Don’t delay happiness

It seems too many people treat their own happiness like delayed gratification, something they’ll discover once they get or do or find whatever it is they want. We’ve seen this for years at Collegewise with those students who’ve convinced themselves that if they can just get an acceptance from a prestigious college, all their hard work will have been validated and they can finally get on with enjoying their lives. And it’s not just teenagers. Plenty of adults hope that new promotion or house or relationship will provide the missing piece to finally vault them into a state of happiness.

But according to science, that approach is backwards. The secret to getting what you think will make you happy is to start being happier today. And it’s a lot easier to do than it might sound.

Lesson #29 of my final 31 posts: Happiness leads to success, not the other way around.

In 2013, I stumbled on the work of author and positive psychology expert Shawn Achor. Achor’s overarching message is that while most people believe success creates happiness, happiness actually fuels success. The more positive we are, the more engaged, creative, energetic, resilient and productive our brains become. And the results can be life-changing, improving our success at work or school, our health, and our relationships with friends and loved ones.

Achor’s insights resonated with me for several reasons, not the least of which is that they just seemed to make sense. But I also appreciated that he isn’t just a psychological cheerleader recommending that we all simply smile our way to getting everything we want. All of his recommendations are based on neuroscience. The man has spent an inordinate amount of time looking at brain scans and he’s seen the neurological changes that take place just from making small changes.

Here’s one example: Start every day by making a list of three good things that happened the day before. They don’t have to be big. A great meal, a fun interaction with your kid, even a friend’s story that made you laugh—just write three down, small or substantial. When you do this, your brain is forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives. According to Achor, this practice trains your brain not just to notice what’s good in your life, but also to get better at spotting and seizing opportunities. You don’t just become happier. You make more progress towards the things you want the most. The science is there. You can actually change your brain in five minutes a day.

Achor’s TED Talk provides a great overview of his approach and some specific strategies you can use (heads up: I found the tone a little too infomercial-style for my taste, but the content is excellent). And his book dives into all the research with even more strategies you can use right away.

If you need a little nudge, consider this. If someone offered you an FDA-approved pill that would make you happier, with the only side effect that you’d probably get closer to what you want in your life, would you take it?

Don’t delay your own happiness. Start now.