If happiness is all that matters at the end of the day, then why obsess over money & success when everything you need to be happy is already within your control? This is the premise of what I call the “Dirty Dozen” of Happiness: 12 key attributes, circumstances, and personal qualities that are better predictors of happiness than money, our conventional understanding of “success”, or accolades (also known as external validation). These are themes that I have noticed throughout my research and reporting on mental health and meaningful living for Grace & Lightness Magazine– and in my work as a culture critic over the last decade.
Coming to understand the below ideas and to truly incorporate them into your life is an essential part of living meaningfully in the digital age. This is how we enrich our lives.
I’ve outlined everything simply as follows, below. These 12 predictors of happiness are pretty straightforward, but taken together, they just might change your life.
1. The ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
The ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries is essential for longterm happiness. This is important because it effects virtually every aspect of how you carry yourself in public and private life. If you don’t set boundaries at work, you will build resentment and consistently overwork yourself. If you don’t set boundaries at home, tension will build, you’ll be exhausted, and you’ll never be able to relax.
Unfortunately, however, most people aren’t aware of what necessary boundaries really are. This can vary person to person, but generally speaking people are afraid to ask for what they need. Culturally, we have a fear of seeming “needy” or “high maintenance” or “weak”. These are all incorrect assumptions. In fact, asserting your own boundaries is one of the strongest, most self-confident things we can do.
If you need to some take time off for self-care so that you can perform better at your job in the long run, do it. Don’t let anyone guilt you out of it. If you need to ask your partner to help you, don’t worry about seeming needy. In fact, you can phrase these requests like, “It would really help me out if you… ” in order to soften the request. This will make the other person feel like they are doing you a favor, rather than fulfilling a command. (Mothers, in particular, struggle with this latter example. It’s also difficult because new studies show that men overestimate their contribution to housework, which is why asking for help is even more essential!)
Just remember: no matter what your life circumstances, boundaries are good. They always have been. When maintained, they increase your happiness, clarify expectations, and improve quality of life for everyone you interact with. Set them.
2. Meaningful relationships.
As extensive research has already proven, relationships are the key to a meaningful life. Even if you’re an introvert, even if you claim to enjoy spending most of your time alone, even if you feel that you don’t have any close relationships and you don’t know where to start. This is necessary for all of us. The process of cultivating deep connection is essential to our wellbeing. It is the crux of our humanity.
In the title of this article, I wrote that these attributes are “Better Predictors of Happiness Than Money, ‘Success’, or Accolades”. Someone can be the richest, most conventionally “successful” person in the world, but if they don’t have close friends or family, I guarantee you their life will be miserable. Most people know this intuitively, but very people orient themselves around connection as a goal. Instead, they strive for more money, more followers, a better car.
These superficial metrics ultimately fall short of creating any meaningful or lasting happiness in our lives. They don’t fill us up the way we want them to. (And part of this has to do with a phenomenon called Hedonic Adaptation, which you can actually measure. According to this concept, you may get a short-term spike in happiness from, say, a new car, but the feeling doesn’t last. Eventually, it becomes part of your status quo and you’ll then be searching for something else to make you happy again. Relationships, on the other hand, don’t devalue over time.)
3. Being in control of one’s time.
People who suffer from burnout often express a feeling like their schedule is running them, and not the other way around. Having time abundance– or at least feeling like you have time to kind your relationships, practice self care, and perform any other leisurely activities that bring you joy– is a great predictor of happiness. This is because having fun and doing things that you find meaningful adds value to your life.
This is also why, unfortunately, being stuck in a job that is too busy– or a job that you don’t find fulfilling– can be so soul-sucking. The average adult spends more time during the week with their colleague than with their family or friends, so conceptualizing the majority of your time as entrenched in something you don’t find valuable can be heartbreaking. If your job makes you feel this way, contemplate switching careers.
It’s tough, and certainly a difficult concept given that we all have to pay the bills, but it’s one of the best investments in yourself and your happiness that you can make. Don’t bullshit your way through work you don’t like. Life is too short. Demand better. You can do it. Where there’s a willingness to hustle, there’s a way.
4. Having a positive self-image.
Having a positive self-image leads people to be more resilient and better at taking criticism or feedback from others. As a result, people with positive self-images tend to spend less time ruminating over mistakes they made or things they regret. In life, missteps are inevitable, but self-confidence can be a foundation for resilience.
Conversely, people with low self-esteem tend to be more critical of others. This, in turn, makes everything from familial to friendly relationships more difficult over time. Ultimately, that has a negative effect on happiness overall.
Related: Read our article on Why Sleeping Naked Can Help Boost Self-Esteem.
5. Good health.
It may go without saying, but health is wealth. If you aren’t taking good care of your health, your mental health will suffer– and happiness, overall, becomes an increasingly evasive fantasy.
Studies have already shown the benefits of exercise at staving off depression and malaise. This is also true when it comes to overall happiness. There’s not much else to say here other than that prioritizing your health is one of the best things you can do for your wellbeing. Period.
6. A growth mindset.
One of the most powerful predictors of success (in the conventional sense, but also in the non-convention sense) is whether or not a person has a growth mindset. This idea was pioneered by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, who was first to study the power of believing that you can improve.
In much of Dweck’s research, the conclusions are staggeringly simple. Students who believed they would perform well on a test, did. They also performed significantly better than those who believed they wouldn’t do well on the same test. These outcomes were measured and applied to students who, by all measurable indicators, were just as smart as every other student in the class, with the notable exception that some believed they could do well, while others did not.
Research into growth mindset, moreover, indicates the enduring power of having a positive mental attitude. If you believe it, as they say, you can achieve it. This, in turn, contributes to more earned happiness and feelings of accomplishment over time. It also generally helps people do better in school, and during difficult physical training, as for a marathon.
7. The ability to focus in a culture of distraction.
In the strictly Buddhist sense of the phrase, distraction is suffering. Even in the Western, agnostic understanding of distraction, “suffering” seems like an apt descriptor. This is because distraction is the opposite of Flow, one of the most positive mood states a human being can experience.
You know that gross feeling you get when you spend too much time scrolling social media feeds? And then you just can’t seem to focus or feel motivated to do anything afterwards? That is suffering. Spending time doing anything that doesn’t feed your soul has the opportunity cost of limiting how much time you can spend doing something that does.
Accordingly, training your brain to look away from shiny objects and dopamine-triggering distractions is hard in the digital age. But meditation and exercise have both been shown to help. Another thing that helps a lot is learning to stop multitasking. Whenever possible, do only one thing at a time. For example, if you’re reading this article on your phone or computer, make sure it’s the only tab you have open. (Easier said than done, I know.)
A clinical inability to focus
For those who suffer from mild, diagnosable ADD or adult ADHD, certain supplements like rhodiola and lion’s mane can help. We even designed this Focus-Enhancing Peanut Butter Cookie recipe to include a gentle dose of calming, focus-enhancing adaptogens that you can eat when brain fog sets in. (<— This recipe is a spin off of Ovenly’s iconic grain-free, dairy-free New York City peanut butter cookies, and it’s fabulous.)
8. Regular exposure to novelty.
Novelty is king when it comes to sustainable happiness and living a meaningful life. Research shows that new experiences can not only help us age more gracefully, but they expose us to new lines of thinking and inquiry that can deeply enrich our lives.
Take travel, or learning a new skill, for example. Travel can be wondrously enriching and awe-inducing. It gives you a cascade of positive endorphins and a deep sense of good fortune and wellbeing, which is why so many people love it.
Similarly, in the case of learning a new skill, exposing yourself to this novelty expands your horizons and leads to a feeling of pride and wellbeing. When you finally learn to dunk a basketball, do a card trick, or say something in a new language, you feel accomplished. This is a way to spark your own joy.
9. Having a capacity for self-reflection.
Those who are capable of self-reflection find more meaning in their lives, overall, than those who lack this same trait. Self-awareness is a critical predictor of happiness, as it informs our understanding of the world and our role in it.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the data: the Harvard Business Review recounts research from Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats that demonstrates how employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of their days reflecting on the lessons they learned performed 23% better (by their metrics) after 10 days than those who did not spend time reflecting.
In just a short period of time, the researchers were able to capture a quantitatively measurable benefit of self-reflection within the group. This is also true of inner work. Because self-reflection encourages thinkers to “step outside themselves” and be present for the act of evaluation, this practice can lead to more self-efficacy and self-awareness (two baseline components of sustainable happiness) over time.
10. Not relying on other people for validation.
If you care too much what other people think, happiness will remain an illusive goal, ever dangling just slightly out of reach. If you frequently crumble under your own self-doubt, try making a Brag File— a readily-available list of your best qualities that you can review in moments of low self-esteem.
In other words, it pays to “fake it ’til you make it”. Research shows that even just repeating a positive mantra– for example, “I’m a good person”– can start to feel real to you over time, even if you don’t believe it initially. This is because the brain latches on to words and internalizes them, even when we think our subconscious isn’t listening. Self talk, it seems, is cumulative and impactful.
If you’re constantly looking to people outside yourself for validation, the brain doesn’t have time to create it’s own self-image. Even worse, we may start listening to the negative critiques that we all sometimes have, whenever we fall short of our own expectations. If unchecked, this kind of negative self talk– like saying to yourself, “I’m so stupid”– starts to internalize into shame. That’s never a good thing.
The bottom line
You want to avoid both speaking negatively about yourself and hinging your self worth on what other people think. The two are intimately connected. Negative self talk often stems from something we witnessed or felt about other people in our lives. It also results from putting too much pressure on ourselves.
Divorcing ourself from this bad habit is easier said than done, I know. But like the experts say: try to fake it ’til you make it.
I’ve said it and I’ll write it again: practicing gratitude is essential for happiness. I know it, you know, the American people know it: but fewer actually put this idea into practice. Setting aside time to practice gratitude should be a part of your daily routine. Like brushing your teeth or exercising, the benefits are cumulative. And, you just feel better afterwards. Plain and simple.
I recommend the practice of writing down 3 things that you’re grateful for in a journal every night before bed. Use the same notebook every night, which will be your “gratitude journal”. If you can’t think of something to be grateful for on a given day, don’t worry. On those days, you can do like Oprah and “thank the universe that you’re still breathing.”
On better days, you might have gratitude for a good meal, a great workout, or a heartwarming conversation. Travel, of course, brings lots of these kinds of revelations– which is why it’s *extra* important to maintain this practice on vacation. It’s also an insightful practice after celebrations like weddings and graduations, where it doubles as a way to record memories. (Fortunately, gratitude journals are portable. And cheaper than therapy!)
Gratitude gives you more to be grateful for
Over time, making a regular practice of noticing things to be grateful for has the effect of teach you how to “selectively see” the good in everything. It gives your life a deeper sense of meaning and purpose by virtue of a psychological snowball effect. As a result, practicing gratitude gives you more to be grateful for.
12. Persevering, even when it’s hard.
You, and only you, know what you have been through. Perseverance, for all its difficulty and uncomfortableness, is a hugely important predictor of happiness. In life, there will always be challenges. We all know this. Even wealthy or conventionally “successful” people have them (the quality of the problems is just different). Thus, learning to find meaning in negative experiences is essential.
Learn to start viewing your life like a movie script, with rising and falling action. Everything in the script that is your life happens for a reason. So, when challenges inevitably arise, it’s important to ask yourself: “What can I learn from this?” Or better yet, “What is this experience here to teach me?”
In religious community, this kind of divine understanding of purpose is attributable to faith. The social and scientific aspects of our cultural theories of the mind work the same way. If you find meaning in bad experiences, your life has more meaning. This, in turn, leads us towards fulfilling a happier, fuller version of our own destiny. Everything we need to be happy in life is already here, inside us.
Related: Read our article, A Healing Way to Think About Grief.