Unlike aardvarks or ferrets, behavioral cues don't come with our biology. The Arctic tern knows exactly when to head south. We, however, are flying blind most of the time, since the instinct we follow is of the herd kind. Without built-in guidelines, researchers say we try to conform to what we think the majority is doing. While it may work at the ballot box, majority rule is a loser when it comes to determining your happiness, which depends on what you're doing -- nobody else.
Much as we're badgered to be like others, buy like others or succeed like others to be happy, the nature of satisfaction is that it only comes from actions you take that make you feel gratified. Happiness and its long-form version, fulfillment, are a byproduct of what researchers call "intentional activity" -- proactive choices we make to interact with our world in ways that satisfy core needs for self-determination, competence and connection with others.
"Intentional activity has the best potential to elevate people into the upper end of their happiness range," researchers Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon and David Schkade report in an article on the crucial role that activities play in building and sustaining positive mood.
In real estate, it's all about location, location, location. When it comes to happiness, it's initiation, initiation, initiation. You have to initiate to participate in the intentional activities and experiences that increase your happiness. Happy is as happy does. Initiators have a much better chance of realizing the self-determination needs that make them happy than people who hang back, vegetate or wait for their ship to come in. We tend to think of initiative as something that only applies to careers, but it's one of the essential ingredients in life activation -- one of a group of "life intelligence" skills I detail in the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the power of participant experiences to create an extraordinary life.
We don't hear much about initiating as a key piece of happiness in our private lives because it's something that's so at odds with the mythology of external success that's supposed to deliver happiness. It's assumed that happiness will emerge from work and financial success. We don't think there's anything we need to do to make it happen, so we wait... and wait. It's part of a mentality that always pushes living into the future.
Another reason initiating doesn't get a lot of attention is that it isn't easy. It goes against the grain of our notions about play and fun. But the research shows that satisfaction, and happiness, take work. You can't feel satisfied by doing something that's easy, like opening the refrigerator. Satisfaction is the reward for doing something novel or hard.
It takes initiative to get out the door and into the center of the life experiences that increase positive mood. It also takes will power to resist the inertial pull of sedentary entertainment and go for experiential options, which provide the internal payoff. Experiences make you happier than material things, touching core places within, so having more of them dramatically increases your potential to upgrade happiness -- and perhaps your fans. Leaf Van Boven at the University of Colorado has found that people like experiential folks better than materialistic ones. They're considered more authentic and interesting.
We've been led to believe that our weeknights and weekends don't mean much. We can veg through them or book them up with errands. The reality is that it's the frequency and quality of experiences in your off-hours that determine the state of your positive universe and, thus, your happiness. Research shows that happiness is the cumulative result of many small positive experiences and activities that allow us to express our aspirations and leave the memories that tell us we like our lives. The more positive and novel the recent experiences you can recall, the higher you rate your happiness.
Making these experiences happen takes initiative. You have to research activities and vacations, call friends, organize get-togethers, follow curiosities, and take risks. One of the best ways to insure a steady supply of positive events is with a hobby or a passion. Brad Wetmore, a digital security engineer in the San Francisco Bay area, says he always has something to look forward to since he discovered orienteering -- a sport that combines trail-running and treasure hunting that he indulges almost every weekend. "A week before a meet I'll be thinking, I can't wait until next Friday," says Wetmore. "That gives me something to work for."
Having reasons to work helps insure that we do more than work. Living-to-work is the unconscious default that seals life out for many of us. When we can shift to the notion that we are working-to-live, we have to think about what we're living for -- like, say, having some actual life in our lives. That's where the intentional activities come in, along with the self-determination to ferret them out and self-activate.
When you initiate, you are following your internal mandate to self-determine the content of your life. It's a powerful urge that, if ignored, leaves you feeling dependent and bored. You can boost your initiating skills by turning up the receptivity to the opportunities around you that come in the form of curiosities and affinities. Listen to the signals and make a beeline for them. See initiating as exploring, without a defined result at the end or need for judgment. You're just exploring, and what you uncover in the process is the fullest life possible.
Where do those signals come from? Philadelphia breast cancer survivor Kathy King heard about dragon boat paddling from a friend at a poetry class. Even though she was so weak from cancer treatment she could barely put a paddle in the water, she decided to check out the Hope Afloat dragon boat team. By following up that lead and trying it out, King wound up discovering a passion that pumps up her life and support network. Sonja Rodriguez, a Homeland Security executive, became intrigued by hockey after seeing a tournament that featured women's teams. Raised in Puerto Rico, she had never ice-skated in her life. But, going with her curiosity, she not only learned how to skate, but today plays on a team that competed in a national competition this year.
The energizing agent of initiative is a bias for action. Instead of caving to transient moods, you opt for action, for working to live, even if you've had a bad day or you're too tired or too busy. No, you're not falling for that. Planning a specific time for a participant activity -- getting it on the calendar -- helps insure your living time doesn't get waylaid by the anxiety of the moment.
The activities that offer the best chance to increase happiness are ones that fit your affinities and values and that are engaging, not spectating, in nature. Research shows that the odds of improving happiness are greater the more inherently pleasing the experience is, the better the fit with your personality, and the more the opportunity for personal growth. Those features are trying to tell us something: If you want to ensure a life that's fully lived, you can't leave the living up to anyone else.
Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.