Sometimes it feels like “happiness” is a manufactured concept, crafted during a Coca-Cola board meeting at the dawn of 20th-century capitalism.
Okay, maybe I’ve rewatched Mad Men too many times. But it feels like there’s a lot of pressure to be “happy” in our society, whether that’s from wildly exaggerated advertisements or your high school frenemy Baethynie’s meticulously curated Instagram.
That pressure can make it hard to feel like we’ve ever truly achieved happiness. So how do we become happier?
I went to UBC’s resident expert on happiness for the answers. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn is a Psychology prof and TED speaker extraordinaire. A lot of her research is actually focused on happiness—turns out, it has little to do with Coca-Cola board meetings and is actually a real thing!
What is happiness?
Dr. Dunn explained to me that happiness consists of 3 main conditions:
- Experiencing joy consistently
- Not being overcome by grief, anger, or frustration
- Feeling satisfied with your life
Taken together, Dr. Dunn believes these conditions make up what we consider “happiness.” But there’s a bit of a catch—being happy doesn’t mean that you never experience negative emotions, or that you’re necessarily exuberant 24/7.
“Everybody experiences negative emotions,” Dr. Dunn explains. “That doesn’t mean you’re an unhappy person.”
Seeing Baethynie flaunt her new Audi on social media while you have to get everywhere on the bike you bought off Craigslist can be irritating. However, that feeling of irritation is temporary. If you’re pretty satisfied with your life overall—and once you remember you actually love how cycling makes you feel (except for that one hill)—your actual happiness won’t be deeply affected.
We can’t avoid experiencing emotions—that’s just part of being human. But we can work on being more satisfied in our day-to-day lives, which is where Dr. Dunn has some great advice.
The “right” way to be happy
Turns out, there isn’t one.
“The critical component of [my] definition of happiness is that it’s value-free,” Dr. Dunn says. That means there isn’t a morally correct way to be happy—if skipping class to watch old episodes of Real Housewives makes you happy, so be it!
However, Dr. Dunn’s research indicates that acting in a responsible way often does help increase happiness. There’s nothing morally wrong with enjoying a bit of trashy TV now and then, but indulging in anything at the expense of your responsibilities probably won’t make you happier in the long run.
I also take Dr. Dunn’s advice to mean that there’s no particular value placed on the different things we enjoy. It’s okay to like what you like as long as it’s not hurting anyone else—whether that’s reality TV or the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Don’t judge yourself for enjoying something that makes you happy, because we shouldn’t and can’t be “productive” all the time. Spend your free time doing what you love!
Time is money
…But not in the way you might think. Dr. Dunn recommends prioritizing time over money in a few different ways, based on research she did with graduating UBC students, following them from around 6 months before they graduated to 1 or 2 years after they graduated.
“What we saw is that UBC students who, in their year of graduation, prioritized time over money…ended up on a better path for happiness,” Dr. Dunn shares. “They ended up happier a year after graduation, compared to people who reported prioritizing money.”
Students who reported that they would rather prioritize time over money before they graduated ended up in activities that they found interesting and worthwhile, whether that was a job or grad school. This made them feel happier compared with their peers who reported prioritizing money over time!
Of course, everyone’s situation is different, and Dr. Dunn recognizes that many students feel as though they have neither time nor money. However, she suggests building relationships with people who also value time over money, and even prioritizing time over money as you make decisions about your major and career.
“Try to focus on what career path would let you spend your time in ways that would be interesting and rewarding,” Dr. Dunn suggests. “My research shows this is more important than focusing on how lucrative a career path could be.”
Finally, Dr. Dunn’s research shows that buying yourself more time can be beneficial to your happiness as well. Of course, that can be difficult on a student income, but it can be as small as just getting takeout the night before a big exam for some extra study or relaxation time. Other ways to “buy” more time include taking an Uber or cab somewhere instead of bussing, or paying to get groceries delivered.
Dr. Dunn tells me that her research shows the value of buying time across a wide range of incomes—so if you can afford to, give yourself permission to spend a couple extra dollars in exchange for more time to spend on things you love!
Happiness, your way
Ultimately, happiness is personal, so keep trying out different ways of balancing your time and money to see what works for you. Remember that the version of “happiness” you might see on social media or elsewhere often isn’t exactly as it seems, so follow your own instincts to find what makes you happy instead of trying to emulate someone else.
Baethynie might seem happy, until you get a Messenger notification from her asking you to join a pyramid scheme and hear a rumour that “her” Audi was actually the neighbour’s that she just stood in front of.
And remember, there can be a lot of other barriers to feeling “happy,” including challenges to your mental health and tumultuous events going on in the world, like the coronavirus outbreak. If you’re feeling depressed, experiencing anxiety, or dealing with anything else that may take more than just simple lifestyle tweaks for you to feel “happier,” the Student Services “Health and wellbeing” page has resources that can help.