There are plenty of reasons to seek happiness. Research has shown that arthritis patients who have a “positive affect” are able to take more daily steps than their unhappy counterparts. Merry people tend to avoid getting sick during flu season, and they even live longer. Plus, experiencing joy just feels good.
So, here are 46 small, surprising ways to feel happier.
According to a 2014 study in Psychological Science, writing in a journal can make people happy, even if the entries are mundane. We tend to forget the little things in life that bring us pleasure, but documenting those ordinary moments allows us to rediscover them.
“This is about having some kind of goal or principle that orients your life and moves you into the future,” says journalist and author Emily Esfahani Smith. It could be a big goal, like getting involved in politics, or a more personal option, like being a good parent. Either way, it should be one that motivates you and organises the activities of your day around something greater than yourself.
Holding a grudge is stressful and can make you feel angry, sad, anxious and out of control. But forgiving someone who has hurt you doesn’t cause negative emotions at all.
According to Neil Pasricha, the author of seven books on happiness (including the upcoming You Are Awesome), reading 20 pages of a novel every day will make you happier. “Literary fiction is shown to increase brain activity and improve our capacity for empathy, compassion and understanding,” he says. He recommends paper books to reduce screen time.
“It’s important to acknowledge that unhappiness is part of the human experience,” says Meik Wiking, the author of several books on happiness, including the upcoming The Art of Making Memories. “We will struggle; we will be heartbroken; we will experience setbacks – overcoming them is what makes us both human and happy.”
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Upside of Stress, says thinking about anxiety-inducing situations as challenges instead of threats can minimise the negative impact of stress on your health and reduce your risk of, for instance, cardiovascular disease.
But here’s the catch: it has to be something you’re not good at – say, stand-up comedy, making chocolate or maybe balloon animals? That’s because we’re happier when we’re learning.
According to Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, strong relationships are key to happiness. Whether they’re romantic partners, friends, children or co-workers, other people help “remind us of what’s important in life and help us weather the ups and downs of personal and political problems,” he says. “They usually cannot solve these problems, but they can provide an emotional buffer that softens the impact of real-world issues.”
“We found that when introverted people reported that they were acting outgoing, those tended to be their happier moments,” says John Zelenski, a psychology professor. That means talking to strangers on the bus or chatting with a barista can boost people’s happiness, even if they’re naturally solitary types.
Owning a pet can make you happier. A recent Washington State University study found that just 10 minutes of petting a furry friend resulted in reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And dogs might have an edge over cats – in a recent survey, 36 per cent of dog owners rated themselves as “very happy” compared to only 18 per cent of cat owners.
A 2019 psychology study concluded that dads are happier than mums, perhaps because they were more likely to report that they were playing with their kids rather than doing housework. The lesson? Split child-care – and household tasks – equally.
According to the psychology professor Daniel L. Wann, who literally wrote the book on sport fandom – that would be Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom – rooting for a team leads to social connections, which provide a buffer against depression and alienation as well as increasing self-esteem and self-worth. But choose wisely: losing teams don’t offer the same benefits.
If you’re religious, going to church, temple or mosque will make you happier. A recent Pew Research Centre survey of 24 countries found that in Australia, for example, 45 per cent of actively religious people said they were very happy, compared to 32 per cent of inactively religious people and 33 per cent of unaffiliated people.
Joining a choir can bring you joy, thanks to the combination of singing and a group dynamic. Bonus: you don’t have to be a good singer to reap the benefits.
Being outside can boost your mood. In a study led by Zelenski, people who spent 15 minutes outdoors reported about 60 per cent more positive emotions than those who stayed inside. “The idea is that humans evolved in nature, so we have some preference and appreciation for healthy environments.” And while the effects aren’t quite as strong, simply watching a nature documentary will do in a pinch.
Esfahani Smith says nature provides transcendent moments: “[When] you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality.” In 2015, researchers asked 90 students to look up at 60-metre-tall eucalyptus trees for one minute. After, the subjects reported feeling less self-centred, and they behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone.
A 2015 poll found that if you’re sleeping less than six hours per night, you’re about 30 per cent less happy than people who get between seven-and-a-half and nine hours of shut-eye.
It may not feel that way while we’re doing it, but exercise makes us happier. Several studies have found that people who work out for at least 30 minutes five times per week were at least 30 per cent more likely to consider themselves happy than people who never exercised. And it may not even take that much; other studies found that just 10 minutes of exercise per day can make you more cheerful.
According to a 2017 study published in the journal Biofeedback, people who slouched while walking felt more depressed – but when they stood in a more upright position, they reported a significant bump in their outlook and energy levels.
According to a new survey conducted by Leger, 61 per cent of respondents reported high happiness levels after age 55. This lines up with previous research that found that people tend to experience their highest levels of happiness in youth and old age, because mid-life is a stressful life stage.
A 2015 Dutch study found that people who take probiotic supplements once a day for four weeks are happier than those who don’t. At the end of the four weeks, participants were less likely to focus on current bad feelings and past negative experiences.
Eating lots of fruits and veggies can “enhance mental well-being,” according to a 2019 study in Social Science & Medicine. Aim for 10.5 portions per day – where a portion equals a cup of raw vegetables or fruits, or half a cup of cooked veggies.
Yes, a pool counts. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, water makes people feel positive emotions. And if you need motivation to book a beach vacation, a 2016 study found that ocean views are linked to lower levels of psychological distress.
A recent Canadian survey found that the happiest quintile of respondents live in places with low population density, while the happiest towns were all in rural locations.
A home in the ’burbs can make us happy. According to a 2014 poll, 84 per cent of suburbanites were satisfied with the community where they lived, versus 75 per cent of city dwellers and 78 per cent of rural residents.
Regardless of the size of your city, you’re likely to be happier if you live somewhere with sidewalks and bike paths – so long as you use them, of course.
Researchers in the United Kingdom found that adding just 20 minutes to your daily commute has the same negative impact on life satisfaction as a monthly pay cut of $550.
Of course, the best commute isn’t just short, it’s walkable. According to recent research by McGill University, pedestrians are the happiest, with 85 per cent saying they’re satisfied with their commute.
Research has shown that living at the same address for more than five years can increase people’s happiness, likely because they’re more immersed in their community and have a greater sense of belonging.
If you do live in the city, aim for a neighbourhood with lots of trees. A 2015 study showed that people who live on a block with 10 or more trees had a better perception of their own health. In fact, it was comparable to making $10,000 more a year or being seven years younger.
According to a 2017 study, when people spent money on things that saved them time, they reported greater life satisfaction. So hire a housekeeper and shop at the grocery store that’s closest to home, even if it’s a bit more expensive.
According to a 2008 study from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, people who spent money on others were happier than those who spent money on themselves. The study provided participants with a windfall of either $5 or $20 to spend on themselves or on a gift or charitable donation; the more generous group reported higher levels of happiness, regardless of how much money they received.
If you’re looking for lasting happiness, spend your discretionary income on experiences. According to Waldinger, buying material items “makes us less happy for less time than using that money to buy experiences, especially those with other people, [such as] vacations or outings with family and friends.”
Don’t get too hung up on home ownership. A preliminary paper presented at the 2018 American Economic Association conference says people tend to overestimate how happy home ownership will actually make them – and while they do tend to report higher life satisfaction right after buying a home, the effects diminish over time.
What does matter when it comes to the roof over your head? How much it costs you. The happiest people spend less than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
It turns out, Wednesdays – not Mondays – are the worst day of the week, according to data scientists who studied patterns of web-based messages. The use of positive words peaks on Sunday, then steadily declines to its lowest point on Wednesday before rising again. To offset the impact, plan something nice for hump day.
Cutting back on screen time makes for happier people. In one recent study of teens, just one hour of screen time a day was correlated with greater unhappiness, and as screen time increased, happiness continued to drop. These findings likely apply to adults, too. Pasricha says, “Mobile phones are… totally addictive comparison machines that hijack our brains and turn us into anxiety-riddled, stress-addled, thin-skinned versions of our best selves.”
Eat at home. (Bonus points if it’s healthy food.) A 2011 study of 160 women found they felt more intense positive emotions and fewer intense negative emotions after a meal prepared at home. Although going to a restaurant feels like a treat, it’s easier to make healthier choices at home, which triggers good feelings – which, in turn, encouraged them to keep making healthy choices.
In his book, The Upward Spiral, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains how wearing sunglasses can trick us into feeling happier. When it’s bright outside, we tend to squint, which activates the corrugator supercilii muscle in our foreheads. We also use this muscle to frown when we’re upset. So, what do our brains do? Get confused about just what we’re feeling. But donning sunglasses can stop that biofeedback loop.
When we think about the things in our lives that make us happy (like our families, hobbies and friends) and then imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have those things, it makes us appreciate them more, which makes us happier, says Kira M. Newman, an editor at the Greater Good Science Centre.
Matthew Killingsworth, creator of the app Track Your Happiness, says we feel less content when our minds wander. His research showed that people are happiest when having sex, exercising or engaging in conversation – all things that require focus – and least happy when resting, working or using a home computer.
A 2016 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology found that happy people use humour in positive ways – for example, to entertain others or cope with difficult circumstances. Unhappy people, on the other hand, use humour to manipulate or criticise others.
Esfahani Smith says storytelling – that is, the ways we think about the events of our lives – can be a powerful way of shaping our moods. “We’re constantly making narrative choices, so if we’re telling ourselves a bad story, or one that’s holding us back, we have the power to edit that story,” she says.
If practising gratitude doesn’t come naturally, start by simply noticing good things. “You can always see good things, even if you don’t feel grateful for them in the moment,” says Newman. “You really start to notice them more when you pay attention, and what we think about is our reality in a way. It’s a day-to-day exercise, like muscle strengthening.”