unusual techniques such as scouring personal blogs and Facebook posts — Holmes has developed a roadmap to increased happiness. She offers the following advice:

Focus on Time, Rather Than Money

With her Anderson School colleague Hal Hershfield, Holmes surveyed thousands of people nationwide across age, gender, ethnicity, occupation and socioeconomic status. The question: Which do you wish you had more of, time or money? While more people chose the latter, those who valued time over wealth reported being happier. Importantly, the finding held even after taking into account how much time and money the respondents had. The reason, Holmes believes, can be illustrated by the epiphany that often comes to someone who is given a terminal diagnosis and begins to ponder each sunset. “When you realize your time on Earth is finite, it helps you focus on how precious each day is,” Holmes says. “You’re motivated to spend your time in ways that are more fulfilling, which tend to be the more socially connecting activities.”

Pursue the Extraordinary, but Don’t Overlook the Ordinary

The thrill from extraordinary events — graduations, weddings, the birth of a child, the trip of a lifetime — is universal, but Holmes has found that when we are more aware that our remaining time is limited, we’re more likely to also derive happiness from the more everyday occurrences, whether it’s coffee with a friend, a nice walk on a sunny day, a scoop of our favorite ice cream or a glass of our favorite wine. “As people get older, they are likely to be more appreciative of those smaller moments, and ordinary experiences become more self-defining,” Holmes says. “The lesson for young people is that, sure, extraordinary experiences are going to make you happy, but if you realize that time is precious, you can also find happiness from these more mundane — and, I would add, less expensive — experiences.”

Know and Accept That What Makes You Feel Happy Will Likely Change

Many young people look at the quiet lives led by their parents and worry that one day their lives will be dull. Instead, Holmes says, know and accept that what makes you happy is likely to evolve over the course of your lifetime. “Young people are more likely to find happiness in exciting experiences, but as we get older, it tends to be more about calm and peaceful happiness,” Holmes says. “Just because your parents aren’t going out to parties doesn’t mean their lives are boring. It’s just that the source of happiness can change.”

Give Away Some of Your Time

Noting that many people complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day for all of their personal business, leaving less time than they wish for altruistic pursuits, Holmes conducted a study in which half of the participants were told to take an hour out of their Saturday to do something for someone else, while the other half were told to take an hour to do something for themselves. The conclusion: Whether it’s volunteering for a worthy cause, helping a neighbor shovel snow, finally getting around to writing a loving letter or email to a friend or relative, or cooking a nice dinner for your spouse, giving away a bit of time makes you perceive that you have more time, which makes you happier.

Fill Your Weeks — but Not Your Days — with Variety

Is variety really the spice of life, or does consistency lead to greater happiness? Holmes has found that over the course of a week, a month, or a year, people are happier when they’re changing it up. “It makes you feel more excited and engaged because there’s more stimulation,” she explains. But variety within smaller units of time, such as hours, results in less happiness — a finding driven by a feeling of being less productive, of trying to do too much and accomplishing nothing. The takeaway: Wherever possible, focus within a day on a limited number of activities, but structure your week so that each day brings something new.

For Gifts, Choose Experiences over Material Items

Holmes has found that people who receive an experiential present — say, a gift certificate to a restaurant the recipient likes — feel more connected to the giftgiver as a result than those who receive material goods. This is true even if you don’t accompany the recipient in the experience you’ve bestowed.

Focus on Present Options, Not on What Might Come in the Future

This can apply to any of life’s major decisions — buying a house, taking a job, even selecting a partner. Constantly wondering what might come later or what you’re missing out on now impedes your happiness.

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