Fifteen years ago, there was a shift in researching happiness. After having focused on meaninglessness and depression, researchers began getting more interested in what happy people have in common: the so-called happiness factor.
How to be happy

Swedish ”happiness expert” Erik Fernholm’s background is in cognitive neuroscience. Fernholm says that in order to become happy you cannot rely on a few, quick tricks, but rather ”substantial insights, teachings and methods that can actually help people feel better.”
The conclusion is clear: There’s a lot we as indivuduals can do to become happy. ”We need to talk about this seriously,” Fernholm says, adding that he believes people are feeling less happy today than they did 50 years ago, especially the younger generation. The lack of good mental health among young people has tripled and suicides are the most common cause of death among people under age 30. Fernholm says there is much too much focus on our personal fulfillment and our spending of money, instead of community, trust and deep and meaningful relationships.
”We have a fairly unique illness in Sweden that we don’t see in our neighboring countries,” he says. ”Society is heading in the wrong direction.” Of all countries in the world, Sweden is the one that focuses the most on self-fulfillment, according to Fernholm. We are also extreme in the way that we don’t focus on traditional values, but go only to ourselves in order to find answers to such important questions as what we are supposed to do with our lives, he explains. ”We believe in the rational thinking of the individual, which gets us into a position where all the responsibility for a person to fulfill himself is on himself, and therefore there’s nobody he can turn to or ask. This sort of anxiety is overwhelming and it is the explanation for why we’re having this mental disease.”
The rest of the world is right behind us, says Fernholm, and points out that Sweden must solve the problem and become a role model. ”What happens here will have an enormous impact,” he says. Fernholm’s tips to become happy:
1. Find your compass. In the hunt for a happy life, there are three important pieces. One of them is living according to your values. And in order to do so, you must first identify what these are. ”For you, being close to family may be very important, but for me it may be being in the here and now. Look back at your life and try to see a pattern: When did you perform the best? If you do this, you start to realize what you value. It is a journey that never ends, our value system changes constantly, but when we understand our patterns from the past, we will also be able to look into the future. All our choices, such as choosing a boyfriend, or what we want to do in our lives, become much simpler.”
2. Challenge yourself. All children, says Fernholm, are born curious and there’s a reason for that. ”The vacation myth that tells us things are better when we don’t have to work is not correct. People need to work, we’re built to work. If we have no reason to fight, then we don’t feel good.” But we must try not to get burned out, of course. Fernholm’s tip is to make sure you challenge yourself and feel that special ”gut feeling” at least once a week. ”You also have to deal with the times you fail, but make sure you get good at making an effort. In the long run, you’ll see that this is key in order to get good results.”
3. Care about yourself and others. The component that Fernholm believes is the one that’s most lacking in Sweden is a sense of community and meaningfulness. ”We think we are these independent individuals that can take care of ourselves, and when we’re successful people will like us, but the way we go about this is oftetimes very lopsided.” Your will crashes with the will of the group, which means constant compromises. Meanwhile, you cannot ”run your own race,” neither can you only focus on others. ”Neither the egoist nor the martyr is something to aim for, but a balance between the two.” Humans have a need to feel needed on different levels, Fernholm explains. Feeling needed as in serving food at a soup kitchen, and doing something meaningful in a longer perspective, such as working for a company that benefits the future.
4. Believe in yourself. Ask yourself: Do my actions determine my life—or is it my finances, the business that doesn’t want to hire me, my mom, or my friends who didn’t believe in me? That’s the type of question Fernholm says we all have to ask ourselves. ”What determines my life is something I either put inside or outside myself. During the past 50 years, people have gone from thinking 'I am the reason in my life,’ to becoming more external.” Research, Fernholm says, shows that people who have a feeling they are actors in life feel better, and are happier with their lives, than those who believe the power lies outside themselves. These people more often suffer mental illness. Give yourself the majority of the power over how you live life, do not give this power to others.
5. Have meaningful conversations. Research shows that the happiest people in the world spend lots of time with other people. They don’t have superficial conversations but rather genuine ones. The contrast is big: Either you are successful and you run your own race, you avoid pain and you look for pleasure or you let others into your life. ”You really need to clean your own house first,” says Fernholm. ”Check yourself, your finances, your well-being, your health. But once you have reached a basic level, then don’t focus on more money, more things, more status, but rather on others. This will make you feel better.” In order to feel better, you have to be honest, vulnerable, and let other people influence you, instead of being independent, self-reliant and strong. Otherwise you’ll get very lonely.
6. Don’t look for riches. Are we happier with money? The answer, if you ask Fernholm, is no. Once the money you have no longer gives you a sense of security (a limit that’s pretty close to an average Swedish salary), then money will not increase your happiness. ”What’s interesting with money is that we get used to it so quickly. If you ask people from all over the salary range how much they’d need in order to become happy, then everyone answers ’40 percent more,’ because we all get used to our norm.” Research, says Fernholm, shows that we experience more happiness when we spend money on others rather than ourselves, and that this is something most people already know. Yet they spend most of their money on themselves. ”The question is how do we live up to the wisdom we already have?”
7. Choose your friends wisely. You become like the people you surround yourself with. If your friend gains 10 kilos, you’ll likely do the same. If a person at your table drinks wine, then it is more likely that you yourself will do so also. Yawns spread, as does the habit to hold open the door for other people. Therefore, choose your friends wisely. ”It is a way to guide ourselves, to look over what kind of people we hang out with. Are they people who live up to their values? Do they challenge and push themselves? Do they feel a meaning with their lives? Do they want to contribute to society or do they focus only on their own success and development? Something to consider.”
8. Focus on inner goals. Inner goals are in line with our core as people: We want to develop, we want to contribute, and so on. Outer goals are the things we do to gain more things or become more popular. ”The trick with the outer goals,” says Fernholm, ”is that we are never satisfied. And the journey toward these goals often makes us feel worse, not better.” To remind ourselves what’s important, Fernholm suggests we picture ourselves with only one year left to live, or that we’re 90 and about to die. What kind of life do you want to remember? ”Is is a life where you took the easy way and became successful, or do you want to remember a life during which you constantly learned new things, developed, hung out with friends and made a difference?”
9. Don’t get depressed if you don’t find love. Have you searched and searched but never found the love of your life? Don’t get depressed and don’t stress. You need no partner in order to become happy. ”I’d put it this way—that if you have a love relationship, then that helps, but it is the depth of the relation that is important. You could be just as happy if you had a lot of really good relations,” Fernholm says. The basic thought is that human beings have a need for closeness, and a sense of belonging, and knowing we make a difference in other people’s lives. ”It is more important to focus on what the need really is, and answer it,” he says.
10. Don’t try to impress with stuff. Fast cars, expensive clothes, the latest products.… Fernholm puts up a warning finger: Having loads of things is alluring but no shortcut to happiness. ”If the purpose with your stuff is to become popular, then why not focus on that right away? When was the last time you felt really liked? What did you do then? It is rare that someone says 'it was when I came to school with my new brand bag.’ The only thing you’ve shown is that you can make others feel worse by showing off. Is that really the right strategy for you and those you care about? Feeling good has nothing to do with becoming a winner so that everyone else becomes a loser, but how you and everyone else can all become winners. Instead of popularity, try to focus on being a good friend or partner,” says Fernholm.
11. Don’t hunt for 'likes’ or confirmation. We do it all the time: Put up images on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and blogs. But why do we do it? That’s another question Fernholm wants us to ask ourselves. Do we do it in order to get confirmation or to create a community, or to spread an idea? Do we do it to show that we’re vulnerable? There are lots of driving forces behind what we do. The joy of getting many likes for a post is short lived. ”For how long do you feel good? Maybe half a second, and then you continue to wonder what will your next post be about, what will your next image be. Is this really genuine joy? Will this be your best moment that week? Probably not,” he says and suggests we aim straight for the feeling. ”What did you do when you last felt good? Was it really when you got all those 'likes’? Did that feel meaningful, challenging and in line with your values? Is that what you want to remember when you die?”
12. Realize you don’t know what you want. That we know what’s best for us and that we know what we want with our lives—well, that’s a myth. Erik Fernholm is fairly sure of that. ”We think we know what we want, but once we’re there we don’t. We easily hunt for things we think will make us feel good,” he says. He likens it to a projector that does not work fully. ”It’s therefore quite inadequate to ask people what they want and what goals they have. Instead you should ask the person how they felt in the past, and try to create more out of those situations,” he says.
13. Be present. The most important lesson is this last one. ”As soon as people think about the future, or think back to what happened in the past, they nearly always feel worse than if they are present in the here and now,” he says. And that may not be that stange, since most of our problems exist only in our thoughts. ”Thoughts are oftentimes very exaggerated when we think of the future. When I finally meet a boyfriend, my life will change, or when I finally have that salary, I will become much happier. These images of the future are very strong, both negative and positive, but the feelings need not necessarily be there.” That’s why Fernholm believes it is better to land in the present, and act from the present. ”Then you may use this projector as well as you can, but be aware of the fact that it doesn’t really work as well as it should.”