Recent times have seen a dramatic surge in the number of studies based on ‘positive psychology’ and the science of happiness. As a result, science has guided us to specific ways of thinking and acting that can strongly influence our sense of wellbeing and overall happiness.
Science suggests that there are a number of ways to bring more happiness into your life. It tells us that by shifting the way we lead our daily lives and training our minds to think more positively, we can increase happiness significantly. The main ways to do this include attitude shifts, lifestyle changes, relationships and work, as well as understanding what thoughts and activities can have a negative effect.
The science of happiness tells us that we have the power to control our own happiness. It dismisses the idea that some people are just ‘born unhappy’, noting that genetic predispositions can be offset by the way we live our lives. It encourages individuals and communities to adopt practices that can boost optimism, increase resilience and help unhappy folk live better engaged and more fulfilled lives.
Here’s an overview of what we can learn from science.
What not to do
An easy way to start your journey to increased happiness is to consider what things not to do. Once you’ve eliminated some bad habits, you can make way for new ‘better’ ones. Bad habits for happiness include:
- Holding grudges
- Surrounding yourself with negative people
- Worrying about what others think
- Surviving on less than 7 hours sleep
- Not taking time out for relaxation
- Letting fear hold you back
- Not knowing when to say no
- Ignoring inner guidance
- Giving only to receive
- Fearing criticism
- Putting money and objects first
- Eating poorly
- Speaking badly about others
- Never taking time off work
- Living with regret
- Living in clutter
- Skipping breakfast
- Being sedentary
Now you can work on these new habits:
Psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way, such as emotions, beliefs and behaviours toward a particular object, person, thing or event. Attitudes are often the result of experience or upbringing. While attitudes can have a powerful effect on behaviour, they are not set in stone. The same influences that lead to attitude formation can also create attitude change. Ideas for attitude change…
Gratitude means thankfulness, counting your blessings, noticing simple pleasures, and acknowledging everything you receive. It shifts your mindset from thinking about what your life lacks and instead gets you to look at what you do have. Science tells us that giving thanks makes people happier and more resilient, strengthens relationships, improves health and reduces stress.
A study from the University of California at Davis split a few hundred participants into three different groups of people and asked each to keep a daily diary. Group one could write about anything they want, group two could write only about the bad things that happened to them and group three could only write about the parts of their day they were grateful for. The results clearly showed that those in group three experienced less stress and depression, were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made greater progress toward achieving personal goals.
Subtract something good when playing ‘what if’
It’s very easy to think about the things that never happened or the things that you wish would happen, but what about the things that have come into your life? Mentally subtract something or someone who’s special to you and you’ll suddenly realise how lucky you are. Instead of pining for something you want, enjoy what you have. Play ‘What if this person wasn’t around?’.
A 2010 study showed that our ability to simulate alternate realities can come in really handy on the quest to happiness. This is especially true when using counterfactuals to notice positive aspects to the true chain of events, such as ‘If I had have got that job, I wouldn’t still be in Sydney and I wouldn’t have met my husband’.
Embrace the new
We’re somehow taught to feel cautious of anything new, but it’s new experiences and new beginnings that keep us alive! A study by Winston-Salem State University looked at 30,000 event memories and over 500 diaries and determined that those who took part in a range of activities were far more likely to retain positive emotions than those who stuck to the same things all the time. Stop putting things off due to fear and start living!
See the good
At the end of each day, list three good things that happened. They don’t have to be amazing, just three things that make you feel happy. You can also think about why they happened.
A 2005 study showed that those who carried out this exercise for six months saw their happiness increase and any depressive symptoms decreased.
Travel back in time
A 2010 study showed that mind-wandering in a positive way can be beneficial for mental health. It suggested that travelling back to a time or moment where you felt intensely happy can fill you with thoughts of love, success, friendship and worth.
It’s common knowledge that setting life goals can help you get to where you want to be faster, but did you know that setting goals and planning things in advance can greatly improve your happiness levels? Think back to life as a kid and the wait for Santa to arrive. How excited and happy did the idea of his visit make you? A 2007 study showed that not only did making plans lead to excited anticipation, it created moments to enjoy looking back on.
There’s no question about it, ditching bad habits and adopting good ones presents challenges. That’s not to say that it can’t be done, however. The impact of lifestyle changes has been studied extensively, and a Welsh study spanning 35 years determined that with as little as five positive lifestyle changes, you can feel happier than ever before.
Ideas for lifestyle changes...
Get more exercise
Getting more exercise doesn’t have to mean enrolling in the next upcoming marathon, it simply means extending your walk by ten minutes, parking the car further from the shops and using the stairs instead of the lift. Besides, according to bestselling author Gretchen Reynolds, the highest level of happiness and health benefits come from the first 20 minutes of exercise.
Exercise has a clear link to good mental health and a study by the University of Bristol showed that those who exercise 20 minutes of a morning find themselves in a significantly better mood than on non-exercise days. You can enhance this further by exercising to your favourite music!
Listen to music
Speaking of your favourite music, studies have shown that listening to music on a regular basis can not only make you feel happier, but can improve your relationships, your career and overall health.
A University of Missouri study showed that actively listening to upbeat songs can greatly improve mood, but interestingly reported that background music has little or no effect. To get the benefits of music, you must first think about listening to an upbeat song and then listen to the words and rhythm.
Get more sleep
If you were told that you could take one pill to improve your memory and ability to concentrate, strengthen your immunity, decrease your risk of accidents and increase overall happiness, would you take it? Think of sleep as a little happy pill. Hundreds of studies show that just one night’s sleep can massively impact your mood the following day. Get enough of it and you’ll be feeling great - skip it and you’ll be torture to be around. Studies have shown that lack of sleep makes us more susceptible to negative emotions like fear and anger.
A University of Queensland study suggests that eating about five fruits and five vegetables per day makes us the happiest we can be. The study followed 12,000 households over 14 years and determined that the effects were particularly strong in women.
When you eat a healthy diet, your body reaps the benefits. Not only do vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients keep your body fueled and healthy, carbohydrates and protein can help you to sleep. Add to that the notion of taking care of yourself and you’re all set for the makings of a happy life.
Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, and has long been touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span. In a study by Massachusetts General Hospital, participants stress levels shrank and their compassion and self awareness grew after 16 weeks of mindfulness meditation.
Surround yourself with nice aromas
Mood mapping is the science that measures the mood associations of aromas, and according researchers at International Flavors and Fragrances, the citrus scent is overwhelmingly associated with happiness and stimulation, while vanilla represents happiness and relaxation.
As well as perfume scents, aromatherapy can work wonders for keeping happiness in the air, using essential oils like orange blossom, lavender and real vanilla.
Spend more time outdoors
A UK study from the University of Sussex found that being outdoors, especially near the ocean, is a key factor in finding happiness. It showed that spending as little as 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory. To further this, the American Meteorological Society published a paper that suggested happiness is maximised at 13.9 degrees.
Relationships play a vital role in your overall happiness and without nurturing them, you can be left feeling alone and miserable. Nurturing your existing relationships and finding new ones can be as easy as these suggestions:
Spend money on others
Giving to others makes you feel good about yourself, so it makes sense that giving gifts can play a part in your happiness. Studies tell us this is most likely because we feel a sense of worth when we can reach out to someone and that seeing someone smile gives us a sense of achievement.
Make more connections
According to a study by Diener & Diener, happier people tend to have good families, friends and supportive relationships. Surrounding yourself with people is a proven way to bring more happiness into your life. But it’s not enough to just be in the room with a person. You must truly connect with them for it to impact your wellbeing.
Paul Zak, a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, has found that at least 8 hugs per day can make you feel happier and more connected. When we hug, the levels of neurotransmitter oxytocin (the love hormone) rise significantly and even a simple pat on the back can be processed in the ‘reward centre’ part of your nervous system.
Surround yourself with happy people
Who you hang around with can definitely influence your mood and when that person is a grump, you’re likely to feel grumpy too. Surrounding yourself with joyful, vibrant and kind people will help you stay that way yourself and in turn, help others to feel happy. A bad mood can be contagious, but so too can a happy mood.
Changing your work habits to create more happiness is not quite as easy as making changes to your mindset, lifestyle and relationships. But that’s not to say it shouldn’t be dealt with. How we view our working life can play a big role in our overall happiness. If work’s really getting you down, it might be time to review.
Some changes to consider include:
Love what you do
Ideally, where you go to work each day should be a place where you really want to be. Philosopher Dan Dennett once said, “Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.” While you don’t have to dedicate your entire being to your cause, incorporating it into your work is an ideal scenario.
If you really can’t find love in your work, look for ways around it, like stepping out during lunch to enjoy the nearby park or making friends with your colleagues.
Do something with meaning
Studies have shown that understanding why your work role is important can help you find happiness in your job. All people long for a feeling of worth and when you can see how you make a difference, be it environmentally, emotionally or in the corporate world, you feel a sense of meaning in your life.
Another way to do something with meaning is to volunteer, which not only work towards helping others, but increases self-confidence and combats depression. Researchers at the London School of Economics found that those who volunteer monthly are 7% more likely to be happy, while weekly volunteers are 16% more likely to be happy.
Move closer to work
Many people travel twice a day, five days a week to get to and from work and when that journey involves long distances or heavy traffic, it can be torture. Having a long commute is something people often fail to realise is heavily impacting their happiness. Compensations such as a big house in the ‘burbs are only temporary and the closer you are to work, the happier you’ll be.
Tips for making healthy habits stick
Now you’ve got rid of those bad habits and have a clear understanding of what’s mentally healthy for you, you’ll want to look at strategies for leaving those old habits behind and making these new habits stick. Ideas include:
Remind yourself of why
Training yourself to go to bed an hour earlier can be tricky, especially when you’re focusing on the effect instead of the issue. Telling yourself, “But I’ll lie in bed for ages before I’m tired” won’t help. Reminding yourself of how more refreshed and alert you’ll feel in the morning, however, will.
Pick habits that reinforce each other
Our habits are not standalone; they are interlinked. To help cultivate a new habit, try to tie another one into it. An example of this could be combining a meditation period with an earlier bedtime.
Be scheduled for a while
It won’t be long before your body and mind adjusts to the new changes, but in the meantime, work by a schedule or via notes. Each night, check off your list of changes and make a note of all the things you need to do the following day.
Engagement can occur on two levels - ‘active engagement’ and ‘passive engagement’. Active engagement is when you bring others into your changes plan and encourage them to actively work alongside you by making the changes themselves. Passive engagement is when you verbally announce to them your plans. Both forms support habit change.
Commit to small blocks
Instead of overwhelming yourself by saying, “This is the way I must behave forever from now on”, try committing to a fortnight or a month. Once you’ve made it through the initial conditioning round, it’s easier to sustain.
Consistency is critical if you want a habit to stick and during your conditioning period, your new habits should be performed every day.
Make one change at a time
There’s nothing saying that you have to change your life in one day, so start simple. Take your time and focus on one habit. Once you’ve got it locked in as habit, start on the next.
Want to go to bed earlier? Take the TV out of the bedroom. Want to eat healthier? Remove the chocolate and chips from the cupboard. Without temptations, there’s little else you can do but be good.
So there you have it - simple changes to bring more happiness into your life. The question is, when will you make the change?