How to live a happy life - part one

Philosopher, Michael Plant (University of Oxford) suggests four practical ways to be happier in our daily lives. 


Two smiley face soft toys sitting placed alongside each other. It reads: 'Happy...keep smiling'.

What practical tips would you offer for how to live a happy life? 

If we want to be happier, I think the first place to start is looking at the available options and then working out which to pursue. The way I see it, there are only three avenues to take. We can change how we think, how we spend our time, or the external facts of our life.

If you look at what people actually do to be happier, it seems nearly everyone tries to change the external facts: we try to become richer, thinner, more successful, to find a better house in a nicer area, and so on.

A few of us think about trying to spend less time working, and more time on hobbies or with friends and family. Almost no one thinks about actively retraining the way they think. In fact, I don’t think this last one even crosses most of our minds.

However, looking at the latest research on happiness, I think we basically get this the wrong way around: it seems much easier to become happier by changing how you think or spend your time, and actually quite hard to increase it by becoming rich and successful.

I’ll explain why I’ve picked these in a moment, but my top practical suggestions are:

  • Write down three things you’re grateful for each day.
  • Practise mindfulness.
  • Learn about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and use it.
  • Track your happiness, then do more of what you like and less of what you don’t.

These are the things I think everyone could and should do if they want to be happier. They do require a bit of effort – you have to put some work into your habits – but they’re free and will likely have a bigger effort than almost any external changes. 

This might not be what you expected. Certainly it wasn’t what I expected when I started my research. To understand why I think these are the most important things, you need to know about the two key findings in happiness research.

So what does the research say?

We adapt well to what happens to us

The first thing is 'hedonic adaptation'. Put simply, as a species, we are extraordinary good at getting used to things.

Very few events in life have a long-term impact on our happiness. Births, marriages, deaths, promotions, demotions, etc can all occur to us or around us and typically, after 6 months, our self-reported happiness levels will be back where there were before.

If you don’t believe me, think how annoyed you get when the WiFi doesn’t work, then consider that humanity existed quite happily without it for hundreds of thousands of years.

Perhaps the most important case of adaptation comes from the Easterlin Paradox. This refers to how self-reported life satisfaction scores in the developed world have barely improved over the last 60 years (since we started asking these questions) and yet we're healthier, living longer in safer societies with better technology than ever before. Even though we’re doing better on nearly every measure of progress, we don’t seem to be getting happier.

We adapt just as readily to negative life events too, and studies find those who become disabled report partial to near total adaptation to their conditions. 

We're not great at predicting how we'll feel in the future

Our inability to account for adaptation is explained by the second finding, our ‘failure of affective forecasting’ (‘affect’ is a psychologist’s term for emotional states). In other words, we’re surprisingly bad at predicting how we’ll feel in the future and we don’t even know how bad we are at it.

It turns out we’re generally pretty good at guessing what our initial emotional response will be to changes, but we systematically overrate the intensity and duration of those responses. For instance, getting promoted will make you happier, but not nearly as much, or for as long, as you would expect.

So why do we get it wrong? 

There's three reasons. The first is that, when we think about the future, we tend to focus only on one aspect of the event and ignore the others. This is called ‘focalism’ or the ‘focusing illusion’. So if you ask people if they’d be happier living in California or the Midwest, most people say California. Actually the regions have comparable life satisfaction, but people say California because they think of the weather and fail to take account of other things, such as the fact that California is full of tedious hippies.

The second, called ‘immune neglect’, is that we are often unaware that we’ll adapt to the good or bad things that happen. For instance, studies show people expect their break-ups to be longer and more painful than they are, in part because we forget that our psychological immune system will kick in and we’ll decide we never liked the person anyway.

The third reason affective forecasting is tricky is that we rely on our memories to make future judgements, but our memories are pretty faulty. For instance, we tend not to remember the whole of an experience (‘duration neglect’) but instead remember the peaks and ends of our experiences (the ‘peak-end effect’). Daniel Kahneman famously showed people preferred longer, more painful surgeries with a less painful end to shorter, less painful surgeries because they couldn’t remember how they felt at the time.

In other words, last night’s party was never as good as you think it was.

Our confused memories (and Kanye West)

The biggest memory problem seems to be that we forget what our affective forecasts were, then when the future then arrives we wrongly assume that how we actually feel is how we expected to feel all along.

In the context of a Super Bowl loss, a presidential election, an important purchase and eating sweets, studies show individuals mispredicted how they would feel and then misremembered their predictions. So we don’t learn from our mistakes because we don’t know that we’re making them!

Let’s say I ask you to imagine whether you’d be happier if you were Kanye West. You think of the money, the fame, the cars, the parties, and guess you’d happier.

But what you would fail to take into account is that Kanye West will have adapted to those things and they’ll be ordinary for him. Because we focus on the differences, we don’t realise how similar much of his life is to ours: he gets up, gets in the shower, has coffee, gets stuck in traffic, has meetings, etc.

Because our memories only remember the edited highlights, we can’t help but think all of these experiences are more fun than they would be in the moment. It’s possible Mr. West is happier than you but, if he is, it’s by far less than you think.

Kanye West performing at Lollapalooza on April 3, 2011 in Santiago, Chile. Image credit: Rodrigo Ferrari via Wikicommons

Kanye West performing at Lollapalooza on April 3, 2011 in Santiago, Chile. Image credit: Rodrigo Ferrari via Wikicommons

One study asked people to guess how often rich and poor people would be in a bad mood, then compared that to what richer and poorer people said themselves. They found their predictions of how unhappy poorer people were ‘grossly exaggerated’.

As a result, there’s good evidence we should fight our intuitions about what we expect would make us happy because they mislead us. Our external circumstances have a surprisingly limited effect because we adapt and stop paying attention to them. If you’re already earning £35,000 then earning more won’t make you any happier day-to-day (although it will make you feel more satisfied with your life).

So what's key to achieving happiness? 

My advice is to change how you think and spend your time.

In terms of changing how you think, I’d suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and positive psychology.

For those unfamiliar with them, the basic ideas are that CBT teaches people to understand their thoughts and stop negative thinking patterns, MBSR helps people accept, rather than fight, negative emotions and so reduce the suffering they cause, and positive psychology trains people to find more positive emotions, such as by encouraging people to be grateful. 

Mindfulness is starting to become popular, but the other two are basically unknown. I really hope this changes: given how good we are at adapting these look like the best options for becoming happier over the long term. In just a few minutes a day, you can rewire the way your brain works.

Then, because our memories are so ropey, I’d suggest people start tracking their happiness, either with an app or with pen and paper. That’ll tell you what you enjoy and allows you to re-allocate more of your time to things you enjoy.

Two young people leaping with happiness on the beach with a sunset in the background.

You might be surprised at what really makes you happy: I used to be part of the Territorial Army (now known as the ‘Army Reserve’) and spent most of my weekends in cold, muddy puddles getting shouted at. When I looked back on the weekends, I’d somehow convinced myself that I’d had a great time playing soldiers. So I put this to the test and one weekend I decided to write down how I felt as it happened. I realised I hated it. That was my last weekend with the Army.

More generally, we seem happiest when we’re socialising with other people, outside or doing something that seems meaningful to us (on paper, the Army was a great idea). 

Curiously enough, there’s good evidence that being happy has other positive effects: happy people are more likely to get married, get promoted, earn more, have more friends, be healthier, live longer, etc.

The basic explanation is that we like being around happy people, and this small difference has a long-term advantage. So, if you want to become richer, become happier. I stress being richer won’t do much for your happiness but it does mean, if you’re a high-flying executive and you think your colleagues will make fun of you for practising mindfulness and writing down three things each day you’re grateful, you could always tell them you’re just doing it to make more money. 

You can read this interview in full as part of the University of Oxford's 'Research in Conversation' series.