If you search the literature of positive psychology you’ll find scant evidence that a second car in the garage or an overstuffed closet is the key to greater well-being. And while research shows that experiences, rather than material things, are a more reliable source of lasting contentment, constant busyness won’t likely lead to bliss either.
In fact, boosting happiness doesn’t require getting or having more. Instead, the key to a happier life often lies in ditching bad habits, attitudes and beliefs that stand in the way of experiencing expansive joy. We talked to experts for their advice on what to give up to let greater happiness in. And some very happy people share what they cast aside to live fuller, more purpose-driven lives.
Linda and Howard Payne
We gave up a permanent address for life on the road.”
In 2004, Linda Payne asked her husband, Howard, a simple question: “What’s the point of living the American dream if it’s not making us happy?” Howard was a real-estate attorney who had sold the title company he’d built to a much larger firm. Now he was running seven of their offices and Linda was operations manager for the largest one. They were both 41, had been married for 18 years and had no children by choice. Though they were far from millionaires, their life in Louisville, Kentucky, was comfortable: A 3,750-square-foot home, two cars in the garage, a country club membership. But to squeeze out more profitability, the company had shrunk the workforce from 90 to 35, and it fell to Howard to do the firing.
During a two-week summer wilderness vacation in Alaska where they hiked, fished, went rafting and bird watching, they reconnected. But back home, Linda’s spirits sunk. “I don’t understand,” she remembers thinking, “why we kill ourselves all of our lives just so we can retire and go do the things we want to do then.”
She knew it would take something “drastic,” she says, to change their lives. One day the idea of living full time in an RV just “popped into my head.” The two had never even ridden in a recreational vehicle, but Howard was game. With a little online research, he discovered a growing culture of people living in motor homes, many of whom are so-called work campers, or "workampers," for short, who travel from campground to campground for part-time or volunteer jobs.
The Paynes quit their jobs, sold their house and in August 2005 hit the road in a motor home and headed for national parks. They counted migrating sea birds, operated a nature tram, restored trails and led visitors on nature walks. Their annual income barely topped $25,000 but their expenses were low.
Linda and Howard have since gone on to build a popular website, rv-dreams.com, and they frequently speak at rallies, seminars and conferences at RV shows across the country. “We’re semi-famous in the RV world,” Howard says. But the biggest payoff of their new life together is the closeness they’ve rediscovered. “We don’t have that roommate thing anymore,” Howard says. “We’re a team, we’re best friends.”
Ask Linda if she’s happier living without a high-stress job and in a home that’s on wheels and she turns to her husband. “How happy are we, honey?” she asks, then laughs. “We’re way, way happier now. We may not be monetarily rich, but we’re rich in experiences.”
I gave up being on social media 24/7”
When Thomas Giordonello saw a news clip last August about someone trying to scale Trump Tower with suction cups, something struck him: the guy had really good climbing equipment. A minute later Thomas, a public relations account executive, was on the phone with his client Outside magazine. The next morning an Outside editor hit the morning news shows, offering commentary on the climber’s gear and technique.
That kind of vigilance made Thomas very good at his job. But when his boyfriend noted that even during a special night out, he was always distracted by a screen, Thomas knew he needed to make a change. Today, he allows himself “little windows” on weekends to make sure he hasn’t missed something important.
“Other than that,” he says, “my phone is in my pocket. While technology is amazing, I’m trying to live more in the moment and I’m really connecting with people. When a friend tells me she went on a date with someone new, instead of my saying, ‘Hey, pull up his photo on Instagram,’ I ask, what did you guys talk about? How did you feel at the end of the date?”
When Thomas hosted a recent dinner party for a group of friends he’s known since kindergarten, he put a basket near the front door and asked everyone to check their phones. “While I did notice a friend or two check their phones on the way to the bathroom,” he says, “I can say that the authenticity of the conversation grew exponentially with each phone that went into the basket.”
I let go of needing other people's approval.”
In 2010, Angela Eastwick quit her job at a New York City media training company, sold or gave away nearly everything she owned and moved to Negril, Jamaica, with about $8,000 in savings. Her dream was to open a nightlife touring company on the Caribbean island she had come to love on family vacations growing up.
Her first few months in Jamaica, Angela lived in a boarding house in the fishing community of Broughton. She had no kitchen, no hot water, no cable, no internet. “It was a humbling, life-changing experience,” Angela says. “But I got used to the cold showers and living a more wholesome, simple life. It’s amazing all the things you think you need that you don’t.”
She began her business, JuJu Tours, by strolling Negril’s beaches, offering visitors authentic tours that included swimming holes, waterfalls and small cafes that locals frequented. From the beginning, JuJu Tours has had a giving-back element. Angela asks people to bring along small toys or school supplies from the local dollar store to give out to children. As the company gained success, its charitable reach increased. The Good JuJu Charity Project has adopted and renovated a struggling nursery school in Broughton, and every year since 2012, it’s provided tuition, uniforms, books and lunches for 30 students.
Three years ago, with a loan from her father, Angela purchased a broken-down property on the beach to turn into a guesthouse. “It was shabby, dirty and had been hit by Hurricane Ivan and then occupied by squatters,” she says. Repairs took far longer and were more expensive than Angela had anticipated, but in November 2014, Somewhere West finally launched on Airbnb.
Along the way, Angela fell in love; she and her partner, Jermelee Limoth, have two young sons. They are renovating their own home now, which is next to the guesthouse. “I don’t care if our home isn’t luxurious,” Angela says. “We have a roof over our heads, a kitchen to cook in and the kids are safe. This journey hasn’t been easy, but my life is filled with purpose and love.”
Angela let go of her black-and-white life and embraced happiness in living color. Below are five habits that experts recommend you take a good look at in your life. You may need to ditch these if you really want to choose happiness.
It always rains when I need to go across town. Why can’t they do something about these lines at Starbucks? My boss is driving me crazy, again!
It’s easy to go through a day airing one grievance after another. But constant complaining is not only monotonous, a study in the Journal of Social Psychology suggests that repeatedly airing pet peeves about a current or previous partner can undermine relationship satisfaction.
Will Bowen was a unity minister at a church in Kansas City when he made it his mission to reduce this torrent of negativity. “A complaint is the opposite of gratitude and acceptance,” he says, “which we know are keys to happiness.”
Will created a purple silicone “complaint-free” bracelet. Each time you whine you switch the bracelet from one wrist to the other. The goal is go 21 days without complaining, or long enough to begin to form a peeve-free habit. More than 11 million bracelets have been sold or donated at willbowen.com.
It took Will, who would go on to write the book A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, four months to hit the 21-day milestone. But even if you never string together three complaint-free weeks, gaining awareness can help you change from being a persistent complainer to an effective, and more contented, one.
That could mean complaining in moderation and to the proper audience. Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Self-Esteem suggests having a goal in mind before you voice dissatisfaction. Ask the waiter to warm up your tepid soup rather than lamenting to your four dining companions.
We check our Twitter feeds while watching Game of Thrones, chat on our hands-free phones when we’re driving home from work, catch up on the news while we’re playing Monopoly with the kids. A ping or buzz is all it takes to divert our attention. “Our brains like novelty and excitement,” says psychiatrist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “And our wonderful digital gadgets promise just that. But all this multitasking, or what’s also called partial continuous attention, is putting us in a state of heightened mental stress.”
Multitasking, experts say, is actually a misnomer. We’re not really doing two, or more, things at once. Instead, we’re “switch-tasking,” interrupting one activity to focus on another. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that even when this stop-and-restart process takes just three to five seconds—barely enough time to flit from a PowerPoint presentation to your inbox—that’s long enough to double or triple the number of errors participants made in the task they were assigned. “In other words,” Gary says, “we’re becoming faster but sloppier.”
Not only does juggling tasks make us error-prone, it undermines any chance of achieving the immersive state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., calls flow. “When our brains are jumping around,” Gary says, “there’s a staccato quality to our mental experience. That takes us away from deeper, more profound thoughts and feelings.”
3. Spending Time With Negative People
You know that sneezing, sniffling, coughing neighbor? Stay away from her. And, that colleague who predicts every new project is sure to flop? Stay away from him, too. A growing body of research shows that we “catch” emotions, both negative and positive, as easily as we catch viruses.
First we mimic the body language and verbal style of Debbie Downer, her slumped shoulders, angry expression and flat pattern of speech. Then, we start feeling the mood we’ve just witnessed: depression, anxiety, pessimism. And, finally, the mood we’ve now adopted as our own affects our behavior. We turn down an invitation to a friend’s country house because all we can foresee is gnarly traffic and bugs.
We certainly don’t want to drop a friend because they’re grieving or depressed. But it’s worth asking yourself, Sigal says, “Do you dislike who you are when you’re with this person? If the answer is yes, you may well be better off limiting your time with them.” If that’s not possible, Sigal suggests three strategies to boost your immunity to toxic colleagues or relatives:
First, don’t look at them. “Our attention tends to be drawn to negative people, so don’t let them cross your line of vision. If you’re not looking at someone, you won’t subconsciously start mimicking him.” Second, have compassion and offer the most generous interpretation of their actions and attitude. As long as someone isn’t being abusive, counter her negativity with kindness and compassion. Third, have a conversation. If the person is someone who’s very close to you and they only recently began grousing, you might start by saying something like, “You seem really unhappy lately. Have you thought about what you can do to change things?”
4. Perpetual Motion
“Everyone is juggling so much that busyness has become a chronic condition of modern society,” says Hugh Byrne, Ph.D., author of The Here and Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and For All. “There’s a tightness in our bodies because we’ve triggered the flight or fight mode. That’s a part of our nervous system that evolved to help us defend ourselves against outside threats, but it’s not a joyful way to live out our whole existence.”
And while we’re constantly running, we often feel we’re not getting anywhere because we’re not taking time to reflect on where it is we really want to go. “It’s important,” Hugh says, “to step off the treadmill now and then where there’s no agenda.” Hugh recommends establishing a regular meditation practice, beginning with just five or 10 minutes a day. Sit quietly and breathe deeply in and out, perhaps silently repeating, “Breathing in, calming the body; breathing out, calming the mind.”
Try, as well, to sprinkle doses of mindfulness throughout your day. “Enjoy a sacred pause when you’re stopped at a red light,” Hugh says. “When the phone rings, don’t answer it right away. Use the first couple of rings as a reminder to get in touch with your breath. It’s small little transitions like these that allow us to detach from the damaging cycle of low-level stress.”
We’ve all heard a doomsday inner voice that tells us we were a bore at the party, a fool at the meeting, a selfish partner, a deficient parent. For some of us, the voice is ever-present, an automatic response to every situation. “You’ve had these negative thoughts so often, they become a well-trodden neural pathway,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “Especially when you’re stressed it’s the shortcut your brain takes.”
Forging a new path takes time. UCLA psychiatrist Judith Orloff, author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself From Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life, says her own spiritual teacher once told her, “Progress occurs when we beat ourselves up a little less every day.” Here are three ways to begin to halt the self-flagellation:
- Stand in front of a mirror and say kindly, “I look wonderful and I’m a caring, generous person.” Then, in your nastiest tone, say, “I look horrible and I can’t stand myself.” In the first scenario, you’ll likely feel your gut untighten, your breathing become easier. In the second, the opposite will happen. Take in what this teaches you about "the energetic power of your emotions," Judith says.
- Reframe negative thoughts. Elizabeth suggests asking yourself these questions: “How do I want to see this situation?” “How might someone I admire view it?” “What advice would I give a friend in the same situation?”
- Move into a judgment-free zone with a new activity. Take a cake decorating class or guitar lessons. “Your goal is to have fun,” Elizabeth says. “That means redefining what I call a ‘win.’ It’s not looking better than someone else, the win is showing up and enjoying the process. And the beauty is when you stop judging and comparing yourself in this new hobby, it can carry over into other areas of your life.
Shelley Levitt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles and an editor at large for Live Happy. Shelley's other recent features include Can Fermented Food Elevate Your Mood and Srikumar Rao Wants You to Feel Radiantly Alive.