Winning the lottery or nabbing a promotion doesn’t actually bring us lasting bliss, research shows. The new thinking: Joy comes from doing more of what you value—and noticing the small pleasures already in your days.
You just closed on the house of your dreams, your Facebook post is blowing up with likes—and you scored reservations at the hottest restaurant in town to celebrate. You’re ecstatic, right? Of course you are! Your brain is so lit up with dopamine, a key pleasure chemical, that it looks like a fireworks finale. But will all this make you happier? Sure, but only temporarily (sigh). According to a growing number of experts, those exhilarating, Instagrammable moments don’t permanently raise the setting on your day-to-day blissometer—and by chasing fleeting highs, you may be missing the opportunity for true joy, with a small j. "We live in a culture that tells us we’re supposed to be euphoric all the time, but that feeling isn’t sustainable," says life coach and sociologist Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Own North Star ($16; amazon.com). "Happiness—real happiness—is quieter and calmer, but that sense of peace is deeply satisfying and can sustain you through life’s challenges." Moreover, true happiness isn’t elusive. It’s available right now. You just have to know where to look.
Pursue meaning, not happiness
Yes, it sounds downright un-American, but study after study has revealed a surprising truth about the pursuit of happiness: None of the stuff we think will lift our spirits—new cars, new homes, even winning the lottery—actually does the trick in the long term. “Paradoxically, studies have shown that people who have happiness as a goal tend to be less happy,” says Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life ($27; amazon.com). In 2012, for instance, researchers reported on two studies that showed that wanting to be happy made people lonelier, possibly because striving to elevate your own joy can damage your connection with others. Also, a single-minded focus on positivity may leave you ill-equipped to cope with setbacks and heartbreak, an inevitable part of life. To avoid that trap, allow happiness to bubble up naturally by pursuing activities that dovetail with your values. "Having a strong sense of what matters to you, and letting your values guide your actions, can lead to greater happiness," notes David, who is also a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. To zero in on what you hold sacred, ask yourself, "What relationships do I want to build? What do I want my life to be about? If this were my last day on earth, how would I act to make it a great one?"
This type of self-reflection helps you make choices that infuse your life with meaning, adds Mallika Chopra, founder of Intent.com and author of Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy ($15; amazon.com). "When you feel like you’re living with a deeper sense of purpose, you’re answering the age-old question ‘Why am I here?’" she says. "There’s nothing more exciting or satisfying than feeling like you’ve found part of the answer.” The beauty of this approach is that you can start making values-driven choices today. While you might link happiness to a future goal (losing 10 pounds, getting married, landing a big job), you don’t have to wait for other factors to fall into place to call a friend who is going through a rough patch, write a postcard to your senator urging her not to cut funding for an important program, tutor an ESL student, or volunteer at a dog shelter. "The more you move toward your values, the more vital, meaningful, and happier your life will become," says David.
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Make your brain a sunnier place
When you get big hits of wow—from buying a new pair of shoes, for example, or eating crème brûlée—the brain releases the reward chemical dopamine, but over time you need more and more of those hits to get the same effect, explains Robert Lustig, MD, author of the forthcoming book The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains. Meanwhile, stress reduces serotonin, the brain chemical linked to happiness. "As a result, the constant seeking of pleasure, whether it’s from shopping, drugs, sex, or food, makes it harder and harder to feel happy," he says.
So cut back on quick thrills (clicking on a flash sale, for instance) while taking steps to bolster happiness in your brain—or, as Chade-Meng Tan, author of Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within ($16; amazon.com) puts it, incline your mind toward joy. "As you go about your day, notice moments of joy when they come up and briefly give them your full attention," he suggests. "They happen all the time, but we tend to miss them because they’re fleeting and not intense."
Whatever gives you a little lift—a cold drink of water, the purr of your cat, the fluffy clouds overhead—give it your focus and let that sliver of happiness register in your brain. At the same time, consciously sprinkle in acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity, all of which lead to joy. Hold the elevator for a stranger, help a colleague with a project, or try this: Every hour throughout the workday, take a moment to wish one person in your life happiness. "I’ve taught hundreds of students this exercise, and they’ve said it changed their lives," says Tan, who is a Google pioneer. When you incorporate tiny hits of joy and gratitude into your day, you actually knit together and strengthen the neural structure in your brain linked to positivity. "By training your mind to incline toward joy," explains Tan, "eventually those joyful thoughts and feelings begin to occur effortlessly."
Stay rooted in the right now
Anxiety and depression share a common source: They’re associated with allowing your mind to stray from the present. "Depression is brooding about the past, and anxiety is worrying about the future," says Dr. Lustig. As a result, learning to stay in the moment can be one of the most powerful things you can do to be mentally healthy. The best way to anchor yourself in the present? You guessed it: mindfulness meditation, or sitting and paying attention, moment by moment, to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The practice has been shown to increase gray matter concentration in the parts of the brain related to well-being.
Getting our om on also helps us handle less-than-joyful moods. A 2016 study at Michigan State University found that after a 20-minute guided session, meditation novices who were shown troubling photos were better at taming their negative emotions. And let’s face it—learning to cope with the tough stuff can go a long way toward making you happier. “As you start meditating and paying attention to your emotions, you notice that happiness and sadness are like a roller coaster—they both inevitably go up and down,” says Beck. “By teaching you to become a witness to your emotions, meditation allows you to get off the roller coaster and watch its movement from the safety of solid ground.”
In other words, you don’t take your emotions so personally, which allows you to see something truly profound: Sadness and adversity not only come with their own helpful lessons but also give color, contrast, and dimension to bliss. Without them, we wouldn’t appreciate—or even recognize—what "happy" feels like.