The key to happiness is not a mystery

Happiness doesn’t always come easily. Some people seem naturally happy, like they inherited the right gene or were born into the right circumstances. Many other people struggle to find happiness. Perhaps even more people hope to become happier than they already are. But what kind of plan should people follow if they are hoping to become happier? Or will any kind of plan merely make it harder to thrive?

It might sound silly to plan for happiness. But many of the decisions we make in life are based on our desire for happiness. Some decisions are based on the desire for immediate emotional pleasures – our choice of desserts after a good meal, for example. Other choices are based on the desire for long-term happiness, whether that reflects primarily emotional well-being (the amount of positive versus negative mood we experience) or the pursuit of meaning in life (such as the sense of satisfaction with one’s accomplishments).

Not only do we base many of our decision on the pursuit of happiness, we often make elaborate plans to become happier. We apply to college or graduate school, hoping those experiences will make us happier. We marry or divorce based, in no small part, on whether we think we’d be happier with or without the person in question.

Does any of this planning work?

A partial answer to this question comes from a fascinating study out of Germany. The study involved a survey of more than 1000 Germans, randomly selected from the general population. They were all asked (in German, of course): “What could you do to ensure that you will be more satisfied in the future or continue to be as satisfied as you already are?”

Some people wrote down what their strategies would be. Others didn’t lay out any strategies. Can you guess which group was happier a year later?

In short, writing down a strategy did not on its own increase people’s life satisfaction. Here’s that result:

Does that mean there’s no point in developing a happiness plan? That we should bounce around in life, aimlessly hoping to stumble on happiness? No it doesn’t, because some plans worked better than others. Specifically, some people developed personal but non-social goals – such as to stop smoking, to exercise more, or to make more money. Others laid out social goals – like helping other people or spending more time with their kids.

People with social goals became more satisfied with their lives in the ensuing year. Here’s a picture of that result:

My take on this study:

  1. It’s only one year long. So it doesn’t inform us at all about whether we should go to grad school or marry the person our parents always thought we should wed.
  2. But it’s a really impressive study. And it is consistent with other research establishing that social interactions are very important for people’s happiness.

The key to happiness is not a mystery. Spend time with people you care about. Develop a happiness plan, and make sure that plan involves finding ways to interact more meaningfully with the people you love.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel. He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together. This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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