How to be happier: Do you do at least one thing a day you look forward to?

Planning to do at least one thing each day you’ll look forward is an important part of treatment for depression, or for anyone who wants to be happier.

On most days your looked forward to activities aren’t likely to be “treat” type activities – more along the lines of la dolce vita (the sweet life) activities.

Happiness research has shown that the things you do are generally more influential on your level of happiness than the things you have.

What gets in the way of people making more deliberate choices about how they spend their non-work time?

1. Waiting until some future time for things you don’t really need to wait for.

For example, imagine you have a dream of going to Italy but right now you can’t afford it or can’t get the time off work.

Ask yourself – what do you imagine doing on your ideal trip to Italy?

Lets say you imagine:

– picnics in parks
– eating good cheese, drinking good wine
– taking long walks through beautiful countryside
– speaking Italian
– appreciating the beauty of the art and architecture
– afternoons spent drinking coffee at Italian cafes
– having time away from work and your other commitments at home so you can do some heavy duty relaxing

Next, ask yourself how you could do versions of those things now?

Instead of eating dinner at home, why not take a picnic basket to work and head to a park after work for a weeknight picnic? You could take your spouse or go alone with your Italian phrasebook (If you’re going to be picnicking with your significant other, here are some ways of saying I love you and similar in Italian that your significant other might like!).

Or, if you’re in Christchurch, try taking a picnic blanket to the Riccarton House Farmers Blanket on a Saturday morning.

Or, what (natural or human-made) beauty do you have in your local area that would be a good place to go walking?

2. Ruling out great ideas as not possible.

For example, you think “I would love to meet a friend for lunch once a week but I only get a half hour lunch break.” Might there be a way of arranging to have a longer break once a week, like staying at work a bit later the same night?

Your boss might say no but what have you got to lose by asking? Don’t fall into the mindreading trap of assuming your boss will say no or be annoyed at you. I don’t think there’s any shame in saying you’re trying to make some small changes that will help you enjoy your everyday life more. Most people want work-life balance for themselves and can understand other people wanting it, provided it seems like you’re trying to do it in a way that doesn’t inconvenience other people.

3a. People make errors in predicting how activities will impact their happiness. For example, underestimating what a profound impact doing one thing a day you look forward to might have on your overall feelings of relaxation and sense that you’re moved in your valued life directions.

Research has shown that the moments of positive feelings we experience in our days have more impact on our overall life satisfaction than the other way around.

A significant benefit of doing simple activities that yield pleasurable emotions is that emotions change thoughts. As I’ve written previously, the evolutionary purpose of positive emotions is that they signal to us that our current environment is safe enough that we can prepare for the future (negative emotions signal danger, the need to be self protective and to watch out for threats). Positive emotions put us in building mode – they lead to having broader, more flexible ideas and more generous, community-spirited thoughts and behaviours. Positive emotions lead to us seeing greater opportunities, investing in our relationships and thinking more creatively.

3b. Another common prediction error is to underestimate how much you’d enjoy doing a specific activity e.g. You think “Trying out making homemade bagels might lift my mood from a 4/10 to 5/10″ when in reality it lifts it from a 4/10 to a 7/10. You might find the mood lift lasts longer than expected e.g. you feel proud and satisfied the rest of the day.

4. Another factor that gets in the way of people doing things they’d look forward to is that planning takes work. The idea of doing at least one thing a day you look forward to is a simple concept but any way you choose to do it will require some effort and planning (improving your happiness requires sustained effort).

Some ideas of how to minimize the effort/time are –

– Once a week you could decide on 7 activities for the upcoming week.
– Include some recurring activities. e.g. every Wednesday you…
– Think about the basics as well as special events. e.g. a favorite TV program you look forward to each week. Anything you love counts.

5. Most of our leisure time occurs in windows of 45 minutes or less.

This means you need to have ideas for what you can do in short windows of time.

To take advantage of these short windows you’ll need to have thought/planned in advance so opportunities to have some “you time” don’t pass you by.

For example, in the workplace, make sure you take your breaks rather than working through. And think about how you most want to spend that time. e.g. on nice days, go sit outside in the sun or take a walk around the block.

6. Pick activities you really will look forward to doing – things you feel at least mildly excited about getting to do.

7. You can’t think of things you want to do.

If you’re out of the habit of doing at least one thing a day you look forward to (or have never been in the habit) it might initially be hard to think of enough appealing, easily to do ideas.

Start with whatever you can think of. Try out some of your ideas, and the process of getting started should help you think of new ideas (remember positive emotions lead to broader, more creative and flexible thoughts!).

The way I think of it this type of creative self discovery about what makes you personally happy is part of the meaning of life.

Hopefully you’ll also come to enjoy the self discovery aspect of finding new things that make you happy.