Onethingnew on maybrooksAsk most people what they want for their children, and the answer is simple. “I want them to be happy.” But until recently, there’s been surprisingly little research on what actually makes us happy. There’s a ton of research on what makes people miserable, but that’s not a state most of us aspire to.

One thing we do know: After you’ve achieved a certain level of material comfort—in the U.S., it’s generally pegged at an annual income of about $75,000 a year–more money has only a tiny effect on happiness. But the way you spend your time makes a huge difference, according to researchers from Stanford and Wharton. After examining 60 academic studies, they came up with five guidelines anyone can use to increase their happiness.

1. Spend time with the “right people.” Unfortunately, the “right people” are generally not your office mates, even though most people spend the bulk of their day with their work colleagues. Those that make you happiest will generally be friends, family, and romantic partners. And it’s why one of the most powerful indicators of general happiness is whether someone has a “best friend” at work and whether he or she likes their boss.

  • Avoid small talk. A related predictor of happiness is how much substantive discussion you have. Generally, small talk makes people unhappy, and often, work relationships involve a disproportionate amount of small talk. If you want to increase your happiness, it’s far better to find one or two colleagues with whom you can have a real conversation than to constantly be chatting around the water cooler.

2. Spend time on “socially connecting” activities, such as volunteering and spending time with friends.

  • Work doesn’t count. Unless your job is particularly fulfilling and your colleagues are your best buds, work is not ’socially connecting’ and is generally one of the more unhappy parts of the day. Commuting is also gets high marks for making people unhappy.
  • Volunteering has been proven to increase happiness.
  • Memory is important to happiness, because it helps us take an event that happened in the past and extend its ‘worth’ into the future.  One way to choose experiences that will increase happiness is to consider how you might remember them. What are your happiest memories? How can you create similar memories?

3. Day dream, or, as the researchers say, enjoy the experience without spending the time. Research has shown that the part of the brain responsible for pleasure can be activated just by thinking about something pleasant. The most common example is vacation planning, which some people enjoy more than the vacation itself.

4. Expand your time. No, this does not mean you have to find a warp in the space-time continuum (although it might help). Focusing on the “here and now” slows down the perceived passage of time, allowing us to feel less rushed. How can we do that?

  • Breathe slowly. In one study, people who were asked to take long and slow breaths (vs. short and quick ones) for five minutes not only felt there was more time available to get things done, but also perceived their day to be longer.
  • Volunteering makes it seem like you have more time. In general, spending time on someone else makes people feel like they have more time and that their future is more expansive.
  • Pay people to do the chores you hate. Activities that we choose generally make us happier than those that are obligatory. So if you can afford it, hire someone else to do some of the ‘obligatory’ tasks you can’t stand—maybe that’s cleaning the house. Then use the time you’ve ‘bought’ not to catch up on work, but to do something you genuinely enjoy.

5. Be aware that aging changes the way people experience happiness. Young people tend to equate happiness with excitement, but as we age, we are more likely to associate happiness with feelings of peacefulness. Young people get more happiness from spending time with interesting new acquaintances, while older people get more enjoyment from spending time with close friends and family.

Since I first wrote about this research, a number of people have told me they’ve actually been inspired to make changes in the way they think and the way they spend their time. One of my editors told me he spent a few minutes daydreaming about a ski trip before getting up and facing the day. A colleague told me he spent a few more minutes chatting with his kids in the morning rather than obsessively checking his BlackBerry.

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About the contributor: One Thing New is a digital media startup that offers smart, original and relevant content to thinkers, professionals and parents who also happen to be women. Founded by veteran reporters and writers Connie Guglielmo and Kimberly Weisul, One Thing New. Sign up for their newsletter at