Don't retire early, buy a home, or be a lawyer if you want to be happy, researchers say — here's why
In an age of anxiety and uncertainty, Americans are more stressed than ever.
So it's no surprise that we're all searching for ways to add more happiness to our lives. I did a quick Google search on "how to be happy" and more than 6.7 billion results came up.
But I wanted to find more than just inspirational quotes and one-minute clips of adorable baby goats, so I set out to find more interesting, tried-and-true, science-backed tips on how to achieve long-term happiness.
Over a period of more than two years, I studied hundreds of academic studies, interviewed psychologists, sociologists, and happiness researchers about what brings a person joy. I even wrote a book, "Happiness Hacks," to share my findings.
Happiness is far from a simple concept. It can refer to a wide range of moods, emotions, sensations, and traits — each with benefits and drawbacks.
Here are some of the most interesting tips:
1. Stop apologizing
If email has been sitting in your inbox for a few days, or even a just few hours, it often seems polite to begin your response by apologizing for your "delayed response."
Such anxiety about responding immediately might make you think you're being conscientious, but you're probably just driving yourself crazy.
According to a study from Loughborough University, which analyzed email interruptions within the workplace, people respond to emails within an average of six seconds. Yet in almost all cases, the sender doesn't actually expect an immediate response.
A few years ago, Duke University psychology professor Dan Ariely conducted a test, asking people who emailed him to fill out a form indicating when they want a reply — with options for "next month," "next week," "tomorrow," or "drop everything and deal with it ASAP."
Only 2% said they needed an immediate answer. When given a choice, Ariely said in an interview with Bloomberg, "very, very few people say 'answer me now.' "
So if you want to take the stress out of email management, remove "apologies for the delay" from your vocabulary. It's very likely that the recipient didn't even notice.
2. Rent (instead of buy) a home
"Should I rent or should I buy?": This question has tormented people for decades — with no easy answer. Considerations ranging from personal budget to family size to location can influence how one comes to a decision.
For those looking to enhance their happiness, however, the answer might be to stick with a rental.
In 2017, The Telegraph conducted a survey of 5,800 participants seeking to determine whether people were happier renting or owning their homes. The survey questions focused on how financial circumstances contributed to happiness and stress levels. The results showed that those who rented detached, single-family homes were the least stressed.
Although the study revealed that people who rent homes tend to spend a greater portion of their finances on housing, it also showed that homeowners were just as likely to list money as their biggest concern. Also, those who rented single-family homes were more likely than homeowners to report good work-life balances.
Not only that, renters reported enjoying relaxing at home more than homeowners, who tended to put traveling as one of their primary keys to happiness.
This isn't to imply that a rented home is always a happier home; owning a home has its perks, and the decision should mostly come down to whether people are financially — and mentally — ready for homeownership.
If you don't want to deal with the extra costs and maintenance of owning a home, consider simplifying your life and reducing stress by renting a place.
3. Don't retire early
Retiring early has been the ultimate dream for many: Who wouldn't want to cut out the nine-to-five existence by the age of 50 — or 30?
Before withdrawing from the working world to spend your days sipping piña coladas, however, consider that early retirement might not be so healthy for your mind or happiness. Cross-sectional studies have found that workers who retire early tend to be less happy than those who stay in the workforce through the age of 65.
Additional studies also found a connection between retirement and memory — or, as some economists call it, "mental retirement." Drawing on memory-test data from the U.S., England, and 11 European countries, researchers found that the earlier people retired, the more their cognitive abilities declined.
While the research doesn't indicate the specific elements of work that might help maintain one's mental sharpness, the study's co-author, Robert J. Willis, said in a 2010 interview with The New York Times that even if the work itself isn't stimulating, "there's evidence that social skills and personality skills — getting up in the morning, dealing with people, knowing the value of being prompt and trustworthy — are also important."
I'm not against early retirement, and I'll bet that there are a bunch of early retirees who have no regrets. Ask any financial planner and they'll tell you that what separates a happy retiree from an unhappy retiree really just comes down to having a solid pre-retirement plan.
4. Embrace getting older
Forget what you've heard about having a midlife crisis. In fact, getting older is a pretty good predictor of happiness.
That was among the findings of a longitudinal study from the University of Alberta in Canada that looked at participants' happiness levels as they aged from 14 to 43, with the participants self-defining and self-reporting their well-being on a scale from "not happy" to "very happy."
The study found that over the 25-year period, as individuals aged, they generally grew happier. The increase in happiness remained even when controlling for variables such as gender, marital status, unemployment, and physical health.
The takeaway? Stop worrying about getting older. Chances are that wherever you see yourself in five years, you're going to be happier when you get there.
5. Don't be a lawyer
Maybe it's all the lawyer jokes, but those who practice law have been found to be particularly unhappy. A 1990 study from Johns Hopkins University found that lawyers were 3.6 times more likely than non-lawyers to suffer from depression.
Researchers point to three main reasons as to why lawyers have a hard time finding happiness:
- Prudence is one of the main qualifications for lawyers, which can often translate to skepticism or pessimism.
- The high pressure put on and low influence given to young associates are the sort of work conditions that result in low morale in other workplaces.
- The work — at least in the U.S. — is often a zero-sum game where your win is someone else's loss, creating a hyper-competitiveness that also drains one's sense of workplace satisfaction.
A 2016 study conducted by the American Bar Association, concluded that attorneys "experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations."
6. Complain with purpose
Researchers looking into how happy people tend to complain surveyed 400 college students about their pet peeves with current or former romantic partners. They found that those who complain in a more "deliberate" way — that is, with a purpose toward helping fix whatever is causing irritation — tend to be happier.
The researchers attributed this to an old buzzword, "mindfulness" — suggesting that "perhaps people who are more mindful modulate the type of complaints they offer, preferring to engage in instrumental types of complaints over expressive ones."
So the next time you're about to complain to a friend, give this a try: Stop for a minute and think about how you would prefer things to be and how they could be improved, rather than simply venting.
Alex Palmer is a journalist and excavator of fascinating facts. He is the New York Times best-selling author of "The Santa Claus Man." "Happiness Hacks," published by The Experiment, is his latest book. Alex's writing has appeared in Lifehacker, Best Life, Mental Floss, Slate, Esquire and many others.
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