My earlier post, the pursuit of happiness (& how to be truly happy) was about living life by the moments rather than spending most of our time thinking about what we should achieve next. We can take charge of our happiness by choosing to engage in activities like physical exercise and performing acts of kindness to help us find happiness.
The good news is that there are also several other scientifically-proven activities which when done habitually, can help us in our quest for happiness. After looking through many of these suggestions which are supported by studies and experiments, I want to share the following 8 with you. Feel free to share your comments in the comments section below.
1. Practise Mindfulness
In a comprehensive research to study the level of happiness of 2250 participants, Harvard psychologists contacted the participants at random intervals during the day to find out the activity they were engaged in, their feelings and their thoughts.
The responses revealed that half of the time, the participants were not paying attention to what they were doing. Those who daydream, and thus are not concentrating at the task at hand, were reported to be less happy. It is this wandering of the mind that is causing them to be gloomy.
Rather than focusing at what was happening right at that instant – living in the moment – some of the sadder participants were thinking about the past or something that had yet to happen. The study is still ongoing, and you can participate here, if you have an iPhone.
Mindfulness living is about living consciously, and according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
The ability to concentrate well requires repeated practice. One way to do that is to practise mindfulness meditation: sitting down with our eyes closed and observing our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions from a distant without judgment. Label them as an “itch”, a “thought” or anger, for example, as they come and go in our consciousness.
When we can do this 20 minutes a day, often enough, we will start to realize that we are not our thoughts or emotions, and we will be less affected by them. That’s when we’re able to stay focused on what we do at any moment and become more present with our lives.
More: Apart from engaging in daily mindfulness meditation, here are 10 steps suggested by Reader’s Digest on how you can start living mindfully as well.
2. Have Sufficient Quality Sleep
Most of us are aware of the importance of sleep on our health. After all, it’s a fundamental “physiological” need under Maslow’s hierarchy. Yet, many of us are still stubbornly putting off going to bed early in the name of productivity. Some of us may actually consider “adequate sleep” as a luxury, thanks to our tight work schedules and project deadlines.
However, psychologist Norbert Schwarz from University of Michigan had found that getting just an extra hour of sleep every night will make you happier than earning a $60,000 raise for the year!
Considering how the lack of sleep can negatively affect our mood the following day, it perhaps makes more sense to get enough of it every day, become happier, and consequently increase our productivity at work.
But that doesn’t mean you need more of sleep. An analysis of the lifestyles of some 4,000 adults found that the happiest of the lot get an average of 6 hours 15 min of uninterrupted, quality sleep each night. According to another study by Cornell University, happy people tend to sleep better as well. It’s a loop: resolve to get more quality sleep, become happier, sleep even better!
More: To kick-start this awesome habit, check out this great list of 33 Secrets to a Good Night’s Sleep by Dr. Mercola.
3. Buy Some Experience
In my last post, I wrote that money is better spent on acquiring life experiences rather than for material possessions. Well, another study from Cornell University reaffirmed this, by proposing that acquired experiences are less tangible (compared to physical pursuits) and hence, harder to subject to social comparison. The result is that our happiness level doesn’t adapt to such personal experiences as quickly as we habituate to purchased goods.
Aside from strengthening social relationships, the experience also becomes more and more memorable as time passes. Our minds naturally reinterpret our experiences retrospectively and holistically in a positive manner. For instance, each time we revisit our cherished memories of the last vacation trip we took with family or friends, the hassles and frustrations experienced during the trip are conveniently forgotten.
So, go ahead and plan your next trip on some tropical island now. There is already research showing that the anticipation itself will give you a boost in your happiness, as mentioned by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. They even found one study which pointed out that not only does delayed pleasure increases your excitement, it can even make it more pleasurable when you’re finally experiencing it.
4. Cut Down on Traveling Time
Previously, I have also mentioned that certain events in life could permanently lower our happiness baseline. Chronic long commutes are one such event. Harvard psychologist professor Daniel Gilbert puts it succinctly: “You can’t adapt to commuting, because it’s entirely unpredictable. Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.” No wonder daily commute has been ranked last among all daily activities.
A telephone survey conducted on about 170,000 employed adults showed that a third of those who took over 90 minutes to travel to work are more likely to have high cholesterol and chronic physical symptoms such as back and neck pains.
40% of the same group were also found to experience worry for most of the day, as compared to just 28% of those who commute to work in less than 10 minutes a day.
Before accepting a new job offer, take into account how much time you need to take to get to work each day. If, however, you’re already stuck in one which requires you to drive for an hour or more each day, you might want to consider other available means of commute. In Portland, Oregon, it was found that bicycle commuters are the happiest lot, followed by people who walk to work. Lone drivers are the least happy of all.
According to one of the earliest research on the effects of smiling on our mood conducted by psychologist Robert Zajonc, who had participants say out the vowel “e” to make them smile, and the German vowel “ü” to make them pout. Those who “smiled” reportedly felt good while those who “pout” felt worse!
Numerous similar studies followed, with some claiming that smiling relieves stress and anxiety. Others such as Christopher Barnes from Michigan State University found that city bus drivers who “smile for the sake of smiling” throughout the day had their mood worsened and withdrew from work. The effects were found to be especially true for women.
When we smile, there are some biological processes that somehow trick our brain into thinking we’re happy. For this reason, our moods are lifted reflexively. Of course, this is just a brief intervention which is only effective momentarily and definitely not something that can make you happier as a person in the long run. Nevertheless, if doing something as simple as smiling could help us feel a wee bit better about our lives and get other people to smile as well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it more!
More: Curious about the science behind smiling and how it makes us happier as well as other interesting tidbits? Check out this refreshing post by Leo Wildrich of Buffer.
6. Get a Pet
Most pet owners would agree that their pets have brought them joy and good memories. Amazingly, researcher Allen McConnell has even found that social support provided by pets is comparable to that from a fellow family member. McConnell also showed that among other benefits, pet owners tend to have greater self-esteem, are less depressed and less lonely – they even exercise more!
However, don’t go rushing to buy one from the pet store if you know you’re using it as a substitute for your less-than-perfect social life. Further observations made by McConnell indicated that the effects of pets on our health and happiness are stronger when we are already having a good social life. After all, having a pet will not change things much unless we build a positive relationship with it.
If we are already on good terms with people we care about, it probably proves that we have the necessary traits to have good relationships with pets as well. It’s a two-way street: The amount of happiness that they can bring into our lives depend very much on our commitment level.
7. Know & Spend Time With Happy People
Happiness is contagious. The Framingham Heart Study that followed 4,700 people over 20 years revealed that a person’s happiness level can influence up to three degrees of separation, which means our happiness is partially affected by our social network (not the Facebook kind) of up to the level of our friends’ friends’ friends!
Specifically, we are 15.3% more likely to be happier when we know another happy person directly (1st degree), followed by 9.8% and 5.6% for 2nd and 3rd degrees respectively. Moreover, it was also found that physical distance matters, particularly when a friend of ours who resides within a mile from us becomes happy, the probability that we are happy increases by 25%. Interestingly though, such effects are not reflected between co-workers.
Happy people are often the center of social networks that comprises of similarly happy people. The reasons why positive emotions trickle down from the happiest people to others are not determined in the study, but it’s suggested that this group of people could have a tendency to be more generous, friendlier and nicer as a whole, cascading positive feelings down the levels and inducing those affected to act in the same positive manner to others.
8) Have at Least 10 Good Friends
We will first need to have at least 10 good friends before we can reach the minimum “happy” level. Surveying over 1,700 people on their satisfaction with their lives and their friendships, Dr Richard Tunney from Nottingham University found that those with 5 friends or fewer were more likely to be unhappy than to be happy. Those with 5 to 10 friends were equally likely to be either.
The good news is that the happiness of the participants did not depend on whether the friends they had were childhood friends or those that came into their lives much later. This mean to say that we’re never too late to make new friends to become happier!
Making new friends isn’t all to it though. If taking care of our pets requires commitment and continuous effort, friendship would logically requires much, much more. As Dr Tunney puts it, “Whatever the reason, actively working on friendships in the same way as to maintain a marriage is a prerequisite to happiness.“
Having too many friends actually poses the danger of having “surface friendships” since it will be quite hard for one to maintain close relationships with all of them. If you are somehow able to find the time and means to manage them, you’ll probably be like the happiest participants in the study who had dozens of friends!