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10 basic rules for a happier life — and most may surprise you

Happy International Day of Happiness! We spend much of our lives chasing bliss, but what really makes us content?
/ Source: TODAY

Happy International Day of Happiness! How did you celebrate?

The United Nations sets aside March 20 as a time to recognize "the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings."

Rejoicing yet? Or do the stresses of everyday life mean little opportunity to feel happy when there's never enough money, work leaves you gritting your teeth and love seems elusive?

happy women
Don’t fall for the trap of thinking “I will be happy when…,” experts say.Getty Images stock

We spend much of our lives chasing happiness, inspiring a growing field of research devoted to finding out what makes us content. Experts say it's not always what you think.

"We can all do even small things that can increase our overall feelings of happiness on a day-to-day basis," Catherine Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College, told TODAY.

"We often think about happiness as getting external things: Having more money, getting married, having a big house... but the reality is that a lot of what predicts happiness isn't about our external world."

Here are 10 insights into happiness:

1. Relationships are crucial

If you had to name one key to happiness, it would be relationships, said Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project" and the book "Better Than Before." That means romantic relationships, friendships, close ties with siblings and colleagues — any meaningful and deep bonds with people you like.

"If you're thinking about how to be happier, thinking about how to deepen or broaden your relationships is probably a really good place to start," Rubin said.

"We need to have enduring, intimate relationships. We need to be able to confide. We need to feel like we belong. We need to be able to get support and just as important for happiness, we need to be able to give support."

2. Be around happy people

Relationships are particularly beneficial when they involve people who are joyful, Sanderson said.

"Happiness seems to be a bit contagious, so if you're friends with somebody who is happy, it actually increases your own happiness," she noted.

Sanderson said she's not talking about Facebook friends, but being around people you care about and giving them your full attention. Don't mistake texting or messaging on social media for having a meaningful conversation.

3. Your genes predetermine some of the happiness you feel

Research suggests about 50 percent of happiness is hardwired; 10-20 percent is determined by life circumstances, such as age, health, and income; while the rest is very much a reflection of your conscious thoughts and actions, Rubin said.

People for whom happiness does not come very naturally should take more deliberate steps toward being happier, Sanderson noted. (See tip No. 7)

4. Focus on being happier rather than happy

It's hard to define happiness. For some people it may mean a feeling of euphoria or overwhelming joy, for others it's more about peace and contentment. Whatever your definition, find ways to have more of it in your life.

"Think about, 'What could I do that would make me happier?' and don't worry about achieving happiness, which can sound like this very abstract finish line. What does that look like? How would you get there?" Rubin advised.

Related: Happiness equation solved: Lower your expectations

5. Money isn't everything but...

The link between money and happiness is not very strong for people who live above the poverty line, Sanderson said. One study found that once you make $75,000 a year, money doesn't have much of an effect on your contentment.

Another examined the well-being of very wealthy Americans and found they were indeed happier than ordinary people, but not by much. The authors noted that although "money may aid happiness, it certainly is no guarantee of happiness."

Still, Rubin pointed out healthy finances do play a role.

"The thing about money is that it doesn't necessarily buy happiness, but it can buy many things that contribute greatly to happiness. It's how you're spending it," she said.

6. Experiences are better than possessions, except...

You've probably heard that spending money on experiences, like a wine tasting tour or tickets to a Broadway show, boosts happiness more than buying possessions, like jewelry or a new iPhone.

One study found spending on experiences boosted the "feeling of being alive." Another discovered that purchases boosted happiness only when people spent money on cars or leisure.

But Rubin said it's not as simple as saying possessions don't matter.

"Is a dog an experience or a possession? Is a bicycle an experience or a possession? Is a dining room table that means you can have people over for dinner an experience or a possession?" she asked. "Some people care deeply and get enormous satisfaction from possessions."

Related: Retirement boosts happiness, improves health, study finds

7. Small things can make you happy

Sanderson suggested these instant mood lifters:

  • Take a walk outside
  • Read a book that you love
  • Exercise to trigger the release of endorphins, your body's feel-good chemicals
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take a broader view: Parents often report low levels of joy on a day-to-day basis, for example, but find parenting very meaningful when they consider the overall impact of kids on their lives, Sanderson said.

8. Things you think will make you happy often don't

Don't fall for the trap of thinking "I will be happy when..." — "I get married" or "I get a promotion" or "I retire."

"People think it's going to be perfect as soon as this 'thing' happens, but no. It has a very short term effect," Sanderson said. "One of the challenges is that we just adapt to it."

Don't count on climate making you happier, either, she noted. Living in California might sound more blissful than moving to North Dakota, but you eventually adjust to whatever climate you're in. One report found the state where residents feel most content is Alaska.

9. Happiness increases with age

It turns out youth doesn't necessarily translate into bliss.

"When you're older, you don't waste time on things that aren't important to you... you focus on the things that really fulfill you," Rubin said.

"A lot of things, by the time you're older, have worked themselves out. You've made your peace with who you are."

10. Know yourself

Self-knowledge is crucial to happiness, Rubin said. So if you're not a morning person, but decide to get up early each day to squeeze in a workout, you'll be miserable.

"We're happy when our life reflects our nature, our values, our interests. The more you know yourself, the more you can make decisions that are going to help you bring your life into harmony with what's true about you," she noted.

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