When you go to your “happy place,” you might picture yourself relaxing on a beach in Bali, fitting back into a pair of favorite old jeans, or landing that promotion you’ve been gunning for. But here’s the thing: Elation, achievement, and success aren’t the same as the warm and fuzzy feelings of happiness—and mixing them up may actually bum you out. That’s why we endeavored to learn what happiness really means, by interviewing a handful of people who have devoted years of their lives to studying it. Read about what their research and real-life experience has taught them; then use their wisdom and advice to boost your own joy. (Spoiler alert: Those old jeans will do more good in the giveaway bin.)
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“Happiness isn’t something you feel. It’s something you do.”
I used to think I had a clear idea of what happiness looks like. I came to the U.S. at 13. My family emigrated from Russia, and we lived outside of Detroit. It was a really rough time, especially because I didn’t speak English. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and self-doubt. The only time I felt OK was when I achieved anything—the day I was moved from remedial English, the day I moved out of the projects.
I thought, “This is how I’m going to be happy: I’m going to achieve things.” I lived my life with this attitude. I’ll be happy when I get into a good college. When I graduate. When I move to New York. When I get married. When I’m able to take care of my family…
I was always proud of my achievements, yet the happiness bubble would eventually pop. I thought I wasn’t doing enough to gain the privilege of feeling good, but I hit a wall, burned out, and couldn’t push anymore.
When I stumbled onto research about gratitude nine years ago, I thought it was a bunch of BS. Saying three things I was grateful for would make me happy? Ridiculous. If I was grateful for everything, I wouldn’t work for anything. Still, I decided to do a 30-day experiment. I told my husband and daughter that each day, I’d write down something I was grateful for and say “thank you” to someone at least once.
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The punch line is obvious. I noticed a difference right away. It’s not like I became a happy-go-lucky person, but I started to find joy in small, everyday moments. Tiny things, like my daughter running up to give me a hug. Coming into my living room and noticing the light hitting a vase of tulips. Even driving to work in minimal traffic and suddenly enjoying the commute.
Before I began practicing gratitude, I wasn’t present for those moments. I only stepped on them before running away. Happiness, I now realize, is not something you feel, but something you do. We don’t have to earn it, or be “good enough…