A steady flow of new research has managed to pin down what really makes people feel good

Psychologist Adrian White from the University of Leicester looked at more than 100 studies that tracked self-reported happiness around the world. Canada ranked 10th, behind nations like Denmark, Switzerland and Austria, while the United States lagged far behind in 23rd place. If we want to move up in the ranks, it’s time to focus on things that are proven to positively impact on how we feel.

1. Focus on the present

One thing we know from positive psychology is that we may be chasing the wrong things in the quest to feel better. “We’re really bad at predicting what makes us happy,” says Denise Clegg from the University of Pennsylvania (the world’s first school to offer a master’s program in positive psychology). “We get caught up in future thinking and how things will be ideal once our conditions are met.” That could be when you lose 20 pounds, land the perfect job or can afford a real Louis Vuitton bag. “People over-estimate the ability that material goods have to make us happy. But the feeling you get from them is temporary and fleeting,” she says. The happiest among us already have this figured out. They don’t exist in a world of “if only” or “when I finally accomplish X, I will be more satisfied.”

Author and lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar cautions against the trap of living in the future. “In most cases, shortly after reaching some destination, we return to our base level of wellbeing,” he wrote in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. “Rather than allowing ourselves to remain enslaved by our pasts orfutures, we must learn to make the most of what is presently in front of us and all around us,” he says, noting that a happier life is shaped “experience by experience, moment by moment” — and not by single events. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals. According to Ben-Shahar, “The primary objective of goals is to liberate you to enjoy the here and now, the journey.” Ben-Shahar talks about “self-concordant goals,” ones that are true to who you are and don’t rely on extrinsic factors — like trying to please your parents by becoming a doctor. He suggests setting long-term goals with timelines, then planning daily and weekly activities to help you get there.

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Michele Sponagle
August 2010

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