The small stuff counts when it comes to happiness. It’s the seemingly mini decisions we make day-to-day that can actually make a big difference.
In his book Choose the Life You Want: 101 Ways to Create Your Own Road to Happiness, professor Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D, writes, “Every moment of our waking life we face choices whose cumulative effect on us is just as great, if not greater, than the effect of the big decisions.”
He gives several examples, such as saying something nice to his spouse or giving “her a sour look”; appreciating his health, friends and food or taking them for granted; sitting up straight or slouching.
It’s empowering to realize that, regardless of our circumstances, we do have a say in our satisfaction.
Here are five ways we can choose happiness every day from Ben-Shahar’s book.
1. View work as having meaning.
As Ben-Shahar writes, we spend several thousands of hours at work. But many of us don’t find our work fulfilling or meaningful. If that’s the case, we have two options, he says: “Find work that is meaningful or find something meaningful in our work.”
Ben-Shahar cites research from Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, which illustrates just how much mindset can affect one’s experience with work. Their research found that hospital cleaners who viewed their work as meaningful — “contributing to the health of patients and the smooth functioning of the hospital” — were happier than hospital workers who performed the very same tasks but didn’t see meaning. According to Ben-Shahar, there’s been similar findings with engineers, restaurant workers and hairdressers.
To find meaning in your work, Ben-Shahar suggests making the choice to focus on how your work makes a difference, on the parts you find interesting or on the meaningful interactions with co-workers. If none of that rings true, you might focus on how work provides for you and your family or lets you focus on what you love after work.
2. Find the positive.
Ben-Shahar encourages readers to become a “benefit-finder.” How we approach life, he writes, affects our physical and mental health and our experience of the world. So we can choose to find the benefits in situations or the faults.
He includes a poignant example of how this works by sharing snippets from his own life. Here are two different excerpts:
“I was kicked out of the PhD program at Cambridge University in England – the only student in my year (and one of the few ever) to be expelled. All in all, it was a humiliating experience and a wasted year, professionally and academically.
I am so unlucky!”
“I was kicked out of the PhD program at Cambridge University in England – the only student in my year (and one of the few ever) to be expelled. The experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise, preparing me for my future work as a consultant. I was at the time arrogant and full of myself – a likely prescription for failure. Being kicked out of the program humbled me and I ended up spending some of the best years of my life living and working in Asia.
I am so lucky!”
3. Include pleasure boosters in your day.
Infusing your day with bits of joy helps you refuel. Ben-Shahar calls these brief mood-elevating moments “pleasure boosters.” He incorporates these breaks on a regular basis to help him feel energized, happier and more creative. He does everything from closing his eyes for a minute and imagining the person he loves to listening to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony to reading a poem by Pablo Neruda.
4. Embrace silence.
According to Ben-Shahar, “When we fill every moment of our life with sounds, we fail to realize our true potential.” Silence, he says, helps us see better, be more creative and develop a closer connection to our environment and ourselves. So find moments in your day to savor silence.
5. See challenges, not difficult situations.
“My words do not merely describe reality, they create reality,” writes Ben-Shahar. In other words, when you view a situation as threatening, you’re likely to get stressed out. But if you view the same situation as a challenge or an opportunity, you’ll likely be excited, energized or determined.
Take the example of giving a presentation. As Ben-Shahar writes, you can either perceive a presentation as a potential disaster or as an opportunity to share your know-how with the public.
He cites research from Joe Tomaka, James Blascovich and their colleagues, which found that students who were told that a math test was challenging ended up being calmer and performed better than students who were told it’d be difficult and viewed it as threatening.
You can learn more about Tal Ben-Shahar and his work at his website.