Tuesday, October 1, 2013

10 Easy Things That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science

Happiness is so interesting, because we all have different ideas about what it is and how to get it. So naturally we are obsessed with it.
I would love to be happier, as I’m sure most people would, so I thought it would be interesting to find some ways to become a happier person that are actually backed up by science. Here are ten of the best ones I found.

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 different:
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 percent!

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 weight.
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.
make yourself happier - exercise

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

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

In NutureShock, 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 anger.
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) expressions.
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:
make yourself happier
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 dramatically:
… 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 friends.
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 happiness.
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 lives:
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 longest.
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

In 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 is a short enough time to spend outside that you could fit it into your commute or even your lunch break.
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.
The 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.

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

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 others:
…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 Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives:
…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:
make yourself happier smiling
According to PsyBlogsmiling 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 Lifeshowed 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 live. I believe that this graphic explains it the best:
calming-mind-brain-waves make yourself happier
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.

10. Practice gratitude – increase both happiness and life satisfaction

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.
In 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 happier

As a final point, it’s interesting to note that as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend togrow 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 less.
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 unachieved 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.
Want to chat about this article? Leave a comment below or send me an email with your thoughts.
Oh and before I forget, we’ve recently launched the new Buffer for Business. Take a look, it’s the most powerful Buffer yet to help you better manage your social media everywhere.
Photo credit: Spencer Finnley
Originally posted on: Buffer


  1. Appreciate the reminder that simply "planning" a trip can promote well-being.

  2. this is great! its well researched and perfectly backed up with evidence. just reading it made me feel better! thank you for this, i will read it many more times

    1. do it too not only read :D

  3. I thought this was well worded and houses some great truths. ;-)

  4. Great article. Straight forward things that can be accomplished. I will suggest reading it to my friends. Thanks

  5. Thank you for this article . I love this article too :-)

  6. wonderful tips reaslly uesful to all

  7. thank you for this article. really useful :)

  8. the new company I am now with , is teaching us everyone of these , how funny. I love my chapter in my life, after working 40 years, this comes into my life. How Kool !!!

  9. Good article! Made me happy and smiling reading it!

  10. Loved it. It lifted my mood an made me understand things more clearly. Well written and I am grateful that I found this.

  11. Thank you for such a concise list! Sharing with others :)

  12. Did anyone else notice they used increased brain activity and a corresponding picture to say that going for a 20 minute walk makes us happy, then they used decreased brain activity and a corresponding picture to say that meditation makes us happy?

    1. The first image was showing your brain producing and using chemicals that make you happy, the second was showing actual brain activity and the ability to calm ones self with meditation, they're not the same thing although I can understand your confusion.

  13. Life is all about living happily.

  14. Good advice, thanks for sharing! <--- That's me taking your advice and practicing gratitude ;)

  15. Clinical depression does not equal sadness/happiness.
    To gain happiness, learn to love and accept yourself.
    The methods in this article will alleviate depression which is a medical condition.

    1. Do you mean the methods will NOT alleviate clinical depression? Or did you really mean that these methods WILL alleviate clinical depression?

  16. "happiness is maximized at 13.9°C", really?? I would be going back to bed if it were that cold.

    1. That's 57 degrees fahrenheit here in the States. And particularly in Minnesota that's a heatwave at least 5 months out of the year! lol.

  17. Wow, what a wake up call. Thanks for reminding me.

  18. 11. Don't set happiness as the purpose of your life.
    (Corollary : Avoid reading articles like this one.)

    1. What would be the purpose of your life? Just curious.

    2. Whatever we choose... if you expect happiness, you will be disapointed.

    3. Corollary is a word I don't hear much in relaxed conversation. Are you a mathematician?

      "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil, or else an absolute ignorance." -Graham Greene

  19. I love it, just dont like this " Vaillant’s response: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” and also dont like the point about this "long happy life"------- why it has to be long life? i think that should be good to put the point 11 and write that the point it is not how many years we live but what we do in the years , people loose a chance to get happyness mostly in this point.

    1. Your perspective works better for me.Thanks for posting.Now I'm more willing to try the rest of this!

  20. awsum article .. must read for everyone ..

  21. True . if we follow the above, the life is enjoyable

  22. great article! lifted my mood! just smile!

  23. Simplicity! Positively rewarding ad mutually beneficial.

  24. Merci , pour ce que je viens de lire ,, tres intéressant , et tres positif ,,

  25. Really cool article!!!

  26. very good article :)

  27. I concur with all of the ideas expressed! At 70+, I agree that happiness increases with age.

  28. I love this, I just don't necessarily agree with the "Move closer to work".. I meditate while I'm stuck in traffic, on my way to work. I end up enjoying my time in the car so much that sometimes I sit a little longer in the parking lot befor I walk into the office. My commute is the best 45mins of my day! :)

    1. I do motor meditation all day long - mindfulness while doing anything can ground and center you in the moment and this makes it more difficult to awfulize, to brood on past failures slights disagreements etc. and to anticipate problems in the future.

  29. sure, 'science' :"the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” well, -it takes nothing to join the crowd, it takes everything to stand alone.

  30. Thank you kindly! Feeling so grateful for this info! Peace & Love

  31. this blog is very useful ..

  32. This article will help u become a more productive slave. U can pretend all u want, You will only be placing fog before u that will hinder and limit your ability to access the available knowledge and perception at your disposal.

  33. i like this article, especially meditation :) .thank you

  34. A well researched and informative article.Thank you.
    So far as my experience,held some yoga and meditation classes for 60+..... friends....helped them give up medication from second day itself.Of the 10,5 were on medication for depression.Now it is more than 3 months,that no one is on medication but regular in meditation and Yoga.

  35. Andrew Harris Oct 5 2013 Nassau Bahamas
    When I was losing my house in business during the recession in 2009. I walked twiced daily and I am sure this helped me fight off the depression. I also found that helping others (even though I had very little) helped me feel better about myself and lie and kept me motivated.

  36. i loved it....soothing i must say.

  37. True for me all the points I do a week. I'll try to exercise the rest! BIG thank you for this! :)

  38. Very useful indeed if you live in Sweden.Come to Greece to live, and then we discuss again about meditation,gratitude and long walks with a big smile.

  39. good things always make good things

  40. Muy buen articulo, lo comparto en Facebook :)

  41. I won't regret it on my deathbed, but I think they will.

    Also, irresponsible. Some mentally ill patients (erm, ALL) need medication, not just a stroll on the beach.

    I "get" this article and appreciate what it's trying for (See you miser, happiness is EASY!) - but for me it failed.

    1. I feel you. Right there with you. And I do think things like, "okay, when someone they have persuaded to stop taking medication commits suicide, they will probably make up some excuse about the residual affects of medication." And I guess if the person has never taken medication and is persuaded to not take that route, the persuaders, the I-know-what-you-need-to-do people, might just say the depressed person did not do all of the RIGHT, natural, healthy things. I doubt they'll think, "Is it possible that my friend might still be alive if I could have been more open-minded to the possibility that depression is something I don't understand?" Such thoughts do not make a person happy.

  42. Great information, thank you so much, glad I stumbled onto this posting!

  43. Great article. I did some meditating last week. It helped me so much that I gained the confidence to fill out some applications for a job. Im 56 yrs old and after all these years of not knowing how to quiet my brain, I think that 18 minutes of the guided meditation is very helpful in treating my anxiety and depression. Oh yes, and after 4 yrs of not working I did get the job. It is at Subway.

  44. I've just finished reading The Magic, which says much the same without the scientific jargon, the author gives you daily exercisesto do for 28 days ( the time sciences tells us that it takes to break a bad habit or create good habits) I was having problems across the board, so I thought what the hell and did the exercise and the result was amazing, people were suddenly so different towards me, most of the problems I was encountering, didn't just stop, in lots of cases, the situation was reversed to my benefit ! I've got nothing to sell here, the basic message of the book is count your blessings but in such a way, that you really do get a sense of the things you have taken for granted and genuinely feel different, if this subject interests you, you should also read a book by Elaine Fox called Rainy Brain,Sunny Brain, which shows that the plasticity of the brain doesn't stop with age and that we can think our way out of depression! Much better than prozac and doesn't cost you a thing!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. In mathematics, to show means to prove. Rainy brain does not sound like depression to me. It sounds sad and negative and scared. Even if Ms. Fox is incredibly detailed and provides a more accurate description of depression inside her book, the title makes it seem like the book does not address depression but rather normal human patters of thought that are not so great. We can learn to recognize such thoughts and over time with much practice we can eventually break those patterns, those pathways between neurons and actually create much more useful patters of thought. This does not apply to what I refer to as depression. I don't mean to say that every depressed person needs medication. That would be a logical fallacy. It is a logical fallacy to PROCLAIM with CERTAINTY that all depressed people do not need medication. Perhaps Ms. Fox does not claim such a thing and instead acknowledges that her method might not work for everyone. In that case, yay Ms. Fox.

  45. Strange - why would helping others to achieve happiness be counter-intuitive?

  46. Exercise, exercise, exercise!!!! But please don't force a smile. It's hideous and you'll most likely frighten people.

  47. Very good information,
    Thanks :-)

  48. Fran, I'm smiling as I plan my next trip as I'm getting older.

  49. Not sure about the brain pictures.... the exercise picture says the more colorful brain is happier..... the meditation one says the less colorful one.

  50. Think we've got 8 or so out of 10...moving closer to work nxt month..meditation, ummmm, errrr, used to do a lot...going on momentum??

  51. Oh great post and i dont know that excersing will make my brain do high quatify
    The Cash Box Blueprint

  52. Very Powerful. Putting these simple steps into action will create major movements in your life. Stay persistent to achieve the results you desire.

    Abundance is Yours

  53. I loved the article very much, as it reinforces some of what I already know. What amazes me are the comments from people. I would assume that this is for people who are living a 'normal' life (whatever that may be) and not one of severe depression. We seem to all know people in our lives that suffer from that. However, what people here don't seem to recognize is that there is scientific evidence to back this up. That's AWESOME news!!! It's not just random thoughts,so wake up people. Stop being stubborn and opinionated and be open to what actually works and can make a difference in your life.

    Take the challenge. . . incorporate these into your daily life and then report back in as to the effects. Or, you can postulate as to why they won't work and stay in your already existence. Personally, I'm moving forward daily. I love this stuff!!!


  54. Awesome article....

  55. Indeed a good and true article. I agree with all the facts presented in the article. Few of them I have personally tried and they are really helpful.

  56. So if you love sun, sand and sea; take a beach travel in India. Book your trip today with a travel operator and ask for the best India tour package. This will make your beach tour in India worthwhile.
    mr sanchos

  57. 11. Getting laid?

  58. That last fact is foolishness. That study, if there really is one, must have been done in Nirvana. I am old and the process has been insulting for a person who has weathered so many life situations, come out on top and now has nothing to look forward to but decaying and death. Put me back at 60 with the energy I had then and the knowledge I have now. Give me 40 years there, then let me go to sleep and never wake up. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh .........