One of the most common misconceptions about happiness is that it somehow happens naturally, without us even trying. While this may sometimes be the case, it's more useful to think of joyfulness as a state that we must work at to achieve, rather than the default setting.
Like anything else, happiness is a skill that needs to be practiced. It's also multifaceted and is influenced by a whole host of variables. So the best way to bring these together is via the grail that marries activity with mindset: habit.
With that in mind, we look at six easy-to-adopt habits that have been proven by science to make us happier. Because however ephemeral it may feel, happiness isn't really a secret — it's a choice that can be honed.
1. Invest in your closest relationships.
Cherish and prioritize your closest relationships over everything else, and always carve out time for those you love. Make a daily goal out of developing the quality of the relationships that count.
A recent study from Harvard that tracked data from a group of students over a 75-year period found that the most important happiness choice among participants came from investing in close relationships — whether with a spouse, partner, parent, sibling, or friend.
In the far-reaching Grant & Glueck study, 77 percent of those who rated themselves extremely happy said the state of their relationship was either the "greatest" or "very good," versus 48 percent of participants who did not rate themselves as that happy.
75 percent of the extremely happy group also said that the success of their closest relationships was the most important factor for them, versus the 49 percent who had less happy ratings.
"The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period," said Harvard professor Robert Waldinger.
And this doesn't necessarily mean having a partner or a large group of friends.
"It's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship," he said. "It's the quality of your close relationships that matters."
2. Create freedom at work.
Work out how you can create more opportunities for freedom at work. Volunteer yourself to take responsibility for a project or goal, or offer to coordinate an office redesign. If the scope for freedom is limited, you might want to consider options for self-employment.
Studies show that autonomy is a critical factor in our happiness at work, more so than either difficulty of the job or pay level.
Research from the University of Windsor in Ontario shows a direct correlation between employee happiness and how much freedom people have to perform roles in their own way. According to its authors, employees "feel constrained by the necessity to seek approval" and are far more content when working on their own initiative. This is because goals are internally driven, rather than externally given.
"People are more likely to be happy at work if motivation comes from within," agreed psychologist Maynard Brusman. "They will perform better, engage more, and be more committed if what they do comes from core of who they are."
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Swiss economists Bruno Frey, Matthias Benz, and Alois Stutzer link this to the concept of "procedural utility" — the notion that people get satisfaction from the way things are done, rather than the overall result.
For this reason, they say, self-employed people are happier — even if they've sacrificed a higher income to strike out alone — because they "enjoy their positions as independent actors on the market and as actors not subject to hierarchy."
A sense of autonomy at work may even come down to small details such as office design. An emerging body of workplace analysis shows that employees feel happier, and perform better, when they can control their work space.
3. Spend your money on experiences, not things.
When deciding how to splash your hard-earned cash, try to resist the impulse to always go for material goods. Instead, use it for unique experiences such as a Mediterranean boat trip or a pop-up dinner club.
Time and again, studies have shown that investing money in experiences, rather than material items, makes us happier. Sure, we get a little high from purchasing that fresh spring tote, but only to a point. The problem is, we adapt to it, and its novelty quickly wanes.
"One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation," Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, told Fast Company. "We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them."
Dr. Gilovich's research shows that even if people have negative experiences, their perceived happiness of the event increases with their ability to talk about it in retrospect.
James Wallman, author of the best-selling book Stuffocation, agreed.
"When an experience goes wrong, it somehow gets better each time you retell the tale," he said. He adds that familiarity really does take away from the value of material goods: "Think how you feel when your new phone first arrives: You press the buttons, try out all the ringtones. After a week, you're not nearly so excited. After a month, it's basically part of the furniture. The novelty of material goods wears off far faster than it does with experiences. Experiences bring us closer to people — we tend to do them with people and they make us feel like we belong."
4. Take time out to help others.
Actively seek opportunities that will allow you to be generous with your time, skills, and resource on a regular basis. This can be anything from volunteering to setting up a training course at work. Remember to be emotionally available, as well as literally giving.
It's slightly ironic to think about helping others as a means to benefit yourself, but the research in this area is compelling. Numerous studies show that people who take the time to support others in their community, abroad, or at work are generally happier.
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In their book The Paradox of Generosity, sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson analyze the results of a five-year study into altruism, laying out a causal relationship between generosity and happiness.
"We found nine different causal mechanisms [of generosity]," said Christian. "It involves everything from developing a sense of self as generous to being more socially networked to being more physically active. We argue that it involves neurochemical changes in the brain, that it gives people more pleasure chemistry in their brain and a sense of reward for having done something good."
But the impact of this happiness only comes into play when the generosity is moulded into a habit, rather than as a one-off act.
"It has to be a practice. It has to be something that is sustained over time, that people engage with regularly," said Hilary. "One-off things just don’t affect us that much, whereas things that we repeat — things that are sustained in our bodily behaviors and in our minds — have tremendous effects on us."
Another study found that people who prioritized helping others at work were happier than those who did not.
"Helping others makes us happier," said Donald Moynihan, leading the study. "Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system."
5. Do a little physical activity every day.
We all know that exercise releases endorphins, reduces stress, and wards off feelings of depression and anxiety. But to exploit the relationship between physical activity and happiness, it needs to become a regular thing.
In fact, best-selling author and habits expert Charles Duhigg refers to exercise as a "keystone" habit that has a wider positive impact on many other daily routines.
According to this 2013 study from the University of Vermont, as little as 20 minutes' exercise a day can boost our mood for up to 12 hours.
And this doesn't even necessarily need to be a workout. A study out this year from Cambridge University and the University of Essex found that any level of physical activity — such as walking to the photocopier or moving from your car to your desk — results in a more positive emotional state.
Researchers looked at smartphone data from 10,000 individuals to track their movement versus self-reported happiness levels throughout the day.
"Our analyses indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness," said researcher Dr. Jason Rentfrow. "What we’ve found is that in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon — all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day."
6. Spend time in nature.
Take every chance you can to immerse yourself in nature, whether that's a stroll in the park or a country hike. If you live in a city, look into signing up for a urban gardening group. If you really can't manage anything else, watch a nature show on TV; it may inspire you to explore the great outdoors and is soothing in itself.
The natural landscape has long been famed for its quasi-mystical powers of healing and restoration. And science backs up this perception, with studies showing interaction with the great outdoors triggers changes in the brain and body that leave us less stressed, more creative, more focused, and happier.
Stanford University researchers found that participants who embarked on a 50-minute walk in an oak woodland experienced less anxiety and brooding, and more positive emotions, compared to those who did the same length of walk along a four-lane road.
The scientists later extended this study to assess brain activity of participants before and after a 90-minute walk. After their walk, those who were based in a nature setting were seen to have increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain which is associated with depression and anxiety when deactivated. This indicates a powerful link between nature and elevated mood.
And this effect could extend to merely being surrounded by greenery, rather than submersing yourself within it.
In a study of over 1,000 participants, scientists at the University of Exeter found that people who moved to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that lasted up to three years. Whereas those who moved from green to urban areas suffered an increase in mental distress.
This correlates with research from Dutch researchers, who found a lower incidence of 15 diseases — including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines — in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.
"People underestimate the 'happiness effect' of being outdoors," said Lisa Nisbet, a psychology professor at Canada’s Trent University. "We don’t think of it as a way to increase happiness. We think other things will, like shopping or TV," she told National Geographic. "We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected."
That said, even watching nature via the medium of technology can make us happier. The BBC published a study this year that indicated a mood lift among viewers of nature programs.
"Even short engagement with such shows leads to significant increases in positive emotions including awe, contentedness, joy, and amusement," its report said.
Wow, good to know!
This post was written by Anna Brech. For more, check out our sister site Grazia.