As we welcome in the New Year, we often reflect on ways in which we would like to improve. Many of us formalize these reflections with New Year’s resolutions or other goals aimed at focusing and tracking our change efforts. Many of these goals often deal with personal fitness, finances, and employment. While these are worthy endeavors, we may be better served by focusing on areas that have been shown to increase happiness and well-being.
While we all have a personal set point that accounts for around 50% of our happiness, there is a lot within our power to change how we feel. In fact, research has shown that 40% of our happiness is accounted for by intentional activities—the things we do to make ourselves happy. So, what activities should we engage in if we are trying to improve our lives? Research has identified the following three areas of intentional activities:
1. Time With Family and Friends
Social relationships have been shown to be the single biggest predictor of our happiness. Particularly, close relationships with family and friends play a major role in our well-being. To put things in perspective, a leading researcher in the field of happiness, Robert Putnam, has found that getting married produces the same boost in happiness as quadrupling your salary. Similarly, the increase in happiness is the same when you triple your salary or make a good friend. Given these findings, it seems obvious that if we are trying to make our lives better, relationships should be a part of any efforts we make in that direction. Spending quality time with those closest to us might be our top priority for the New Year.
2. Flow—Losing Yourself in the Moment
The term “flow” has been used to describe the process of being fully and actively engaged in an activity we enjoy. You’ve probably had moments where you are doing something you are good at and everything feels right for that moment. People often experience flow around physical activities, creating something, or engaging your mind in a difficult task. These are often typical, mundane tasks, yet they allow us to fully engage and enjoy the process. There is a strong correlation between this process and our happiness. Some of the most common New Year’s resolutions revolve around personal fitness, but often focus on weight loss. It might be more helpful to see these goals, and others, and times for you to engage in flow and truly enjoy the process.
3. Finding Purpose
Perhaps due to the fact that we are social beings, we need to know that we are needed and that what we do matters. Our happiness increases when we engage in activities that serve the greater good. In fact, several studies have shown that giving money away produces more happiness than earning it. Similarly, acts of kindness, however small and seemingly insignificant, also lead to happier lives. They also have the added benefit of potentially increasing our social connectedness, which is the biggest predictor of happiness. The beginning of the year is an excellent time to look beyond ourselves and plug in to activities and organizations that serve those in need.
As we all consider the changes we would like to make this coming year, we would be wise to work toward balancing the demands of life with those things that matter most. This can be difficult, and we often feel defeated when we are confronted with certain aspects of our daily lives that seemingly will not change. However, small, consistent efforts are often more impactful than the large, once a year changes. Make intentional time for those you care about on a daily basis. Communicate your appreciation to them more often. Find small ways to enjoy day-to-day tasks, and make time to develop new skills that will allow you to simply enjoy being engaged. Reach out to others and find ways to be needed. As we all focus our goals and efforts in these three areas, may we all find increased happiness and well-being this New Year.
About the Author: Dr. Matt Brown is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He holds a doctorate degree from Texas Tech University and a master’s degree from Brigham Young University. He is currently Assistant Professor and Program Director in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and the Clinic Manager at the South Shore Center for Couples and Families.