A surprising thing happened when I typed “how to be” into Google’s search engine and let autofill work its magic. Before “pretty” and “rich,” another massively trending word popped up: “happy.” It seems that when we’re not searching for recipes that we can whip up in under 30 minutes or the name of that guy in that movie who’s also on that TV show we like, we’re looking for joy. And the internet offers millions of options—249 million clickable choices, to be exact.
With every click, I hoped that little arrow would point me in the right direction for this story. But there’s a fair amount of well-worn advice out there—about mindfulness and, for reals this time, starting a gratitude journal. (Be grateful I’m not writing about any of those things.) After watching videos, scrolling through blogs and even taking the semi-old-fashioned route of emailing friends, I uncovered seven surprising theories about happiness. And, yes, it brings me immense joy to share them with you.
1. Ask yourself what an ideal ordinary week looks like.
Not extraordinary. Not life-changing. Ordinary. When it comes to happiness, a lot of us follow the “Go big or go home” mindset. But you’re not going to receive a marriage proposal every week of your life—not even if you’re a rocket scientist/supermodel—so it’s really about focusing on all the other weeks of your life. “Typical days matter most in terms of your average happiness because they are so abundant,” blogs Spencer Greenberg, a mathematician and entrepreneur a friend brought to my attention. “Don’t think in terms of achieving certain milestones, but rather in terms of how the hours in the week are spent.” In your ideal run-of-the-mill week, how much time would you spend watching TV? Socializing? Doing something altruistic? Indulging in your passion for painting, dancing or playing the piano? Just pondering these questions made me look like one of those half-smile emojis.
2. Comparison isn’t always the thief of joy.
Going for the gold often leaves bronze medalists a lot happier than silver medalists—and experts have the Olympic pictures (along with survey data) to prove it. So many of us are guilty of comparing our actual accomplishments to what could have been—just like a silver medalist stressing over having barely missed top honors while a bronze medalist revels in the fact that they even made it to the podium. It’s counterintuitive but true: Bronze can trump silver. I stumbled upon this insight in “ScientIST: When Less Is More,” a post by Jason Goldman, but it’s not just a revelation for Olympians. It’s a little gem to mention to your kid at the end of basketball season if their team comes in second too.
Also see: Rediscovering Your Passion
3. There is no road to happiness.
One of motivational speaker Lisa Nichols’ many gifts—on top of crafting inspiring messages and radiating kindness—is knowing exactly how to cleverly turn a phrase. I follow her on Instagram, where she shared this gem of wisdom: “Happiness isn’t something you arrive at,” says Nichols, co-author of Abundance Now. “It’s a destination that you stay at.” Take that for what it means to you, but for me it’s a reminder that happiness isn’t a state of being you need to wait to get to. It’s something that can and should be with and in you at all times.
4. Instant happiness doesn’t require hitting Mega Millions.
We all know that happiness can disappear as fast as elevator doors closing in your face. But it can also appear nearly as quickly, especially as a result of helping others. Happify’s infographic “5 Ways to Boost Your Happiness Instantly” shows you how to do just that in a few minutes (“email someone and thank them for something they did for you”) or just 30 seconds (“help someone who needs it”). Donate to that good cause, offer directions to someone looking lost, answer a question about a product on Amazon, let that driver get in front of you. In less time than it takes to complain about what went wrong today, you can revel in the things you did right. Speaking of which . . .
5. Quit complaining.
In my circle of friends, I’m legendary for griping about my commute. But experts say that while it’s good to vent and feel heard, complaining puts us on the road to nowhere. “The problem with complaining is that it keeps us focused on what we want to escape from, rather than what we want to move toward,” blogs Stella Grizont, positive psychology expert. “The key to happiness is to know what’s most important to you and to keep your eyes on that.” Ignore the drawbacks (getting stuck in traffic) and focus on your desires (a jetpack—okay, a faster trip). My commute feels a lot speedier now that I listen to podcasts and audiobooks the whole way.
6. There are two kinds of happiness—and your brain can’t tell the difference.
“Natural happiness” occurs when we get what we wanted, explains Dan Gilbert in his TED Talk, “The Surprising Science of Happiness” (watch it below). Cue the scene of you decorating your brand-new home. “Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted,” he adds. Cut to you picking out fabulous new pillows for your old couch in the house you’ve lived in forever because you can’t afford to move. Here’s the kicker: In his talk, which has been viewed nearly 15 million times, Gilbert explains (backed by scientific proof) that our brain may not be able to differentiate between natural and synthetic happiness. He argues that even though we may value natural happiness more, the synthetic kind can be just as real and enduring. It’s a solid argument for not knocking the knock-off.
7. Redefine your happiness.
We tend to imagine that the epic moments of our lives are in limited supply: graduation day, wedding day, the birth of a child. But is that really true? One of the happiest people I know would argue it isn’t. “The best days of my life weren’t necessarily the days something great or exciting happened—such as business or financial success,” writes entrepreneur Chris Winfield. “Rather, they were those days when I felt good about myself because I grew as a person; days when I grew mentally, physically and spiritually; days when I connected with someone; days when I helped someone.” Reaching out to another person. Pushing your physical boundaries. Researching happiness. (See what I did there?) When you think about the simple things we all can do to make today one of our best days, it turns the unhappy moments into the exceptions that are truly few and far between.