Happiness is difficult to define and even harder to measure. We experience it as a combination of elements, in the same way that one wheel or spring inside a watch doesn’t keep time — it is a result of the synchronicity of the whole. As a relative state, happiness is what psychologists call our “subjective well-being” and, fortunately for us, it is a state that we can actively change for the better. Here are nineteen ways to start.
1. Count your blessings – but not everyday? Sonja Lyubomirsky, an experimental psychologist at UC Riverside, found that people who once a week wrote down five things they were grateful for were happier than those who did it three times a week. “It’s an issue of timing or frequency,” says Lyubomirsky, “When people do anything too often it loses the freshness and meaning. You need to have optimal timing.” Lyubomirsky added that it has to feel right. She tried to count her blessings and hated it. “I found it hokey. It didn’t work for me. Just like a diet program, what you do has to fit your lifestyle, personality and goals.” In essence, gratitude might not be for everyone. But if it is, another exercise is to think of a person who has been kind to you that you’ve wanted to thank — a teacher, mentor or parent — and write a letter, once a week to different individuals over two months. You don’t even have to send it to feel happier.
2. Hear the Music – Whether regarded as an evolutionary accident that piggybacked on language or as the gateway to our emotions, music activates parts of the brain that can trigger happiness, releasing endorphins similar to the ways that sex and food do. Music can also relax the body, sometimes into sleep as it stimulates the brain’s release of melatonin. A study of older adults who listened to their choice of music during outpatient eye surgery showed that they had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure, and their hearts did not work as hard as those who underwent surgery without music. A second study, of patients undergoing colonoscopy, showed that listening to their selection of music reduced their anxiety levels and lessened the dosage required for sedation.
3. Seek out Love, Kindness and Compassion – Endorphins are the neurotransmitters in your brain that reduce pain and, in the absence of pain, can induce euphoria. A rush of such chemicals might seem like a temporary solution to a dreary day, but there are added benefits, not the least of which is expressing affection and strengthening the bonds of a relationship. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland when we express kindness and affection, as well as receive it, it is often referred to as the “hormone of love” or the “cuddle chemical,” it is associated with feelings of bonding and trust, and can even reduce stress.
4. Nuture Your Spirituality – Survey after survey shows that people with strong religious faith — of any religion or denomination — are happier than those who are irreligious. David Myers, a social psychologist at Michigan’s Hope College, says that faith provides social support, a sense of purpose and a reason to focus beyond the self, all of which help root people in their communities. That seems reason enough to get more involved at the local church, temple or mosque. For the more inwardly focused, deep breathing during meditation and prayer can slow down the body and reduce stress, anxiety and physical tension to allow better emotions and energy to come forward.
5. Move Your Body – We’ve all heard about a “runner’s high,” but there are plenty of other ways to achieve that feeling. Dance. Play a sport. Work out as hard as you can. Take a walk so your stress will take a hike. Moving your body releases endorphins, the quintessential feel-good chemicals found in your brain. How endorphin release is triggered by exercise is somewhat of a controversial science because researchers don’t know if it is caused by the positive emotion felt upon meeting a physical challenge or from the exertion itself. Either way, physical motion can provide a rush of good energy that can lift a mood, be it anxiety or mild depression, and it’s a good way to keep healthy.
6. Laugh Big – Be it a slew of good jokes, a slapstick comedy or laughing yoga, find something to give you a good hearty laugh that brings tears to the eyes or a giggle fit that makes the sides of your body ache. People are 30 times more likely to laugh in groups than alone and, not surprisingly, laughter is associated with helping to develop person-to-person connections through a feedback loop characterized by laughter, social bonding and more laughter. Laughter, like so many other endorphin-triggers, helps to reduce certain stress hormones and, while it might be contagious, it strengthens your immune system rather than weakening it.
7. Do Something Nice for Someone Else – Hold a door open for someone at the bank, give someone directions if they look lost or make a point to compliment three people on your way to work. Small or big, directed at friends or strangers, random acts of kindness make the person performing the kind act happier when they’re grouped together, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, an experimental psychologist at UC Riverside. Doing a considerate thing for another person five times in one day made the doer happier than if they had spread out those five acts over one week. Lyubomirsky explains that because we all perform acts of kindness naturally, it seems to please us more when we’re more conscious of it. There are social rewards, too, when people respond positively.
8. Seek Positive Emotion as a path to Success – Happiness can lead to success, rather than just the other way around. Happy individuals are predisposed to seek out new opportunities and set new goals. After reviewing data of 225 studies gathered from more than 275,000 individuals, a team of psychologists concluded that while previous research assumed that happiness stemmed from success and accomplishment, happiness is often a result of positive emotions. Success is the result of many factors, including physical health, intelligence, family and expertise.
9. Identify With Your Heritage – Whether it’s getting comfy with a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, dancing at a Japanese Obon festival or scarfing down a hot dog at Coney Island, embrace your culture. Appreciating one’s culture creates and strengthens bonds with others who share that culture and also allows one to identify and appreciate cultural difference. A recent study showed that adolescents of Mexican and Chinese ethnicity maintained feelings of happiness despite daily stress when they had a strong sense of cultural identity. In other research, psychologists found an association between stable cultural identity and overall positive emotion in African American and Native American communities.
10. Use a Happy Memory as a Guide – Learn to scan your memory bank for your strengths, talents, passions, interests, practical coping skills, and earlier potential — whether it’s actualized or not. Scanning this memory bank and gleaning material that can be used to reinvent yourself to be happier is key, says Barbara Becker-Holstein, psychologist and author of Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy. For example, someone who would like to be more altruistic can scan their past and know that they didn’t like Girl Scouts in elementary school. That crosses off being a PTA mother. But they might remember that as a child they enjoyed collecting soda bottles and giving the money to the local fire station where they knew the fire fighters. That person might consider giving money and time to a local group where they can socialize with people rather than mailing in a cheque to a distant organization. “Looking at one’s personal style, tastes and interests as we look for ways to be happy today is very important,” says Becker-Holstein.
11. Play the Part of an Optimist – Optimism is a learned skill and there are a variety of ways to acquire it, says psychologist Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. Through her research, Troiani has come up with three things that you can do to enhance your sense of optimism. First, straighten out your body before your emotions by keeping a straight body posture, taking big steps and walking quickly with your shoulders back and your head up. “People who are pessimistic walk slowly with small steps and their head down,” she says. Second, change your tone of voice so that it is cheerful and full of energy. Third, use upbeat or happier words, such as “challenge” rather than “problem,” or think of “opportunities” rather than “losses.” “Positive thoughts and behavior have a positive impact on the brain’s biochemistry,” she says. “[They] boost your serotonin levels and signal that you’re happy. Your brain will catch up to you.” Troiani reminds us: it takes about 4 to 6 weeks to really change a habit.
12. Try New Things – Stop Putting off seeing the aurora lights, warming up in the hot springs of Greenland or learning a new instrument — just do it. If you often do one thing that makes you happy, then try another. Psychologist Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University looked at 30,000 event memories and over 500 diaries, ranging from durations of 3 months to 4 years, and says that people who engage in a variety of experiences are more likely to retain positive emotions and minimize negative ones than people who have fewer experiences. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, studies her broaden-and-build hypothesis of positive emotion. Her research suggests that the optimal ratio of positive to negative emotion in humans is above 3 to 1 and below 11 to 1. Walker has observed that once the ratio of positive to negative events hit 1 to 1, it opens the door to potential disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
13. Tell Your Story to Someone – Talking about the good and bad things that happen can lead to happiness — even if it is from opposite ends of the phone line. In a controlled lab experiment, psychologist Rich Walker of Winston-Salem State University found that the reasons are two-fold: people tend to emphasize positive emotions and mitigate negative ones when telling a story, since memory’s natural bias is to keep tabs on the good stuff and gradually lose the emotional intensity of a bad event; and the process of storytelling can affect how one feels about what happened even up to a week later. In other words, talking about a negative experience made the emotional intensity of that memory fade faster than if the event had not been recounted. Walker says that storytelling works best when there is a lot of audience diversity — it helps to tell the story many times to a variety of people.
14. Balance Work and Home – The grin of our society is blue-toothed. With BlackBerrys and corporate email at home, we are tethered to technology unlike any previous generation. This newfound flexibility between our work and private lives works for some people but is problematic for others. In 2003, Michigan State University researchers found that those who establish boundaries between work and home are more connected to their families and have less conflict than those who integrate the two. The researchers divided people into what they call integrators and separators and suggested that knowing the appropriate boundaries between work and home can have an impact and improve happiness.
15. Be Like the Danes: Keep Expectations Realistic – Last year, the first world map of happiness was produced, and Denmark came out on top. For more than 30 years, the nation has ranked first in European satisfaction surveys. Researchers in the British Medical Journal tried to understand why the Danes felt more satisfied than the Swedes or Finns, who share similar aspects of culture, and came up with two plausible explanations: the lasting impact of the Danes’ victory in the 1992 European Football Championship has kept them in a state of euphoria since; and the nation, while satisfied, has shown low expectations for the coming year, unlike the Greeks and the Italians who rank low on satisfaction. While there were other reasons that contributed to the satisfaction of the Danes, one thing is clear: the higher one’s expectations, the further they fall.
16. Make Time – Society is plagued by time bankruptcy. But what if people asserted more control over their time to optimize their use of it? “Maybe you need to burn bridges, discard habits or situations that waste time and avoid emotional vampires,” says Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. “It’s like house-cleaning at that point.” Psychologists will say prioritize; set realistic daily goals that fit into the bigger picture and some time might be recovered. Troiani usually asks one pointed question to shock her clients out of their rut: How would you feel in two or three years if you still feel this way? “People sit there like a deer in headlights,” she says. Her response: picture and imagine what you want to feel like. Maybe set aside two nights in your calendar to focus on those things that you’d like to spend more time on. Or as she puts it: cut to the chase.
17. Visualize Happiness – We are unique creatures in that we can mentally simulate situations by remembering the past and visualizing the future. We can also play a hand at perhaps creating the future — at least in terms of preparing our emotional state for what may come. It’s a valuable tool and one that can lead to happiness when applied to specific goals. There is much research behind visualization and emotional changes, as it has been shown that positive thoughts have an impact on the brain’s biochemistry. Many psychologists ask people to imagine or picture what they would like in their life, creating a mental state that makes the person think that it is achievable. “If you experience that visualization with your eyes closed, your mind doesn’t know if it’s real or unreal,” says Mary Ann Troiani, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism. “Neuropsychological ways makes them feel as though they have it and tricks the mind into thinking they have [what they are visualizing] now. It makes them more confident about it.”
18. Smile – Go ahead. It won’t hurt you. It might actually make you happier, too. Based on the psychology that a person feels whatever emotion they are acting at the moment, you will probably feel better if you smile. To avoid what is called cognitive dissonance, in which our thoughts and actions don’t match up, our minds react to the change in our facial expression to bring our beliefs in line with our behaviour. And, like laughter, it’s contagious. If you smile, chances are that those around you will too.
19. Marry Happy – Research shows that depressed singles receive greater psychological benefit — from things such as intimacy and emotional closeness — from getting married than those who are not depressed. And for the married population, first of all, congratulations: people in committed relationships have been shown to be happier than those who aren’t, despite how satisfying their marriages actually are. Research done by an economist at the University of Warwick suggests that if you’re married to someone who is happy, then you are happy as well. The research concludes that happiness, like material things in a marriage, is shared.
TIME Magazine 2007