Science says these 10 tricks actually make you happier
Happiness isn’t just a fleeting sensation—the feel-good butterflies that come after buying a new pair of shoes or winning the office raffle. In reality, your happiness stems mainly from one person: yourself.
According to a landmark psychological study, published in 2005 in the Review of General Psychology, people’s life circumstances (their jobs, income, and religion) only account for about 10 percent of their happiness. And while genetics plays a larger role, to the tune of about 50 percent, the remaining 40 percent of our mood is influenced by everyday thoughts and behaviors.
“You can teach people to be happier by adjusting their language, posture, and everyday habits,” says Mary Ann Mercer, PsyD, author of Spontaneous Optimism and co-founder of PositiveLifeAnswers.com.
Here are ten tips that can help you be happier.
1. Change your vocabulary.
The more control you believe you have over your life, the happier and more optimistic you’ll feel, explains Mercer. Unfortunately, all it takes is one glance at your to-do list for you to feel anything but in control.
Your new mission: Swap “negative” words for “positive” or even “neutral” ones, she says. For example, instead of saying, “I have so much work to do,” try thinking, “I’m pretty popular right now.” Or, instead of “I’m so tired,” try saying, “I need to recharge.” “Changing the way you talk about the situation can make you feel more in control,” says Mercer.
It takes about two to three weeks to start feeling better, she says, and it will about three to six weeks for this new mind-set to become a permanent habit.
2. Stand up straight.
Keep your chin up — literally. A 2015 study in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry suggested that slouching while you walk could make you feel more depressed. In the study, people who kept their shoulders hunched over while they took a stroll recalled more negative words after the experiment than those who stood up straighter.
Even sitting upright is better for your mood than staying slumped in your chair, according to a 2014 study in the journal Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. The researchers suggested that a down-in-the-dumps posture might subconsciously influence you to recall more negative thoughts.
3. Focus on one task at a time.
Juggling too many tasks at one time doesn’t make us more productive—it just increases the odds that we’ll make a mistake, according to a 2012 study in the journal Experimental Economics. Instead of switching back and forth between items on your to-do list, try tackling them one at a time. The research found that people work better when they focus their attention on one thing, rather than two tasks simultaneously.
4. Do something nice.
Volunteer at a food kitchen. Donate to your favorite charity. Or offer to bake brownies for the town yard sale. Whatever you decide, know that helping other people can make you feel good, too, says David Myers, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hope University and the author of The Pursuit of Happiness. One possible reason: Supporting other people can boost your feelings of autonomy and help solidify social connections with others, according to the results of a 2016 study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
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5. Move around.
You don’t have to run a 5K to reap the mental boosting benefits of exercise. A 2017 study published in PLOS One found that active people tend to be happier than their sedentary counterparts — no matter what type of physical activity they did. The data (gathered, ironically, from the participants’ smartphones) showed that both exercise and non-exercise — i.e., activities like standing and fidgeting — were linked to better moods, too.
6. Smile — even if you don’t feel like it.
Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but sometimes, acting like you’re happy can cause you to actually feel happy, says Myers. Case in point: In a study, researchers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom asked three groups of people to tackle a stressful task while smiling, keeping a stoic expression, or holding chopsticks in their mouths (giving them a Duchenne-like smile). The results: All of the people who smiled—even those who didn’t realize they were grinning—had lower stress levels at the end of the task compared with participants with neutral expressions.
7. Stop checking Facebook.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Turns out, he was right. People who spend more time on Facebook tend to be less happy than those who spend less time on the site, possibly because they feel like they don’t measure up to their friends, according to a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Mercer, for her part, has a second theory: “The quality of our relationships is more important than the quantity,” she says. “If you have hundreds of social media connections, but understand that they aren’t your real friends, that recognition could cause you to feel lonely.” Log off, then text an IRL—in really life—friend. (Read more about how social media can affect your mood.)
8. Unplug — really unplug, that is.
Unwinding in front of the television sounds appealing, but it probably won’t help you relax. “There’s never anything good on the evening news,” says Mercer. “It just feeds your anxiety.”
Likewise, trying to nod off while browsing Pinterest might not work, either. “Electronic devices stimulate the brain too much to be truly relaxing,” she explains. Case in point: A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who used e-readers before bedtime had more trouble falling asleep, logged less REM (or deep, restorative) sleep, and felt more tired the next day than those who read print books.
A better way to relax, says Mercer: Turn off your devices and look out the window for about 15 minutes a day.
9. Better yet, go outside.
For people who work in an office building, it can be hard to soak up even 15 minutes of sunlight. But going outside can do more than boost your vitamin D intake. People who are more connected to nature tend to be happier than those who aren’t as close to Mother Nature, according to a Frontiers in Psychology research review. Another study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that people who spent time walking in a forest felt less anxious and fatigued than those who took a stroll in an urban area. Mercer suggests taking a 10- to 15-minute walk each day—and leaving your phone in the house.
MUST READ: Have a Relationship With Nature
10. Find your purpose.
There’s a difference between living a happy life and living a meaningful one. However, the two have a lot in common, according to a scientific paper. People who live “meaningful” lives may be more prone to anxiety or stress, but they can also feel more rewarded, too. For example, when Japanese researchers asked more than 40,000 people if they felt a sense of ikigai, like they had a “life worth living,” they found that people with ikigai lived longer lives than those without it.
“People who feel really good about their lives, know what they want,” says Mercer. “They have a vision, and that makes them feel empowered.”