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The 3 Keys to Lasting Happiness

Good Housekeeping
Healthy Living
April 12, 2012


When I talk to people about happiness,one question that often arises is, "Sure, happiness has many elements. But if you had to pick the most important thing, what is the key to happiness?" It's a question that can be answered in different ways, depending on what framework you use to ponder the issue, but if I had to choose, I think there are three keys to happiness.

The first key? Self-knowledge

"Know yourself" is advice that people have been doling out for thousands of years - "Know Thyself" is inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the monument from ancient Greece that still stands today - and it's also one of the most challenging.

As part of my happiness project, I identified my 12 Personal Commandments - the 12 principles that I want to guide my actions and thoughts - and the first, most important commandment is, "Be Gretchen."

Why is it so hard to know ourselves? You'd think that nothing could be simpler or more obvious. After all, you're hanging out with yourself all day long. But in fact, it's so easy to be distracted by the way we wish we were, or the way other people expect us to be, that we lose sight of what's true about ourselves.

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For instance, I've finally admitted to myself that although I can choose what I do, I can't choose what I like to do. I wish I had a passion for music, but I just don't. Along the same lines, I've admitted that just because something is fun for other people doesn't mean it's fun for me, and vice versa. Rollerblading, drinking wine, shopping, cooking, doing crossword puzzles...so many people find these activities fun, but I don't. Everyone in my family lying around reading in their pajamas? Ah, that sounds like fun.

The fact is, we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own natures, interests, and values. I've found that the more faithfully I'm able to "be Gretchen" in my daily life, the happier I become.

The second key to happiness: anticipation

If the future holds no pleasant promise - well, it's very hard to be happy. Anticipation is the first stage, and a critical one, of enjoying a happy event. The other three stages are:

Savoring: Enjoying something in the moment (remember to turn off your cell phone!).

Expression: Giving voice to your pleasure to heighten your experience (think of crowds cheering at a baseball game, for example).

Reflection: Looking back on happy times (for example, by pulling out the photo album).

No matter what your circumstances, if you have something to look forward to, you bring happiness into your life well before the event actually takes place; you grab more happiness from a happy event, because it makes you happy even before you experience it. In fact, sometimes the happiness of anticipation is greater than the happiness of the actual experience - that's known as "rosy prospection."

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We should all be able to flip through our calendars and see at least a few pleasant things scheduled for future weeks. If your life is a parade of obligations, dreaded tasks, unpleasant encounters, and mandatory appearances, take a minute to figure out something that you'd find fun, and make time for it. Wish you had time to walk in the park with your dog? To work on a craft project? To have coffee with your sister? Schedule it on your calendar like you would a dentist appointment. Even before it happens, you'll get a happiness boost every time you anticipate it. (Also, if you put it on your calendar, you'll be far more likely to actually do it.)

However, as you're considering ways to amplify your sense of happy anticipation, don't forget happiness key number one. Just because something is fun for other people doesn't mean it's fun for you. Be honest about your likes and dislikes. Don't pretend that you like visiting museums or going on bike rides if you don't. Your fun may not look like other people's fun. I myself love to help other people clean out their closets. Skiing, no way--but cleaning out a friend's closets? That I anticipate with relish.

The third answer is ... love

No surprise there. Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: Strong relationships with other people are critical to a happy life. We need close, long-lasting relationships; we need to belong; we need to give and receive support - perhaps surprisingly, giving support is just as important to happiness as getting support. Not only does having strong relationships make it far more likely that you'll take joy in life, but studies show that it also lengthens life (incredibly, even more than stopping smoking), boosts immunity, and cuts the risk of depression.

For most of us, time, energy, and money are in short supply, so when we're trying to figure out how to get the biggest happiness bang for the buck, it's wise to spend on strengthening bonds with family, friends, and coworkers. Should you splurge on a new pair of boots or on a train ticket to your college reunion? Should you stay home watching TV or make plans to meet a friend? A decision that strengthens your ties to other people is likely to make you happier.

As I've thought about ways to strengthen the loving relationships in my life, I've discovered a paradox: To connect more deeply with people, I need to build my independent happiness.

This paradox became clear to me as I reflected on a haunting passage from Bob Dylan's strange, brilliant memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. He writes: "I looked at the menu, then I looked at my wife. The one thing about her that I always loved was that she was never one of those people who thinks that someone else is the answer to their happiness. Me or anybody else. She's always had her own built-in happiness."

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That's what I strive for now - to have my own "built-in happiness." By being emotionally self-sufficient, I free myself (well, admittedly, only somewhat) from depending on other people to boost me up or letting them drag me down. When I have my own built-in happiness, I don't act like a happiness vampire who sucks happy energy from other people or craves a lifeblood of praise, affirmation, or reassurance to support my happiness.

I've realized, too, that happy people make other people happy. Because of a powerful psychological phenomenon called emotional contagion, people "infect" each other with their moods, and when I'm happy, I help lift others up. Also, when I feel happy myself, I have the emotional where-withal to turn outward to think about other people, to take an interest and to try to help. Unhappy people tend to become isolated, defensive, and preoccupied with their own problems. Therefore, while some people argue that it's selfish to be happy, we should be selfish - if only for selfless reasons.

Looking back at these three keys to happiness, I realize that English essayist Joseph Addison managed to sum it all up in a single sentence: "Three grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for."

-By Gretchen Rubin

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