Do you believe we need an official holiday to remember to be happy? The United Nations thought so. In 2012 the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed that, forevermore, March 20 would be observed as the International Day of Happiness, “recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being,” according to the U.N. resolution, “as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.”
A holiday in honor of happiness may seem a little like one to celebrate romance. But as much as we grumble about the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, the day sometimes serves to remind us how much we love our partners and how much we are adored in return. A reminder now and then is nice, even if it’s mandated by the calendar.
That’s the idea behind the International Day of Happiness. “It’s a great reminder to focus on happiness, especially when much of society pays a lot of attention to the negative, from news events to what is wrong in their personal lives,” says positive psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
Over time the pursuit of happiness, our constitutional right, has been conflated with the pursuit of prosperity. And while economic security (for food, shelter and education) is an important part of overall well-being, it’s not the whole picture.
Far from it, says Vanessa King, a board member and organizational leader at Action for Happiness, the nonprofit group that partners with the U.N. to promote the International Day of Happiness. Research indicates income and environment account for only about 10 percent of our life satisfaction, she says. In fact, Americans’ drive for more—more money, more material goods—may actually make us sadder. In developed and developing countries, the United States included, depression and mental illness levels have increased along with the gross domestic product. Money, after a certain point, can’t buy happiness.
So what is the whole picture? Studies from the field of positive psychology have found that our genetics and upbringing influence about half of our propensity for personal happiness, and that we are likely born with a happiness “set point.” But the other 40 percent is determined by our daily activities, a big enough percentage to significantly raise that set point and keep it there.
According to the U.N. and Action for Happiness, raising our happiness set points should be viewed less as a basic right and more as a responsibility. After all, positive-psychology studies over the past 20 years have shown repeatedly that happy people make happier communities. People with higher levels of “subjective well-being” are healthier and live longer. They volunteer and give back more. They cultivate stronger relationships with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. They raise happier children and work more efficiently. Quite literally, happier people spread cheer.
So come March 20, be responsible: Get happy! Let the day remind you of your obligations to raise your own spirits and those of your community. Here are a few science-backed ways to get started:
1. Start the day with a positive intention, Lombardo advises. Instead of waking up and thinking, Ugh, my day is going to be so stressful, ask yourself, How can I bring joy to at least one other person today? Giving to others has been shown to make do-gooders feel good.
2. Determine your character strengths and explore ways to use them to help others, King says. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the former American Psychological Association president, pioneered the field of positive psychology and co-developed (with the late Christopher Peterson, Ph.D.) 24 character strengths related to core virtues as well as a survey. Spare 20 minutes today to take that survey and learn about your strengths. (Don’t worry; this is no “Which dead celebrity is your soul mate?” personality quiz. Psychology researchers use this respected, meaningful diagnostic tool to assess character strengths in their studies.) Then if one of your strengths is zest, you could volunteer to dance with the residents at a senior center. If curiosity is your strong suit, perhaps you could research environmentally friendly ways to make over your workplace. If hope is your result, spend time with those who need it most: victims of violence, the homeless, people battling illness.
3. Ask friends, family and colleagues to contribute to a list of music, art, books and activities that make them feel alive with happiness, suggests Viv Thackray, a positive psychologist in Oxford, U.K. “Focusing attention on what makes us happy builds positive emotions and provides a panoramic perspective that enables us to regularly take in the good.”
4. Send a letter of appreciation to someone you hold dear. In it, express how grateful you are to have him or her in your life, Thackray also recommends. Gratitude is a proven pillar of happiness, and expressing it to others creates a ripple effect of positive feelings.
5. Smile and say hello to at least three people whom you’d normally pass by without comment—a fellow commuter, the security guard at your building or another parent at school drop-off.
6. Register to host a Worldwide Happiness Dinner. Here’s how it works: Invite friends and family to a meal on March 20, whether it’s home-cooked, takeout, potluck or at a restaurant. Use the conversation guidelines provided on the site to talk with your guests about what really matters when it comes to true happiness and how you might incorporate more of those elements in your daily lives. Upload a photo of your dinner party and your conversation notes. Then check the website to learn from other Worldwide Happiness Dinner groups.