5 Ways To Stay Happy Supported By Science
Published: May 16, 2015
Pop quiz: Without any limitations, what one thing would make you truly happy right now?
Fame? Unlimited riches? Unparalleled beauty? Or maybe success?
Common wisdom tells us that these are the key elements of a happy life. By this logic, Hollywood celebrities should be the happiest people on earth. But a quick look at those with lives of abundance reveals an equally staggering level of misery; failed marriages, drug problems, and worse.
Obviously there is more to happiness than meets the eye. But what can be done? Science to the rescue! Here are five ways to stay happy backed by science:
What goes up, must come down?
Scientists have taken a particular interest in happiness in recent years. One of the earliest revelations? Happiness doesn’t last.
Well, isn’t that depressing.
The fancy term scientists use is called hedonic adaptation. In a study in the 1970s, researchers examined the happiness of lottery winners. Surprisingly, a year after their windfall, their level of happiness was no greater than non-winners. People seem to adapt quickly to good fortune.
Scientists theorize that every person has a genetic “happiness set point”. Studies of twins have supported this and suggest that 50% of a person’s happiness level is determined from birth. Good fortune brings a temporary bump to our level of happiness, but we quickly relapse to our baseline level.
Experimental psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has taken particular interest in whether happiness can be increased beyond this set point. In an article for Scientific American, she describes the happiness breakdown revealed by her research:
- 10% of happiness is related to circumstances (pay raises, buying a new car, etc.)
- 50% is controlled from birth (the set point)
- 40% is previously unexplained
Her theory? Aside from error, this 40% must be "intentional activity" that counteracts hedonic adaptation.
Dr. Lyubomirsky is on to something. Other scientific studies have revealed a number of intentional activities that bump up our happiness set points, including:
- Exercise Can Change Your Life
You know that great feeling you get after a good workout? It turns out sweat may be a key to happiness.
Researchers have discovered a significant association between happiness and exercise. A number of factors may be at play, including the release of endorphins, distraction from negative emotions and the social interaction that occurs when playing sports.
Exercise has been investigated as a potential treatment for depression. A study by Dr. Andrea Dunn conducted at the Cooper Research Institute found that mildly to moderately depressed people who exercised for 3 hours per week reduced their symptoms by 47%, which is as effective as antidepressants.
Time to dust off that treadmill! Or even better, set up a regular walking schedule and get outside.
Strive To Find & Attain ‘Flow’
Have you ever been so immersed in something that you lose track of time? Psychologists refer to this concept as “flow”. Interestingly, flow is described as a total lack of self-consciousness and absence of emotion.
Much of the research on flow was pioneered by Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This article provides a summary of some of his major findings. For flow to occur, the activity must:
- Be voluntary
- Be enjoyable
- Be sufficiently challenging
- Have clear goals for success
- Give you a feeling of control
- Give immediate feedback
In one particular study, Csikszentmihalyi studied happiness levels in teenagers who sought out high-flow and low-flow activities. High-flow teens engaged in “active leisure” activities that required some level of effort (e.g. hobbies, sports, doing homework) while low-flow teens engaged in more passive forms of entertainment (video games, TV, socializing).
While the high-flow kids viewed their low-flow counterparts as having more fun, the study revealed the high-flow teens had higher levels of long term happiness, as well as better success overall.
Knowing this, why do so many of us prefer to indulge in low-flow activities? In short, because they’re easy. Achieving flow takes work, but the benefits pay off in spades.
Show Others That You Care
Science has shown that caring for others is an essential component to happiness. Altruistic acts like volunteering, sharing, and helping others are directly related to being happier.
In a 2008 study published in the American Journal for Occupational Therapy, Yuen et al. investigated the effects of volunteering on long term care residents. The researchers randomly assigned their participants into two groups; one group volunteered their time for three months while the control group did not.
It was found that the volunteering group scored higher on mental well-being at the end of the trial, and the benefits were measurable for months after the end of the study.
But is altruistic behaviour learned, or intrinsic to humans? Several child studies have shown that children as young as 18 months will assist others in need. This behaviour was not caused by a desire to please adults, and many of the actions involved giving their own treats to others (that’s a pretty big deal for a toddler!)
This commercial from Thailand is a great illustration of the personal benefits of altruism, it’s really worth a watch.
As any yogi knows, mindful meditation has many benefits, such as improving focus, attention, and stress levels. It turns out it is also another important piece of the happiness puzzle.
In a 2011 study published in the journal of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Hölzel et al. investigated what impact mindful meditation had on the brains of participants. One group of participants took part in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and practiced daily meditation, while the control group did not participate.
After the 8 week study period, MRI scans revealed increased grey matter density in brain structures responsible for compassion, learning, self-awareness, and self-reflection. There was also a decrease in areas responsible for stress and anxiety. The control group, who did not meditate, saw no brain changes. This study provides evidence that mindfulness can rewire our brains.
Sounds good. If you’ve never meditated before, this article provides a nice introduction.
Show Gratitude Daily
If an alien species was to observe the human race, they’d probably think one of our favourite pastimes is to gripe about what is wrong in our lives. Lousy weather. High taxes. Unending inconvenience.
The polar opposite of this is gratitude. When we express gratitude, we are actually widening our point of view beyond the self and concentrating on our connection to everything and everyone else.
In a 2005 study, Seligman, Steen and Peterson compared two groups of participants. The first group were asked to reflect on their strengths and reflect on a time in their lives when they were at their best. The second group engaged in a “gratitude visit”. These individuals were instructed to write a letter to someone who played an important part in their life that they hadn’t properly thanked and express their gratitude. Then, the participants would personally deliver the letter and discuss the letter with the recipient.
When the researchers compared happiness levels in the two groups, those in the gratitude group showed higher levels of happiness one month after the study.
Soul Pancake produced a great little video that closely replicates the methodology of this study and provides an excellent illustration of gratitude in action. Take a look!
I’m Feeling Better Already
The next time you’re feeling blue, remember – we are not doomed to misery. With a little time and effort, everyone can be happier.
What do you do to stay happy? Tell us by leaving a comment below.