A man with a stoic face holding a white mask with a smile.

Do you want to be happier? Is happiness predetermined?

Research suggests that people’s happiness is influenced by a combination of three factors: genetics, life circumstances, and activities and habits. While we may not have much control over our genetics or life circumstances, we do have control over our activities and habits.

Check out how to be a happier person by choosing how to spend your time.

1. Set Goals

One way to learn how to be a happier person is to provide meaning and pleasure is to set goals. Tal Ben-Shahar explains that goals contribute to our happiness by providing us with a sense of purpose and direction. They enable us to organize our time and resources, giving structure to our lives and facilitating our focus on the present. According to Ben-Shahar, having goals is more important than achieving those goals. He explains that the true purpose of setting goals isn’t in their completion but the process of striving toward them.

(Shortform note: While Ben-Shahar emphasizes the process rather than the result, Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better, argues that if you want to meet your goals, you should make sure those goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (a.k.a. SMART). For example, instead of a vague aspiration like “I want to be happier,” a SMART goal might be “I will write in a gratitude journal every evening for 60 days to increase my happiness.” This goal isn’t only specific and time-bound but also measurable, achievable, and directly relevant to the end objective of enhanced happiness.)

Ben-Shahar clarifies that your goals should be authentic and intrinsically motivated, what he calls “self-concordant goals.” Unlike typical goals, self-concordant goals are derived from a deep personal conviction or strong interest, making them more personally fulfilling to pursue. Ben-Shahar cites the work of Kennon Sheldon and his colleagues, who argue that people are happier when they pursue goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals related to money, beauty, or popularity. Identifying self-concordant goals can be challenging, as it requires a high level of self-awareness and the ability to resist external influences and pressures.

(Shortform note: Sheldon’s research demonstrates that self-concordant goals increase motivation and psychological well-being in part because progress toward the goal is inherently satisfying and pleasurable, regardless of whether or not the goal is reached.)

2. Find Your Calling

Most of us will spend most of our lives working, and, according to Ben-Shahar, work is essential for happiness. The challenge lies in finding or creating work that brings both pleasure and meaning. Ben-Shahar cites research that explains that people think of their work in one of three ways—as a job, an obligation with little personal value; a career, focused on end results such as money, status, or power; or a calling, where the work itself is valuable, intrinsically motivating, and seen as a privilege rather than an obligation. 

To find your calling, Ben-Shahar suggests asking yourself three questions: What gives you meaning? What gives you pleasure? What are your strengths? He refers to this as the MPS (Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths) Process.

Ben-Shahar recognizes that not everyone has the luxury to choose work that they find inherently fulfilling. However, he suggests that you can transform your work into a calling by altering your perception, even if your job choices are limited. He insists that happiness is as much a product of our external world (what we do) as it is of our internal world (how we perceive what we do). 

For example, consider a customer service representative who feels their job is repetitive and mundane. By shifting their perception, they can view their work as an opportunity to help solve problems and make customers’ lives easier. Every call or interaction becomes a chance to make a positive difference. This transformation in perception can turn a simple “job” into a meaningful “calling.”

3. Nurture Healthy Relationships

According to Ben-Shahar, cultivating healthy relationships is also key to finding long-term happiness. Good relationships provide both present and future benefits. They offer immediate emotional support, a sense of belonging, and joy in our daily lives, and they also provide future stability and continuity that help us navigate life changes and challenges. 

(Shortform note: In The Good Life, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger and psychologist Marc Schulz argue that strong relationships are the key to a good life. Based on the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has been ongoing since 1938, the book explains that relationships are critical to long-term contentment and a sense of purpose in our lives. Moreover, positive relationships also enhance our health and help us better handle stressful situations, potentially increasing our lifespan.)

Ben-Shahar suggests surrounding yourself with people who love you unconditionally. He explains that unconditional love creates a supportive environment that fosters personal growth and well-being and empowers us to pursue our dreams. Ben-Shahar also stresses that balance is essential in relationships. This means while we might need to compromise on some things, we shouldn’t lose sight of our core values, beliefs, and personal goals. He asserts that a truly healthy relationship won’t demand that we give up essential parts of who we are.

(Shortform note: If you want to improve the relationships in your life, Waldinger and Schulz recommend actively evaluating and fostering your social interactions. They suggest listing the individuals in your social network, reflecting on the frequency and quality of your interactions, and dissecting the unique benefits each relationship offers. Additionally, they encourage being present and practicing mindfulness during social exchanges. By attentively listening, showing genuine interest, and maintaining open communication, you can enhance the emotional connection and mutual understanding in these relationships.)

4. Build Happiness Rituals

Recognizing that constant happiness is unattainable, Ben-Shahar suggests that participating in regular activities that provide meaning and pleasure will contribute to your overall state of happiness. He recommends introducing small rituals, or “happiness boosters,” into your routine. These rituals help sustain happiness, even during difficult times or periods of transition. Ben-Shahar recommends incorporating these happiness rituals into leisure time, arguing that they’re more fulfilling and energizing than passive activities like watching TV or scrolling on your phone.

(Shortform note: Catherine Price elaborates on this idea in The Power of Fun. Both Ben-Shahar and Price suggest you’ll be happier if you incorporate small fun, pleasurable activities, or “happiness boosters,” into your free time. Price recommends adding different levels of fun (or happiness) in your life in two ways: first, by making an effort to have daily and weekly fun fixes, and second, by prioritizing opportunities for more time-intensive experiences that leave you feeling energized and rejuvenated. For example, if you love playing in water, you might join a weekly water aerobics class but also plan an annual rafting trip with your closest friends.)

5. Slow Down

According to Ben-Shahar, being happier also requires you to slow down. He introduces the concept of time affluence. Time affluence refers to the sensation of having ample time to engage in personally meaningful activities, leisure, and reflection. In contrast, time poverty describes the stressful state of feeling constantly rushed, overworked, or falling behind. Drawing on psychological research, Ben-Shahar points out that time affluence is a better predictor of well-being than material affluence. 

Ben-Shahar highlights the widespread issue of time poverty in our culture, suggesting that by reducing the pace of our lives, we can cultivate time affluence and thereby increase our overall happiness.

6. Believe You Deserve Happiness

Finally, Ben-Shahar argues that to be happy, you must believe that you deserve to be happy. He argues that recognizing and affirming your right to happiness is a crucial step in the pursuit of a joyful and fulfilling life. 

(Shortform note: According to Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, deep-seated fear and guilt are barriers to the pursuit of happiness. These feelings of unworthiness, rooted in shame and fear of vulnerability, can make it challenging to believe that you deserve to be happy. Brown’s research suggests that there are three values that you need to practice to increase your sense of worth and the belief that you deserve happiness: 1) ordinary courage: being brave enough to be vulnerable and honestly express who you are and how you feel; 2) compassion: being kind to yourself and others; and 3) connection: an intangible energy generated when we form an open, judgment-free, and mutually sustaining bond with another person.)

Ben-Shahar says pursuing personal happiness can feel uncomfortable when we’re socialized to focus on more material achievements, even though they may not provide real satisfaction. Also, our own fears and self-doubts get in the way, making the pursuit of happiness even harder. There’s also a misleading idea that happiness is a limited resource—that if you’re happy, it somehow takes away from others—which causes needless guilt. 

(Shortform note: In Your Erroneous Zones, Wayne Dyer elaborates on how we often get in the way of our personal happiness. He explains that we all have “erroneous zones,” mental constructs and patterns that hinder personal growth and prevent us from being happy. Erroneous zones include self-limiting beliefs, such as the fear that we don’t deserve happiness, the need for approval from others, or guilt for acting in our own self-interest. To limit the power of erroneous zones, Dyer suggests recognizing that these beliefs are often unfounded or inaccurate. He also recommends cultivating a sense of self-worth that doesn’t rely on external approval.) 

How to Be a Happier Person: 6 Valuable Ways to Spend Your Time

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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