Finding happiness can seem hard in the modern world. Our lives are busier than ever; we have less time to relax and enjoy life, and the recent shift in mainstream media becoming increasingly negative only helps to fuel our anxiety and wider unease, leading to greater unhappiness.
Happiness is a state we all want to achieve, but is it even realistically possible to be upbeat and content the whole time? And what exactly is happiness? Would you consider it a way of life, a certain mood, or a state of mind? It's clear happiness levels fluctuate, but is there a way to increase or regulate them?
In fact, as most of us have probably realized by now, there’s no magic way to stay joyful all the time. However, there is some science behind the nature of happiness. Furthermore, once we understand this, we can develop our skills to remain happier and more joyful for longer periods consistently. So, follow these 11 science-backed ways to increase your levels of happiness and you should be able to see a positive difference in your daily well-being.
Science is clear on this one: you can find and maintain happiness through developing quality relationships. We humans are a social species and need regular contact. In fact, loneliness is proven to decrease levels of happiness and recent studies show it can even be as harmful to mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But don’t start adding people on Facebook just yet: simply having many different acquaintances doesn’t lead to a boost in happiness levels: it’s the quality of those relationships that's key.
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In a landmark 75-year, multigenerational study, Robert Waldinger measured happiness levels in people from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. He found that the most joyful were those with high-quality social connections. Lonely people were less happy and, significantly, had poorer health. Having a relationship with a stable and consistently caring person made the difference. So, take time to nurture more meaningful relationships with the people you love while also eliminating toxic friendships.
Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh once wrote, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”’ In fact, studies have shown that smiling and other external expressions work as a continual feedback loop, helping to reinforce our internal emotions.
Psychological scientists from the University of Kansas conducted a study in which they assessed the impact of smiling on one’s physical and mental state, coming to the conclusion that making yourself smile can help lower your heart rate during stressful activities. So, smiling even when we feel down or unhappy can gradually makes us feel happier. Try smiling at strangers, too: studies shows that happiness really is contagious, so you may just get a friendly grin back that lifts you up!
It sounds simple, but take time to think about what you really love doing in life and make an effort to do more of it. Go for simple things you can fit into your schedule on a daily or weekly basis. Maybe it’s being in nature. Perhaps it’s reading, swimming, visiting an art gallery, cooking a delicious meal, or just dancing around the living room being silly. Whatever your daily happy buzz, make time for it in your life and you will find greater happiness.
Better still, if you can find an activity where your mind is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, involvement and enjoyment, you've probably found your flow. This blissful state, where you're totally 'in the zone' creates true moments of joy and helps your forget any worries.
Find your flow: do what you love and find deeper happiness
Meaningfulness is a major happy factor that you can extend into your whole life. Whether it's through gardening, volunteering, or becoming politically active, meaningful activities have been shown to boost people's happiness and reduce stress levels at the same time. Indeed, a study from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that people who took part in leisure activities became 34 per cent less stressed and 18 per cent less sad.
Some people seem to live by the ‘glass half full’ and ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ anecdotes, and for good reason. In fact, you could actually increase your happiness levels by focusing on positive things and reducing negative thinking. Here's a tip: every time you think a negative thought, try and replace it with a positive one. This practice will help to retrain your usual thought patterns to bring more positive thoughts into your life.
“Science shows that writing a daily or weekly gratitude journal can make finding happiness easier.”
Changing your perspective on your situation can help you find happiness. If you’ve made a mistake – however big –focus on your past achievements instead, visualizing your successes. Learn how to stop ruminating and start to live with hope and appreciation.
Be grateful for what you already have: your home, food on the table, clothing, and money to enjoy life. So many millions of people in the world don’t have these things (and, sidebar, many of them actually really happy).
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Science shows that writing a daily or weekly gratitude journal can make finding happiness easier. Indeed, The Journal of Happiness Studies published a study that used gratitude letters to test how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness. The researchers concluded that: “Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a three-week period. Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants' happiness and life satisfaction while decreasing depressive symptoms.” So, put pen to paper before going to bed and be grateful for your day.
Put pen to paper: journalling helps you appreciate life
In our social media savvy world, flaunting your travels, purchases and money on Instagram is all too common. However, comparing yourself to other people will only lead to unhappiness. In fact, data from a 2010 Europe-wide survey of 19,000 people showed that those who compared their incomes to others were less happy with what they had.
And while other people’s lives may appear ‘perfect’, there’s always a hidden story we’re unaware of. Think about it: you probably also only share your best moments on social media, rather than your darkest fears and anxieties. Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on achieving your own dreams and goals. If needed, change your social media habits and/or delete accounts.
Working out is proven to boost levels of happiness. In fact, exercise has such a profound effect on well-being that it’s an effective strategy for tackling depression. In a study cited in The Happiness Advantage – a book by Shawn Achor – three groups of patients treated their depression with medication, exercise, or a combination of both. All three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels in early days, but the later follow-up assessments proved very different.
Six months later the groups were tested to assess their relapse rate. Of those that had taken the medication alone, 38 per cent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group did a little better, with a 31 per cent relapse rate. But with the exercise group, the relapse rate was just nice per cent, suggesting it really did make a difference to happiness. So, make sure you fit some exercise into your daily life. If you’re struggling to find time to get to the gym, you could try some gratitude yoga, or forest bathing and connect with nature.
Wheely good: boost your well-being with biking
If you don’t rest enough, you won’t be able to function at your best. Regular sleep deprivation breaks down our productivity, alertness, mood and – potentially – relationships. Aim for between seven and nine hours kip a night and this will help your happiness levels up.
A 2017 study from the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and MIT Media Lab Affective Computing Group, showed that keeping regular sleep patterns contributes to the happiness and well-being of college students. The study looked at 204 students over one month. The results show that higher sleep regularity was significantly related to higher morning and evening happiness, healthiness and calmness during the week.
“Starting your day with just five to ten minutes of meditation will help you in finding happiness. Try meditating in the morning, shortly after waking.”
“Irregular sleep-wake schedules are common in our modern society," said lead author Akane Sano, PhD. “Our results indicate the importance of sleep regularity, in addition to sleep duration, and that regular sleep is associated with improved well-being.” Follow these 14 science-backed tips if you can't sleep.
Starting your day with just five to 10 minutes of meditation will help you to discover happiness. Try meditating in the morning shortly after waking: the immediate heightened inner clarity and focus it will give you will set you up for the rest of the day.
There are many studies that have shown that mediation can boost happiness levels by reducing stress hormones, shrinking the part of the brain that controls anxiety, and by stopping rumination, amongst other things. And, according to Psychology Today, meditation is the strongest mental practice that has the power to reset your happiness set point, thus turning you into a more joyful person and literally rewiring major areas in your brain so you can be happier.
Feel the focus: discover deeper happiness through meditation
While we can’t control the weather, spending time outside is important for our well-being. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve your happiness. “Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage,” he says. “One study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory.”
Meanwhile, a study from the University of Sussex in the UK corroborated that being outdoors made people happier: "Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.” So, whatever the weather, make sure you get outside of your four walls to boost your well-being.
Finally, one last thing. Science also suggests that some people are simply ‘born happier’. Indeed, we all enter this world with different temperaments and often maintain a certain state of happiness over our lifetimes. In The How of Happiness, researcher Sonja Lyubormisky suggests that only around 40 per cent of our happiness is under our control (recent life events and biological set points predetermine the other 60 per cent.)
So, if accurate, this research means only about half of happiness levels can be controlled at any given moment. If you can incorporate as many of these 11 steps into your daily life, you should be able to increase your happiness levels over a period of time. Seeking out a positive state of mind, practising certain actions, and enhancing quality relationships all help: but these habits require consistent work to be successful and help you find deeper happiness. ●
Calvin is the happiness magazine editor, as well being an artist and lover of travel, swimming, yoga, dancing to house/techno, and all things vintage! Find out more.
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