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10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science

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10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier,
Backed By Science

We are all in search of happiness it seems. For me I prefer to
look at it as the search for peace and joy in life as I find
happiness can be too conditional and anytime we have to look
for or chase something we are looking outside of us. Surely
some of this is just semantics but for lack of a better word,
happiness in my view is a state of being that comes from within
and isn’t fickle.

I came across this great article about the science of happiness
and how researchers have been able to discover that various
simple things that we can adjust in our daily lives can bring
more happiness to our state of being. Again I believe happiness
is a long term thing, not short spurts of emotion that we
chase, but something that is born within and sustained
naturally in our being.

1. Exercise more – 7 minutes might be enough

You might have seen
some talk recently about the scientific 7 minute workout

mentioned in The New York Times. So if you thought exercise was
something you didn’t have time for, maybe you can fit it in
after all.

Exercise has such a profound effect on our happiness and
well-being that it’s actually been proven to be an effective
strategy for overcoming depression. In a study cited in Shawn
Achor’s book,
The Happiness Advantage,
three groups of patients treated their depression with either
medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results
of this study really surprised me. Although all three groups
experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels to
begin with, the follow-up assessments proved to be radically

The groups were then tested six months later to assess their
relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38
percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the
combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31
percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from
the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9

You don’t have to be depressed to gain benefit from exercise,
though. It can help you to relax, increase your brain power and
even improve your body image, even if you don’t lose any

study in the Journal of Health Psychology
found that people
who exercised felt better about their bodies, even when they
saw no physical changes:

Body weight, shape and body image were assessed in 16 males
and 18 females before and after both 6 × 40 mins exercise and
6 × 40 mins reading. Over both conditions, body weight and
shape did not change. Various aspects of body image, however,
improved after exercise compared to before.

We’ve explored
exercise in depth before
, and looked at what it does to our
brains, such as releasing proteins and endorphins that make us
feel happier, as you can see in the image below.

2. Sleep more – you’ll be less sensitive to negative

We know that
sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair
, and that it helps us focus and be more
productive. It turns out, it’s also important for our

, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how
sleep affects our positivity:

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or
neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep
deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala.
The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall
pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. In
one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students
tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of
the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But
they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or
neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

The BPS Research Digest explores
another study
that proves sleep affects our sensitivity to
negative emotions. Using a facial recognition task over the
course of a day, the researchers studied how sensitive
participants were to positive and negative emotions. Those who
worked through the afternoon without taking a nap became more
sensitive late in the day to negative emotions like fear and

Using a face recognition task, here we demonstrate an
amplified reactivity to anger and fear emotions across the
day, without sleep. However, an intervening nap blocked and
even reversed this negative emotional reactivity to anger and
fear while conversely enhancing ratings of positive (happy)

Of course, how well (and how long) you sleep will probably
affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a
difference to your whole day. Especially this graph showing how
your brain activity decreases is a great insight about how
important enough sleep is for productivity and happiness:

Another study
tested how employees’ moods when they started
work in the morning affected their work day.

Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in
tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early
mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how
they reacted to customers’ moods.

And most importantly to managers, employee mood had a clear
impact on performance, including both how much work employees
did and how well they did it.

Sleep is another topic we’ve looked into before, exploring

how much sleep we really need to be productive

3. Move closer to work – a short commute is worth more
than a big house

Our commute to the office can have a surprisingly powerful
impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice
a day, five days a week, makes it unsurprising that its effect
would build up over time and make us less and less happy.

According to The Art of Manliness, having a long commute is
something we often fail to realize will affect us so

… while many voluntary conditions don’t affect our happiness
in the long-term because we acclimate to them, people never
get accustomed to their daily slog to work because sometimes
the traffic is awful and sometimes it’s not. Or as Harvard
psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a
different kind of hell every day.”

We tend to try to compensate for this by having a bigger house
or a better job, but these compensations just don’t work:

Two Swiss economists who studied the effect of commuting on
happiness found that such factors could not make up for the
misery created by a long commute.

4. Spend time with friends and family – don’t regret it
on your deathbed

Staying in touch with friends and family is one of the

top five regrets of the dying
. If you want more evidence
that it’s beneficial for you, I’ve found some research that
proves it can make you happier right now.

Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our
happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that
time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to
how happy we feel, generally.

I love the way
Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert
explains it:

We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have
friends and almost all the other things we think make us
happy are actually just ways of getting more family and

George Vaillant is the director of a 72-year study of the lives
of 268 men.

In an interview in the March 2008 newsletter to the Grant
Study subjects, Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned
from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response: “That the
only thing that really matters in life are your relationships
to other people.”

He shared insights of the study with Joshua Wolf Shenk at

The Atlantic
on how the men’s social connections made a
difference to their overall happiness:

The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted
late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except
defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially
powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65
had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

In fact, a study published in the
Journal of Socio-Economics
states than your relationships
are worth more than $100,000:

Using the British Household Panel Survey, I find that an
increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to
an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction. Actual
changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little

I think that last line is especially fascinating: Actual
changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little
happiness. So we could increase our annual income by hundreds
of thousands of dollars and still not be as happy as if we
increased the strength of our social relationships.

The Terman study, which is covered in
The Longevity Project
, found that relationships and how we
help others were important factors in living long, happy

We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that
he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a
hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt
very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the

Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network
size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from
helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors,
advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.

5. Go outside – happiness is maximized at 13.9°C

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; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside
in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened
thinking and improved working memory…

This is pretty good news for those of us who are worried about
fitting new habits into our already-busy schedules. Twenty
minutes are a short enough time to spend outside that you could
fit it into your commute or even your lunch break.

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A UK study from the
University of Sussex
also found 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.

American Meteorological Society
published research in 2011
that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our
happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even
the average temperature over the course of a day. It also found
that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C, so keep an eye on the
weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of
fresh air.

The connection between
productivity and temperature is another topic we’ve talked
about more here
. It’s fascinating what a small change in
temperature can do.

6. Help others – 100 hours a year is the magical

One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice I found is
that to make yourself feel happier, you should help others. In
fact, 100 hours per year (or two hours per week) is the

optimal time we should dedicate to helping others
in order
to enrich our lives.

If we go back to
Shawn Achor’s book
again, he says this about helping

…when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about
their recent purchases, they found that money spent on
activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far
more pleasure than material purchases like shoes,
televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other
people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness.

The Journal of Happiness Studies
published a study
that explored this very topic:

Participants recalled a previous purchase made for either
themselves or someone else and then reported their happiness.
Afterward, participants chose whether to spend a monetary
windfall on themselves or someone else. Participants
assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported
feeling significantly happier
immediately after this
recollection; most importantly, the happier participants
felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall
on someone else
in the near future.

So spending money on other people makes us happier than buying
stuff for ourselves. What about spending our time on other
people? A
study of volunteering in Germany
explored how volunteers
were affected when their opportunities to help others were
taken away:

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the
German reunion, the first wave of data of the GSOEP was
collected in East Germany. Volunteering was still widespread.
Due to the shock of the reunion, a large portion of the
infrastructure of volunteering (e.g. sports clubs associated
with firms) collapsed and people randomly lost their
opportunities for volunteering. Based on a comparison of the
change in subjective well-being of these people and of people
from the control group who had no change in their volunteer
status, the hypothesis is supported that volunteering is
rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.

In his book
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and
, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin
Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own

…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the
single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any
exercise we have tested.

7. Practice smiling – it can alleviate pain

Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective
when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to

this study

A new study led by a Michigan State University business
scholar suggests customer-service workers who fake smile
throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work,
affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of
cultivating positive thoughts – such as a tropical vacation
or a child’s recital – improve their mood and withdraw less.

Of course it’s important to
practice “real smiles”
where you use your eye sockets. It’s
very easy to spot the difference:

According to

can improve our attention and help us perform
better on cognitive tasks:

Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our
attentional flexibility and our ability to think
holistically. When this idea was tested by Johnson et al.
(2010), the results showed that participants who smiled
performed better on attentional tasks which required seeing
the whole forest rather than just the trees.

A smile is also a good way to alleviate some of the pain we
feel in troubling circumstances:

Smiling is one way to reduce the distress caused by an
upsetting situation. Psychologists call this the facial
feedback hypothesis. Even forcing a smile when we don’t feel
like it is enough to lift our mood slightly (this is one
example of embodied cognition).

One of our previous posts goes into even more detail about

the science of smiling

8. Plan a trip – but don’t take one

As opposed to actually taking a holiday, it seems that planning
a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness.
A study published in the journal,
Applied Research in Quality of Life
showed that the highest
spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation
as employees enjoyed the sense of anticipation:

In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted
happiness for eight weeks.

After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to
baseline levels for most people.

Shawn Achor has some info for us on this point, as well:

One study found that people who just thought about
watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin
levels by 27 percent.

If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even
a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even
if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you
need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.

9. Meditate – rewire your brain for happiness

Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving
focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep
you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for
improving your happiness

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General
Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and
after they participated in an eight-week course in
mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January
issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that
after completing the course, parts of the participants’
brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew,
and parts associated with stress shrank.

Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s
been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a
happier life. I believe that this graphic explains it the best:

According to Shawn Achor, meditation can actually make you
happier long-term:

Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we
experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as
heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows
that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to
raise levels of happiness.

The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through
mediation is most surprising to me and somewhat reassuring that
however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.

We’ve explored the
topic of meditation and it’s effects on the brain in-depth
. It’s definitely mind-blowing what this can do to

10. Practice gratitude – increase both happiness and life

This is a seemingly simple strategy, but I’ve personally found
it to make a huge difference to my outlook. There are lots of
ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things
you’re grateful for,
sharing three good things that happen each day
with a
friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show
gratitude when others help you.

an experiment
where some participants took note of things
they were grateful for each day, their moods were improved just
from this simple practice:

The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being
across several, though not all, of the outcome measures
across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The
effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust
finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings
may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

The Journal of Happiness studies
published a study
that used letters of gratitude to test
how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness:

Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three
letters of gratitude over a 3 week period.

Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased
participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while
decreasing depressive symptoms.

Quick last fact: Getting older will make yourself

As a final point, it’s interesting to note that as we get
older, particularly past middle age, we tend to
grow happier naturally
. There’s still some debate over why
this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas:

Researchers, including the authors, have found that older
people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on
and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones

Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek
out situations that will lift their moods — for instance,
pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might
bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults
learn to let go of loss and disappointment over un-achieved
goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.

So if you thought being old would make you miserable, rest
assured that it’s likely you’ll develop a more positive outlook
than you probably have now.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments





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