It’s the little things

Every month, Oliver Burkeman suggests the smallest change, which will make the biggest impact on the quality of your daily life

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It's the little things

The big idea

Humans are generally terrible at predicting what will make us happy. You may invest years of your life in getting rich, or finding the partner of your dreams – only to discover that the thrill lasts no longer than a couple of months. Or you relocate to a new city, only to realise you have still got the same problems.

Psychologists call this ‘hedonic adaptation’, or the happiness treadmill: we quickly adapt to new circumstances, so they cease delivering pleasure. You then decide you need something else in order to be happy, and the cycle continues. Fortunately, there’s another side to the coin: those tiny things that deliver large doses of joy.

Find yours, make them a habit, and you can step off the treadmill for good.

The easy adjustment

Take stock. Run through the last 24 hours. When were you happiest? For the neat freaks among us, cleaning up after dinner is satisfying; for introverts, too many fun nights out are no fun at all. (See Neil Pasricha’s blog 1000awesomethings.com for inspiration). To get scientific, use a smartphone app such as Mood Meter, which reminds you to log your moods in the day.

Remove the barriers. We often fail to indulge in small pleasures, so figure out what’s getting in the way, and fix it. If it’s time alone you need, make a date in your diary, so you don’t agree to socialise then. If you’re a coffee connoisseur, get the best. It’s worth spending a bit on sources of joy.

Don’t break the chain. The comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, made sure he kept working on comedy by marking an X on a calendar every day he wrote new jokes, until he got a chain of Xs – and his only rule was ‘don’t break the chain’. Try a similar strategy for your tiny pleasures: resolve to find time for one every day. If all else fails, take the advice of the spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle: stop, breathe, and do nothing except watch for your very next thought, like a cat watching a mousehole.

The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock