Everyone wants to be happier. But, in order to become happier most people try to change their life circumstances (make more money, get married, etc.) Unfortunately, happiness researchers have found that this strategy isn’t very effective. Research shows that we have essentially no control over roughly 50% of our happiness levels. 10% of happiness is determined by life circumstances (money, marriage, etc.) while 40% is determined by daily activities (how you think and what you do) (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). So, your best bet is to focus on daily activities (which are also easier to do!). So, here are 10 science-backed ways to become happier:
1. Imagine your best possible self
A study in 2001 asked participants to visualize their best possible self for 4 consecutive days (King 2001). It involves imagining what their life would look like in the future if everything turned out as well as possible. So, take a few minutes a night to image your best possible self. Think of yourself 1, 5 and 20 years from now. Think about everything from your career to your romantic life.
2. 3 good things
Another study asked participants to write about 3 good things that happened to them and why every night for a week (Seligman & Steen 2005). The results were impressive. Happiness improved and continued to increase in the participants over time. Happiness increased by 2% after 1 week, by 5% after 1 month, and by 9% after 6 months. Participants noticed that after about 3 or 4 days of doing the exercise, they began to look for positive things throughout the day that they could write about. So, obviously the exercise had a profound impact on how they saw the world.
3. Express gratitude
Another study divided participants into three groups: one wrote down 5 things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks; another group wrote down 5 hassles; a third wrote down 5 events. The researchers found that the gratitude group was 25% happier than the hassles group (what most people do) (Emmons & McCullough 2003). Another study found that expressing gratitude worked better when performed once a week versus 3x times a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). So pick one day each week (maybe Sunday) and write down 5 things you’re grateful for.
4. Perform random acts of kindness
People who perform 5 random acts of kindness a week are significantly happier than those who don’t. Interestingly, those who perform the random acts of kindness on a single day are happier than those who spread the acts out over the course of a week (Lyubomirsky & Sheldon 2005). So pick a day and perform 5 random acts of kindness (they don’t have to necessarily be big).
5. Use your signature strengths
One study had participants take an online test to identify their top 5 “Signature Strengths.” Participants were instructed to use one of these strengths in a new and different way, every day for a week. The researchers found that using signature strengths caused happiness to increase, and remain at an elevated level at the 1 month, 3 month and 6 month follow ups (Seligman 2005). To get started, take the “VIA Survey of Character Strengths” on this page from the University of Pennsylvania (takes 20-30 minutes). If you’re pressed for time, you can take the “Brief Strengths Test” on the same page (takes < 5 minutes).
6. Nurture relationships
Spending more time with friends and family is strongly associated with happiness (Tkach & Lyubomirsky 2006). One longitudinal study, spanning over 75 years, found that warmth of relationships was the greatest predictor of happiness. Having deeper conversations is one way to build stronger, warmer relationships. So commit more time each week to strengthening your relationships.
7. Eat well
Studies show that eating a Mediterranean diet increase positive affect and reduces negative affect. Specifically, fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and legumes increased positive affect, while sweets/ dessert, soda and fast food made decreased positive affect. Fruits, vegetables and nuts decreased negative affect, while sweets/deserts, fast food (for women only), and red meat (for women only) increased negative affect (Ford & Jaceldo-Siegl 2013).
People who exercise are happier than those who don’t (Stubbe & de Moor 2007). One meta-analysis looked at 105 studies that analyzed the effect of exercise on happiness. They found that the ideal program was low intensity exercise for 30-35 minutes on 3-5 days a week lasting for at least 10 weeks (Reed & Buck 2009). Another study found that strength training at a low intensity (light or no weights) with longer rest periods led to the greatest improvement in happiness over the control group (Bibeau & Moore 2010).
9. Spend money on experiences, not things
People gain more happiness from spending money on experiences than spending money on material things (Van Boven & Gilovich 2003). Spending money on others, rather than yourself, has also been shown to increases happiness. Furthermore, spending money on strong-ties (close friends and family) increases happiness more than spending it on weak social ties (Aknin & Sandstrom 2011).
10. Always have something to look forward to
A final study asked participants to think about their Thanksgiving holiday both 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after. They were specifically asked to predict or remember their emotional reactions to the holiday. The researchers found that participants experienced significantly more intense positive emotions when anticipating Thanksgiving than when reminiscing about it (Van Boven & Leaf 2007). So, always have something to look forward to!
Aknin LB, Sandstrom GM, Dunn EW, Norton MI (2011) It’s the Recipient That Counts: Spending Money on Strong Social Ties Leads to Greater Happiness than Spending on Weak Social Ties. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17018. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017018.
Bibeau, Wendy S., et al. “Effects of acute resistance training of different intensities and rest periods on anxiety and affect.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.8 (2010): 2184-2191.
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Van Boven, Leaf; Gilovich, Thomas. To Do or to Have? That Is the Question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 85(6), Dec 2003, 1193-1202.