For centuries, people have struggled with this question: What is the secret to happiness? Many have turned to possessions, social status, appearance and even career success, but most have found that the answer isn’t hidden in such pursuits. Recently, science has started to look at this age-old question analytically. As it turns out, happiness isn’t about feeling good all the time or even about how much money we have. Instead, research suggests it’s a combination of how satisfied we are with life and how good we feel on a day-to-day basis, according to Happify, a website that creates science-based activities to help people achieve a more fulfilling life.
A number of factors outside of our control can negatively affect our happiness: About 50 percent of our “happiness set-point” is determined by personality traits that are largely hereditary, according to the Association for Psychological Science. In addition, 10 percent of our happiness set-point is determined by circumstances such as our health, income or significant life events such as divorce. Yet that leaves 40 percent fully within our control, meaning happiness is a skill we can strengthen through positive thoughts, actions and behaviors.
Research shows us that the habits of extremely happy people differ from the average American—try adopting some of these day-to-day habits for a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
1. Be More Social: After researching how extremely happy people differ from the rest of us, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, discovered one key ingredient: “They’re not more religious, they’re not in better shape, they don’t have more money, they’re not better looking, they don’t have more good events and fewer bad events,” Seligman said in his 2004 TED Talk, “The New Era of Positive Psychology.” “The one way in which they differ is they’re extremely social.” The size of your network doesn’t seem to make a difference—quality trumps quantity. Participate in activities you enjoy and build a strong support system.
2. Spend Wisely: Research results regarding the connection between money and happiness may not shock you—people with higher incomes are happier than those who struggle to get by. But that doesn’t mean money itself can buy happiness—what matters is how people spend their money. Giving our money away (for example, to charitable organizations or a friend in need) makes us a lot happier than buying something new for ourselves. When we do spend money on ourselves, we’re happier when we use it for experiences such as travel, dinners out with friends and family, or attending concerts and other events, rather than material goods.
3. Prioritize Your Health: Happy people are healthy people, as studies indicate that happy people have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, have stronger immune systems and heal faster after injuries. To enhance your health, exercise often (brisk walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day can do a world of good) and stick to a healthful diet (for wise-eating tips, read “How to Eat Yourself Happy”). Regular exercise is also associated with a lower incidence of depression and can help you feel better about your body—even if you don’t notice any outward physical changes, according to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
4. Spend Time with Happy People: People who surround themselves with happy, uplifting people are more likely to become happy in the future, according to a study published in a 2008 issue of BMJ. The study showed that the happiness of an individual is associated with the happiness of the people with whom they surround themselves, including siblings, spouses, friends, even friends of friends.
5. Be Altruistic: Studies show a significant association between happiness and caring for someone else’s well-being. “When you do something philanthropic to help another person, it lasts and lasts,” Seligman says. Volunteer your time to a charitable organization, commit a monthly donation to a nonprofit, or reach out to a person in your life who is struggling with something.
6. Sleep Well: Getting adequate sleep can result in a happier, healthier you, according to the American Psychological Association. Most adults need around eight hours of sleep each night, and while naps are wonderful, they aren’t a substitute for healthful nightly sleep habits. For many tips and lifestyle habits to get a better night’s sleep, read The Power of Sleep.
7. Unplug: While smartphones make it easy for us to keep in touch with one another, some researchers believe excessive use of technology can lead to more impatient, impulsive people. Finding ways to limit use of gadgets can help us reconnect with ourselves. Happiness expert Christine Carter recommends turning off your phone during dinner or from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Disconnecting from technology for just one day may even increase our productivity, according to a report from the Redesigning and Redefining Work project.
8. Go Outside: After you’ve unplugged for a day, spend some time outdoors. A University of Michigan study discovered cognitive benefits from a simple walk through the woods—it turns out that a little quiet time is essential to optimizing brain function. In addition, sunlight and physical activity have both been shown to elevate mood, as reported by the Harvard Medical School.
9. Practice Gratitude: Gratitude, broadly defined as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself, can be as simple as appreciating your family or getting lost in the beauty of a sunset. If being grateful isn’t something that comes easily to you, start a gratitude journal, noting moments in your life in which you felt thankful.
10. Laugh Often: Studies show that mirthful laughter that stems from real joy can relieve stress and brighten our moods. A study presented at the 2010 Experimental Biology conference in Anaheim, California, revealed that repetitive laughter can affect hormones in the same way that exercise does (although this doesn’t mean you should skip your exercise routine). The mere act of smiling reduces blood pressure, lowers stress hormones and boosts mood, according to a British study.
11. Don’t Dwell on the Negative: Keeping a positive attitude doesn’t mean ignoring any negativity in your life. But rehashing negative thoughts again and again is counterproductive and can sometimes lead to chronic depression. To refocus your mind, the Mayo Clinic recommends identifying areas of your life you typically think negatively about. Focus on approaching that area in a different, more positive way. You can also practice the act of positive self-talk: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else.
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