Realistic Ways to Achieve Happiness: An Interview with Tim Bono
With the start of the New Year, many people make themselves promises to engage in healthier behaviors, to jumpstart in earnest a pursuit of personal happiness. New Year’s resolutions notwithstanding, the pursuit of happiness is not only a worthwhile endeavor, it’s also life-affirming and can result in lasting change to overall well-being.
To delve deeper into realistic ways to achieve happiness, I recently spoke with Tim Bono, a psychology lecturer in Arts & Sciences who teaches courses in happiness at Washington University in St. Louis. Bono is the author of When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness.
You say “life-changing” and that there’s a science to happiness. Can you explain what you mean by that?
TB: People have been interested in pursuing the good life for as long as there have been people. Over the last few decades, the field of psychology has applied the scientific method to the age-old questions around how we can increase our well-being and strengthen our psychological health. Beyond just intuition and conventional wisdom, the scientific method tests hypotheses by collecting data on large groups of people to identify the behaviors and mindsets that are most effective at increasing our happiness.
What are your top tips for making this a happier New Year – by doing something proactive to get a handle on personal happiness?
TB: I have a few I recommend, as follows:
- Get outside, move around, take a walk.
- Get more happiness for your money. Buy experiences instead of things and spend your money on others.
- Carve out time to be happy, then give it away. Thirty minutes helping others is more rewarding and actually leaves us feeling empowered to tackle the next project, helping us feel more in control of our lives and even less pressed for time. This translates to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.
- Delay the positive, dispatch the negative. Anticipation itself is pleasurable, and looking forward to an enjoyable experience can make it all that much sweeter.
- Enjoy the ride. People who focus more on process than outcome tend to remain motivated in the face of setbacks.
- Embrace failure. How we think about failure determines whether it makes us happy or sad.
- Sweet dreams. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis.
- Strengthen your willpower muscles. Exercising willpower muscles in small, everyday behaviors strengthens our ability to stay focused at work.
- Introduce variety into your day-to-day activities.
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
- Reach out and connect with someone.
- Limit time on social media.
- Use your phone in the way phones were originally intended.
- Practice gratitude.
Are most of your tips on how to achieve happiness – like going outside for a walk – more physical than mental? That is, do you initiate the code to happiness by doing something physical? Or is it more of a balance between the two?
TB: We know there is a strong link between our psychological health and our physical health. One of the most effective ways to take care of our minds is to take care of our bodies. Physical activity releases neurotransmitters like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which are the brain’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. There’s also a feeling of accomplishment (what psychologists call “self-efficacy”) that comes from completing the hard work of an intense exercise or workout routine. In this way, exercise is a very important way to strengthen psychological well-being. But there are, of course, many other ways to increase happiness that aren’t predicated on physical activity. Gratitude, meditation, and prosocial behavior are chief among them and do not require physical labor of any kind.
Do different stages of life have anything to do with how easy or difficult it is to achieve happiness?
TB: On average, there doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between age and happiness. However, there is evidence to suggest that older adults tend to be slightly happier than younger people, which could be due, in part, to a tendency to savor life more during its later stages instead of striving for the next promotion or worrying whether their career is on the right track for optimal future success. Older adults are more likely to live in there here and now, and that kind of mindfulness is important for our well-being.
What additional methods, if any, do those in recovery from addiction (alcohol, painkillers, polydrug use) and/or mental health disorder (anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorder) need to employ in order to get on the road toward feeling happier?
TB: One of the most important ways to recover from addiction or disorder and get back on track toward mental health is with a strong social support system. Caring people who provide a shoulder to lean on during the inevitable difficult times along the way, as well as people who are there to help you celebrate your successes, are extremely valuable on the road to recovery. When people you trust know about your goals to improve your well-being, they hold you accountable and provide support, both of which can go a long way toward making progress.
Any advice on how to deal with obstructive others – that is, those closest to you (family, loved ones, friends, even co-workers) who try to dampen your enthusiasm or are critical of your efforts to prioritize you and work on your personal happiness?
TB: As difficult as it may be, bring sympathy toward your interaction with that person. Anyone who stands to obstruct another person from improving their own happiness and well-being is likely battling their own inner demons. If someone criticizes you or otherwise attempts to derail your efforts, you might choose to acknowledge that you’ve heard them, but do not modify your behaviors to accommodate their negativity. Find friends or colleagues who support you—or better yet, want to join you in these efforts—and spend more time with them. Negative people are unavoidable in our daily lives but that does not mean that we have to allow them to dictate our behaviors. As you make progress toward your own psychological health goals, you might also consider serving as a model for those who were not initially supportive. Don’t do this to show off, but merely to show that it can be done. I’m a strong believer in the sentiment that we should be kind to unkind people—they’re the ones who need it the most.
How best to cope with disappointments? Maybe you’ve been on a great trajectory, but some unexpected glitch or problem has suddenly derailed your progress. How do you get back on track and not feel like you’ve failed?
TB: First, use failures and setbacks as learning opportunities . Like a lot of other things, failure is neither inherently positive nor is it negative, but the beliefs we hold about it make is positive or negative. As Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Maybe something didn’t turn out as we hoped or expected, but there are likely important lessons that could be gleaned from the experience, which can serve us well in the future. Plus, we are gaining more and more awareness today of how successful people have gotten to where they are, and we now see that for most it has involved a circuitous path with stumbles along the way. The most successful people will tell you that in order to achieve their success they had to learn a lot along the way. Often, a very effective way to learn where there’s still work to be done, or to figure out what needs to change in our approach, is through failure–trying things one way, identifying what doesn’t work, and then making the appropriate modifications.
Second, acknowledge that failure is important for growth. There’s other research showing that adults who had to overcome a moderate level of adversity while growing up tend to have the greatest outcomes later in life because they have had to engage their social support networks and develop the coping mechanisms that are necessary to negotiate life’s challenges. Developing these skills early on comes in handy for bouncing back from later hardships and responding to future adversity. The people who have the strongest psychological health later in life are often those who have learned how to fail. They’ve learned how to pick themselves back up after being knocked down, reflect on the experience, grow from it, and soldier on.