How to Be Happy: 7 Science-Based Tips
What makes you happy? What does happiness feel like to you?
Across cultures and history, the pursuit of happiness is pretty much universal. But while some people define happiness as a kind of quiet contentment, others associate happiness with feeling of vigorous activity and excitement.
Only you know what makes you happy. If you’re looking for ways to bring more happiness into your life, science just might have the answer. And who doesn’t want to be happier?
1. Practice gratitude
Being grateful for what you have, instead of focusing on what you don’t, tends to make you happier and less depressed.
One 2015 study of mostly college students found that a regular practice of writing letters of gratitude produced improved mental health that lasted well beyond the study’s monitoring period.
Plus, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling might carry greater benefits than counseling alone.
Gratitude can also change your brain. Researchers in the 2015 study measured brain activity via an fMRI scanner during a “pay it forward” exercise. They found that feelings of gratefulness corresponded to greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is related to learning and decision-making.
By focusing on the positive, and de-emphasizing the negative, you can steer your brain away from “toxic emotions” like jealousy and resentment. Gratitude can re-direct your priorities and train your brain for appreciation instead of criticism and feelings of want.
The positive benefits of a gratitude practice can take time to emerge. But if you stick with it, you might notice a positive snowball effect — the more you cultivate gratitude, the greater the boost to your mental health.
2. Help others
Research indicates that significant benefits can be derived from compassion and acts of kindness — such as improved happiness and well-being, reduced stress, increased self-esteem and confidence, and possibly a longer lifespan.
Kindness can be defined as doing something to help others or putting other people’s needs ahead of your own — like holding the door for a stranger, checking in on a neighbor, or getting involved in a community project.
Acts of kindness can strengthen and expand our social and support networks — by deepening existing bonds of friendship, and making new friends through volunteering. New experiences can broaden your perspective, have an expansive effect on your world outlook, and leave you feeling satisfied and more optimistic.
And kindness is contagious! Seeing someone else act with kindness, or being the beneficiary, encourages us in turn to act with compassion and kindness toward others. Even small gestures to help and support others — like getting in touch with an old friend, playing a game with your children, or giving a few dollars to a charity close to your heart — can have a long-lasting positive effect on both the recipient and the giver.
3. Get moving
If you’re looking for an excuse to be more active, here it is: Moving your body can have a profound impact on your mental health, and you don’t have to be an ultra-marathoner to reap these benefits.
A 2020 study on the effects of physical activity found that even moderate levels of exercise — including biking and walking — correspond to significantly higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction, and this effect may only increase as we age.
Moving your body triggers the release of brain chemicals that make you feel more relaxed, less anxious, and happier overall. You may notice improved self-confidence and self-esteem, in addition to having more energy, greater physical strength and endurance, improved physical intimacy, and better sleep.
Exercise can also boost your social connections when you plan outings and activities with friends and family — or when you make new friends by signing up for a dance class or a recreational league sports team. This expanded and deepened sense of community can leave you feeling happier.
Plain and simple, physical activity makes you feel good.
4. Manage your stress
It’s no secret that being stressed doesn’t feel good. Also not a surprise: learning to manage your stress can make you happier — as well as improve your over all well-being and even increase your longevity and immunity.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by stress, particularly as lots of big and small responsibilities, irritations, and obstacles start to pile up. But did you know that little bursts of stress relief can accumulate, too? Blowing off steam every once in a while can lead to greater resilience against stress overall.
If you’re having trouble finding the energy and focus to engage in bigger stress-relief activities like an hour-long aerobics class, you can choose smaller activities to lift your mood, like meditation, watching a funny video, or sitting outside — because it all adds up in a very good way.
This “upward spiral” of reaching for more positive emotions like contentment, appreciation, and joy can have lasting benefits like greater mindfulness, improved physical health, better relationships, reduced anxiety and depression, increased life satisfaction, and a sunnier and more optimistic outlook.
5. Get enough sleep
Another factor in happiness that is frequently overlooked is your quality of sleep.
When you’ve had a sleepless night, you’ll tend to be more irritable and stressed the next day. But a good night’s sleep can have the opposite effect of balancing your mood.
In one University of Pennsylvania study, participants who got only 4.5 hours of sleep per night for a full week reported feeling more angry, sad, stressed, and mentally fatigued. But when these same participants retuned to their normal sleep patterns, their moods improved significantly.
But what if you’re too anxious to sleep? Stress and rumination can make restful sleep difficult. Troubled sleep can also be a symptom of depression or other mental health concerns.
To improve your quality of sleep, examine your current sleep habits to see where you can make changes and improvements to boost the quality of your sleep. These can be lifestyle changes, like choosing a reasonable bedtime and sticking to it, or environmental adjustments like putting up blackout curtains to help keep your bedroom dark.
If you find that you still can’t get a good night’s rest, you can consult an expert for help.
In the end, a good night’s sleep can dramatically improve your mood, your overall well-being, and your level of happiness.
6. Meditation and mindfulness
Mindfulness is related to happiness and well-being, along with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, by fostering a sense of purpose and engagement with life.
By training yourself to focus on the present moment and on your immediate experience of the world, a natural state of openness, curiosity, and acceptance will often arise — along with increased self-compassion, physical awareness, and emotional regulation.
A research study in 2021 found that higher levels of mindfulness corresponded to higher levels of happiness as well as reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Accepting yourself and any negative thoughts without judgment can increase your sense of appreciation and reduce your vulnerability to stress.
Researchers believe that a mindfulness practice encourages you to better define your life values and focus your attention on what matters most in your life—basically, leading you to meaning and purpose.
A regular practice of daily meditation can literally change your brain. Via brain scans, researchers have found that meditators show reduced activity in the sections of the brain associated with anxiety, fear, and pain, while those areas associated with memory, emotion, and happiness show greater activity.
These changes are noted on a chemical level, too, with “happy” neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin increasing with meditation, along with drops in the stress-and-fear steroid hormone cortisol. You might also notice improved sleep, boosted immunity, and decreased anxiety with a regular meditation practice.
The goal of meditation and mindfulness is not to quiet your busy brain, but simply to pay better attention. By observing the present moment, letting go of judgment, and allowing any negative thoughts to pass by, you may find yourself feeling calmer, kinder, more patient, and even happier in your daily life.
7. Keep a positive outlook
People who prioritize and look for the positive in life tend to be happier, according to a study published in 2014. Seeking happiness has worthwhile benefits like better physical health, greater self-compassion, reduced symptoms of depression, improved relationships, and better job performance.
Choosing pleasant activities and anticipating positive outcomes when making both major and minor life decisions was found to be linked to a greater sense of well-being.
However, this self-directed “architecture of daily happiness” can be a delicate undertaking. No one can reliably expect themselves to be happy all the time or to have a perpetually sunny outlook. It’s not uncommon to experience feelings of unhappiness when you’re constantly monitoring your own emotional state, or when you’re trying to put a positive spin on something upsetting in the present.
For instance, replaying positive memories, rather than analyzing them, can predict greater happiness. And we’re not always accurate at predicting which activities and pursuits will make us feel good, or we may overestimate their positive impact.
But consistently prioritizing and planning for the activities that bring you joy and contentment — whether that’s watching college football, meeting a friend for tea, or taking your dog to the park — make happiness more achievable.
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