Habits of Happiness: Here’s Why You’re Unhappy

Happiness doesn’t have to be for “other” people. Here’s how to increase your happiness.

Woman standing in front of blue wall with graffiti street art of white flowers. She's holding several  helium ballons and one with a smiley face with tongue hanging out is in front of her face
Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

What’s “happy”?

Have you ever thought about what makes you happy? I mean, like, really thought about it?

Happy (adj.), is difficult to define, but I bet you can identify it when it’s happening to you. But riddle me this: what’s a good definition for it? Better yet, is it different than joy? Some say no. I say yes. They’re different, in my opinion, because the word “happy”—and happiness (n.) for that matter— is a feeling, but joy (n.) is an intense emotion. Can you have one without the other? I swear I don’t know, but if you’d lay off with the questions for now, I might be able to finish my explanation…


All joking aside, how happy we are affects our mental and physical wellbeing. You know this. That’s totally not new news.

But what makes us happy just might be?

*Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links.

Catatonic Bliss

It perturbed me that I had everything a person could want in this life, yet I was still not happy. “How could that be,” I asked myself. Normally I’d think long and hard about that question, but honestly, I understood there were things I was allowing in my life at that time (e.g. overconsumption of the news, COVID19, #BLM, George Floyd, unemployment, family illness, etc.) that were giving me the blues.

G.I. Joe: Knowing is Half the battle
Hasbro / Public domain

But realizing an issue doesn’t equal remedying it. Or, in layman’s terms, knowing is ‹‹not›› half the battle, as G.I. Joe famously proclaimed.

Frankly, I didn’t know where to start with this.

So, I started with prayer. Unfortunately I was much too anxious to focus. Perhaps it was the Lord that lead me to remember, but I recalled an e-mail I’d sent to my students that included a MOOC from Yale University. Yippy! This course is, apparently, the most popular class in the history of Yale, not to mention on the MOOC website Coursera.

The Science of Well-Being

Briefly, this course is taught by Psychologist, and podcast host, Dr. Laurie Santos. It’s offered online for free and in a ten week format. However, you can go at your own pace as it’s self-guided. Besides it being from Yale and go at your own pace, it’s formatted in discussion style and features “rewirements,” Q&A, and interviews from leaders in the field of positive psychology, which is where Dr. Santos is taking much of her course material and research. The “rewirements,” as Santos calls them, are weekly (optional) challenges meant to help give you the tools needed to increase your happiness, life satisfaction, and yes, well-being.

Dr. Laurie Santos, Psychology professor at Yale, podcast host, and MOOC instructor.
Photo of Dr. Laurie Santos from Coursera.org

I’ve finished the course and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by how insightful the class was. It’s not rocket science, but learning about and understanding the different things at play in happiness was refreshing and frankly, not super difficult to implement in our lives. Explore this dynamic course by clicking here.

But if the practices are easy to do, then why are so many people so miserable? Or perhaps it’s more apt to ask why are we so unhappy?

This Makes You Unhappy

Dr. Santos and colleagues have an answer to that: what we think makes us happy doesn’t actually.


What that means is that in fact there are “annoying feature of our minds,” as Laurie calls them, that causes us to “miswant” things. That’s right, you think that striving for more money, a stellar career, the perfect body, excellent grades, true love, amazing stuff, etc. is going to make you happy. It doesn’t. Those are misconceptions our brain concocts. Santos suggests reading more about this in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD.

Here are a few of those misconceptions:

  • When our intuition is strongly telling us we’re right, we’re wrong.
  • Our reference points, to which we keep referencing in comparison to ourselves, is inaccurate and rarely in terms of absolutes, but usually in comparisons.
  • We get normalized—used to— to things after awhile: the good and bad.

Okay, Ashley, fantastic. Now what does all of that mean, and how can I fix it; what makes us happy?

Funny you should ask…

This Makes You Happy

You’ve waited long enough, good reader. Here are the things that, scientifically speaking, make people happy.

This list is a synthesis of information taken from the course. It could go on for ages, but, broadly speaking, here are some of the things that give us that good ol’ happy feeling.

  • invest in experiences and not things, then tell others about your experience. Basically, don’t be materialistic.
  • get good reference points for comparisons, but stop comparing is much better.
  • be mindful and try different approaches to reach optimum happiness
  • don’t think your environment doesn’t play a role in this all
  • get adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise
  • delete social media, or limit your consumption of it
  • take short, but frequent pauses
  • mix things up: variety is the spice of life (hello!)

About Joy

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think joy and happiness are the same. Joy, for me at least, is a deep, intense emotion. Things that rouse this emotion are simple. Let it suffice to say that many of these things are round and/or bright and seem to always stir up joy and happiness. Check out this short list I compiled after watching Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TEDxTalk in Vancouver B.C. about the things that universally spark joy within us.

Where Joy Hides & How to Find it | Ingrid Fetell Lee
  • ballons
  • fireworks
  • treehouses
  • puppies
  • sunflowers
  • hot air balloons
  • swimming pools
  • ice cream cones with sprinkles
  • bicycles
  • The Lord
  • Timber
  • pops of bright colors
  • round things
  • symmetrical shapes
  • rainbows
  • butterflies
  • lightness & elevation
  • bubbles
  • multiplicity & abundance
  • googly eyes
  • cherry blossoms

This are the aesthetics of joy. It seems to begin with the senses.

Ingrid goes on to claim that we may be drawn to these types of things because once we strip away the many layers of factors, at the core of it all is the fact that color signifies life. And we, at our core, strive to continue—to survive. I like this explanation.

Want to know a few of my favorite things that bring me joy?

  • (strawberry) ice cream with sprinkles
  • (color) turquoise
  • polka dots
  • bows
  • confetti
  • yarn
  • strawberry sprinkle donuts
  • hot air ballons.
  • crafts

Oh, what joy!

Ingrid brought up a good question, though: if these things bring us joy, then why does so much of our world look drab, boxy, and colorless?


Her explanation to her question is that “adults who exhibit genuine joy are often dismissed as childish, or too feminine, or unserious, or self-indulgent.” I haven’t formed my own thoughts around the “why” yet, but this is a thing many people do do to others. We even tack on gender to the mix and shame those born biologically male when they express themselves like this, which is a true pity. At present I’ll accept her thoughts.

But people are changing this.

Below are a few places that Publicolor, a nonprofit, has redone and made, well, joyful.

Photo Curtesy of Aesthetics of Joy
Photo of The Bronx Academy,Curtesy of Twitter
Photo of IS 166 Bronx High School, via Twitter

Techniques to Use to Reach Happiness

Nothing is going to change unless you intentionally make it change. It sounds like a lot of work and effort, and perhaps it is for some of you, but most valuable things in this life aren’t achieved without effort. I don’t want to make it sound easy because frankly, it won’t be that easy. That’s not because it’s difficult, it’s just how the human brain and mind function. You’ll do fine, though. Just start small. Also, some of you have been then some truly dark, terrible things. Thank God the Lord brought you through it! I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but do take care with yourself when using any of the techniques as you may not be mentally or emotionally ready to deal with memories, or your past.

Likewise, your mind is naturally not going to want to do these things. Period. It will be frustrating at times. You’ll be tired and not want to do many of these things—keep going. You will have to put in a bit of work to make these daily and lifelong habits. Try to keep these things in mind as you work towards increasing your happiness and well-being.

Here are a few more. You can find all of these techniques as well as more information about each by enrolling in the Science of Well-Being Course at Coursera.

  • Gratitude (be thankful and appreciative. Maybe write 5 things in your life for which you’re grateful. Then write 5 things that were a “hassle,” something that would make you gripe about.)
  • Use your signature strengths (check the resources below to take a short quiz and discover yours)
  • Savoring

*You do this by socially sharing your experience (yes, instagram can be helpful), telling others about it, physically show your happiness (here’s to looking at you, happy dance), reflecting on how grateful you are for the experience, thinking about how you’ll tell others about it later, laugh/giggle, feel a sense of pride, etc.)

**Here’s what NOT to do: think about the future instead of being mindful in the moment, thinking about how it will end soon, negatively thinking how “I told myself this wasn’t as good as I thought it’d be”, thinking how nothing lasts forever, thinking about how things could be better, thinking you don’t deserve this thing, etc.

  • Kindness (through acts of kindness such as volunteering, or just being irrationally kind to others)
  • Think about what could have happened had you not got that awesome experience (think It’s A Wonderful Life)
  • Journal (write about your experiences. Write what what you’re thankful for because it stops that social comparison in its tracks! How? Your brain can’t think negatively whilst you’re writing about something as positive as being grateful.)
  • Make your mind ponder that this thing/experience is the last day you’ll have it (don’t think in a morbid way, but more along the lines of this is the last day in school with friends, or at work with coworkers; this the last day and after that you’ll have lost this thing. Reframe the way you think about this, e.g. I’ve 1250 hours until I leave vs. I’ve a quarter of a year left until I leave)
  • Exercise
Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash
  • Sleep (try to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night)
  • Gratitude letter (if you’re grateful for a certain person, write them a letter thanking them. Then, physically give it to them (and maybe read it aloud to them. Feeling extra bold? Ask them how they’re feeling after having received this gratitude letter and hearing it read aloud to share in their experience and enhance yours.)
  • Meditation (start small with just a minute or two a day, then increase it. Try to strive for 15-30 minutes as your goal.)
  • Limit social media and entertainment consumption (if you don’t, you’ll end up a anxiety and stressed out mess like I was a few months back.
  • Stop social comparisons (Think about which reference points you’re allowing into your life. Seek and choose correct ones. But, since we all do this, choose correct reference points if you just have to do so. Read more about a technique— STOP technique—below.)
  • Re-experience (if you’ve got a new job, or are at a new school, find a way to recall your experience at/with that previous thing—especially if it was garbage)
  • Observe (physically or mental go and observe what life would have been like/was like to help you appreciate what you’ve got—get an accurate reference point)
  • Delete social media (either delete your accounts, or delete them from your phone and other devices so that you’ll be less likely to over consume and compare.)
  • Pause (take a break from things, then come back. Doing this helps you enjoy it once you return to it later.)
  • Variety (mix up the things you’re doing. Do you take the bus 3 out of the 5 days of the week? Why not change the days in which you take it, or take a different mode of transportation, for example.)


Smiling photo of Princess Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen of New York University (NYU) wearing a scarf and jacket.
Photo from Universität Hamburg

This acronym is short for Wish, Obstacle, Outcome, Plan and was created by [Princess] Gabrielle Oettingen, PhD. It’s a funny name, but it shouldn’t be too hard to do. Here’s how Dr. Oettingen says to do W.O.O.P.

Take some quiet time for yourself. A maximum of 5 minutes for now. It doesn’t matter where you are, per se, but first take a few breaths. Then, ask yourself what do I want? That’s the wish part. You then move on to the obstacle phase where you think about the various things that could arise on your journey to achieving your wish. Next, what would the outcome of reaching your goal be? So, basically the two Os are looking at the good and bad things that could happen. Last, what is your strategy, or plan, for reaching your objective? It’s a lot easier to do something once you have a plan, know what could give you issues on that path, and what success in reaching the goal looks like.


This is for when you catch yourself going down a mental path that you just don’t want to go down; you tell your brain, aloud, to “stop.” This noticing of and verbally saying “stop” startles the brain a bit as it’s not something you usually do, nor have done enough that it’s already become a habit. That shock allows you to create a new, healthy habit to stop behaviors in which you’re uninterested.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, at first, when I started this “happiness” journey and enrolled in this course, I wasn’t too sure if being “happy” was really something one ought to strive after. I mean, it’s very intangible, fleeting—chasing after the wind in the first place. I still think that, but as I learn more, that stative, mutableness of happiness has lead me to realize that it’s not the real goal, it’s a byproduct. And, just like one confetto (that’s the singular form of confetti, by the way. Hit “like” if you knew that already!) is underwhelming and incapable of cultivating much delight, it is with an abundance, a multiplicity, of these techniques and approaches that we’ll achieve happiness and joy.

I’ll leave you with a few questions:

  • If you’ve taken the Science of Well-Being Course, what are your thoughts on it? How did you implement the techniques in your life? What were the outcomes?
  • What 3 things make you happy?

Dr. Santos mentioned a few apps (iOS & Android), links, and articles during the course that I wanted to share. First of all, I first came across her in the Happify app, which I’ve written about (click here) before, but didn’t read about her in the app.

A few of the apps are listed below.


Apps & Websites

  1. Happify
  2. Inside
  3. ReWi
  4. Discover your strengths with VIA


  1. Nudge nudge, think think (The Economist)
  2. Should Governments nudge us to make good choices (Scientific American)
  3. Americans Most Unhappy People in the World (ABC 13)
  4. The Power of Nudges, for Good and Bad (The New York Times)
  5. High-Income Improves Elevation of Life, but not Emotional Well-Being (PNAS)
  6.  Zeroing on the Dark Side of the American Dream: A Closer Look at the Negative Consequences of the Goal for Financial Success. (Psychological Science)
  7. Reexamining Adaptation and the Set Point Model of Happiness: Reactions to Changes in Marital Status.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(3), 527-539.
  8. Satisfaction and comparison income. (Journal of Public Economics)
  9. The effects of lottery prizes on winners and their neighbors: Evidence from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. American Economic Review, 101(5), 2226-2247.
  10.  Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206-222.
  11. To Do or to Have? That Is the Question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193–1202.
Photo by Ayelt van Veen on Unsplash

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