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What makes people happier?

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Yes, being rich does make you happy—so does being in a good marriage and being healthy. But that’s where common sense ends. A large body of happiness research has revealed some surprising findings about what makes people happy, in their personal lives and on the job.  

Little events, not big ones, make you happier.  Most of us assume that major positive events, like a big vacation, entering a romantic relationship or getting a raise, will make us happy, but according to David Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, the happiness these events provide doesn’t last very long. “A recent study showed that very few experiences affect us for more than three months,” said Gilbert in an interview in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR).  People who are happiest have frequent good experiences. The frequency is more important than the intensity of the experience.  So someone who had a dozen nice things happen to them may be happier than someone who had a single amazing thing.

Similarly, bad events don’t make us as unhappy as you’d think. “When bad things happen, we weep and whine for a while and then pick ourselves up and get on with it,” said Gilbert in the HBR. We are pretty good at finding silver linings and making the best of things, like when you get in a bad car accident but don’t get injured and feel “lucky.”   

Do things that make you feel good.  Since happiness depends on a continual stream of mini positive events, try to incorporate behaviors that leave you feeling good into your daily life. That means getting enough sleep and exercising every day—both of which make you feel more energetic and improve your mood. Also try to work altruism into your life—small acts of kindness boost our own happiness.  

Remind yourself of what you have. Twice a week, write down three things you’re grateful for, and if you’re comfortable doing it, tell them to someone else. These reminders act like instant replays of the positive happenings in your life.

Feel challenged at work but not threatened. People feel the happiest on their jobs when they are challenged, but not feeling like they’ll be fired if they don’t meet the challenge. As much as you can control your workload, make sure your goals are difficult but not out of reach. Managers also need to focus more on rewarding employees than threatening them.

Build a strong social network. One of the biggest predictors of happiness is the strength of your social bonds with friends and family. Make sure you don’t neglect your relationships because you’re too busy at work, and don’t assume that staying in touch via email or Facebook creates a strong relationship. Talking on the phone and face-to-face time are much better at strengthening social bonds.

Don’t daydream.  We all do it at work, but even dreaming of lying on a beach in Mexico is not good for you. According to the research, daydreaming actually makes people unhappier and reduces productivity at work.

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.