The most important life decision: being strategic about happiness

November 17, 2017

Of the many important specific life decisions one can make (having children, deciding what to study in college, when and who to marry, the type of work, how to spend your free time, whether to take on bungee jumping, spelunking, gardening or horseback riding as regular hobbies), there is on overriding decision that will actually impact all other decisions you make in life, and that is the decision to Be HAPPY. Just a generation ago happiness was barely studied and rarely the object of serious academic or scientific study. The thought was one is happy or not as a result of decisions, and circumstances, largely outside one’s control. But the last decades of happiness studies (yes this field does exist and it has variants in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and even philosophy!), has shown us that one can indeed be strategic about being happy and that a fairly small number of smart decisions can dramatically improve your chances of being happy in life. Happiness is intimately linked to “success” because it’s very hard to imagine any definition of success that doesn’t include happiness as a big component. What for example would be the point of being financially successful if you are miserable because you have no time for doing things you love…?



Happiness studies have concluded that achieving happiness is related to a small number of variables, many entirely under our control. They’ve also, just as importantly, shown that many variables our culture assumes are related to happiness are actually not. And this is important because it shows what paths to NOT TAKE and not waste our precious life time on. For example, Happiness, is NOT affected, above a middle-class standard of living, by either income or wealth (measured in relation to the community you live in). Nor are possessions such as cars, or cloths and jewelry or videogames boxes or cell phones related to being happy. Richer people are not happier than middle class people for example. If you want to be happy, there is no point in pursuing an income higher than middle class or in possessing the latest gadget, toy, watch, or electronic device our consumerist society tries so hard to convince us to buy. You really don’t need it! You are better off spending time on other more fruitful happiness inducing endeavors shown to indeed be correlated with greater happiness. Like what? Well, experiencing other cultures and places for one. Yes traveling within and out of your country will make you happier! A second one is working for the good of others, aka being generous with those less fortunate. Giving of you time, talent, sweat and effort to benefit others – that is, altruistic activities, have shown to have profound effects all the way down to your brain pleasure and contentment centers! Note that while gifting others, also has some effect, it is NOT as strong as DOING something for others. Thirdly, spend time with friends, not too many - so they are meaningful, and in person, not electronically. Finally exercise, at least 30 minutes per day and of fairly high intensity. If you can exercise in nature (as opposed to in a gym or indoors) you will receive an additional benefit, that has also shown to be an important determinant of happiness – connecting regularly and intimately with nature. Things like snorkeling a coral reef or swimming in a pond, walking a forest trail, jogging in the local park, gardening, biking outdoors has much greater benefits than equivalent indoor cardiovascular activities. The field of Biofilia research has shown that the brain of our species needs and desires natural stimulus – the sweet breath of air that runs through a forest, the sounds and sights of crashing waves or of leaves glittering in the sunlight, the sight of a wild herd of animals or of flowers in full bloom. Even interacting with animals has been shown to have strong effects on happiness! (more so, for example, than interacting with say robots or electronic games).


Taking actions to be happy could be the greatest life decision any of us could make. Unhappy people tend to be unsuccessful in everything: school, relationships, jobs, and even physical health (and of course mental health too!). This is because feedback loops between your mental state and the activities that would afford you success in any of these areas can drive you to be more, or less, successful. Nobody likes to be with or work with unhappy, depressed people. It is difficult to be mentally healthy if you are unhappy. So, my strong advice to all students, parents and teachers: the most important life decisions you can make are related to HAPPINESS! Travel and learn from other places and cultures. Spend time giving yourself for the good of others. Spend quality time with your intimate friends (and family!), and do regular 30 min exercise, preferably in natural setting. And reduce the amount of time watching TV, navigating and interacting with your phone or computer.  Spend less time consuming and shopping. These inert activities will not impact your success or affect your happiness in any meaningful way


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