Happiness is something nearly everyone wants more of. Perhaps we don’t feel it often enough or strongly enough, or it seems to slip through our fingers far too easily.
Many happiness seekers have read dozens of articles, yet they don’t feel much closer to creating the happiness they desire in their lives. If this sounds like you, don’t worry. Reading about the practices that increase happiness is a great first step. But the key that you may not have heard yet is this: To increase your happiness, you need a strategic plan for action.
Making a plan for optimizing happiness is more important than most people realize. But think about it: Would you bake a cake without a recipe? Would you fix your transmission without the car manual? Would you go on a journey into the wilderness without a map? We know, intuitively, that a plan or guide or map—some kind of tool—makes it much easier to effectively navigate new territory.
If long-term happiness is new territory for you, then you need some kind of plan that maps out a strategy for reaching your happiness goals.
How to make an effective happiness plan
The best way to make progress toward a happier life is by being strategic and focusing on the skills that you need to learn. As an example, consider math skills. Say you are great at addition but not so good at multiplication. It’s unlikely that practicing addition will make you better at multiplication. To get better at multiplication, you need to practice multiplication. And your math skills, as a whole, will not get much better until you practice multiplication.
The same logic holds for happiness. It turns out that happiness is not something we find, or reach, or become—we learn happiness skills, just as we would learn any other skill. Most likely you are already really good at some happiness skills and not so good at others. For example, you might already be great at resilience, but not so good at empathy. By practicing resilience, you are not likely to become more empathic. So your happiness skills, as a whole, will improve more if you spend your time practicing empathy, one of your weaknesses.
Some of the most effective mental health interventions rely on this well-supported and commonsensical idea that if we are poor at a particular cognitive, behavioral, or emotional skill, then we need to improve this skill to boost our mental health. For some reason, the field of positive psychology rarely makes use of this important insight. But it has been shown that turning your happiness weaknesses into strengths means you will have more skills and, as a result, greater happiness.
The field of learning science shows that personalized learning approaches far outperform one-size-fits-all approaches. A personalized approach can help you learn skills that you’re weak at, skills you’re excited about, and skills that build on each other in important ways. Personalized approaches result in faster, more fun, and more effective learning because they focus on your unique needs, interests, and abilities.
How do you figure out your happiness strengths and weaknesses? Consider how well you demonstrate the following skills in your daily life:
Positive thoughts about the self
- Acceptance: The ability to accept yourself and your emotions non-judgmentally.
- Positive self-views: The ability to see yourself as a good, worthwhile human being.
- Clarity: The ability to understand what you value, how you feel, and who you are.
- Positive reappraisal: The ability to change your thoughts in ways that help you experience longer-lasting, more intense, or more frequent positive emotion.
Positive thoughts about others
- Rejection tolerance: The ability to perceive the actions of others as inclusive rather than rejecting.
- Empathy: The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.
- Gratitude: The ability to be thankful for the experiences and people you have in your life.
- Letting go: The ability to stop fretting and ruminating about negative interpersonal situations.
Positive behaviors involving the self
- Planning: The ability to develop effective strategies and take actions that progress you towards your goals.
- Growth mindset: The belief that your strengths can be developed through hard work and dedication.
- Self-care: The ability to resist engaging in unhealthy behaviors (drugs, alcohol, shopping, or overeating) as a means to increase happiness.
- Prioritizing positivity: The ability to make time for, and consistently schedule, activities that you enjoy.
Positive behaviors involving others
- Kindness: The ability to be friendly, generous, and considerate of others.
- Autonomy: The ability to resist the influence of others, make your own independent decisions, and take action based on your unique values.
- Expressivity: The ability to easily communicate and share intimate aspects of yourself with others.
- Assertiveness: The ability to stand up for yourself, speak up, and communicate your needs.
Once you know your happiness strengths and weaknesses, choose just one skill that you believe is a weakness for you. It may be obvious to you right away. If it’s not, think about whether you tend to have more difficulty with thoughts versus behaviors, or self- vs. other-related skills. Or, if you tend to be poor at all the skills focusing on positive thoughts about the self, start by focusing on one of those.
It’s important not to try to develop too many skills at once. If you focus on too many things, you’ll have a difficult time making progress on any of them. But if you feel up to it, you can choose one more skill that you think you would really enjoy practicing. Maybe you have been meaning to prioritize positive activities, and you would really love to spend more time doing fun things.
Once you have decided which skills to work on, think about how and when you will practice. Plan to practice building these skills at least a little bit every week for a few months—and see if you get a happiness boost.