What makes you happy? Perhaps getting up early to see the sunrise, spending time with family and friends on the weekends, or swimming in the sea. But what does science say about the things that make people happy?
We know that happy people tend to have strong relationships, good physical health, and contribute regularly to their communities.
I have experimented over the past seven years with a number of happiness and well-being interventions with the goal of improving my own mental health and understanding how best to help others. Some strategies blocked while others didn’t work for me. But here’s what I learned along the way.
The reality is that there will be times when we manage to adopt habits of happiness and feel positive. Then there will be times when life throws a curveball and our happiness will be affected. But the good news is that we can all improve our level of happiness through daily practice.
1. Move your body
My body needs to move regularly throughout the day. Sitting for long periods of time does not make my body or mind happy. At the very least, I will walk briskly for an hour every day. I also like swimming, dancing and doing yoga.
Regular physical activity and exercise top the happiness list because studies consistently show a link between being Physically active and increased subjective well-being, i.e. happiness.
Research shows that walking 30 minutes a day can improve your health. But happiness studies show that people benefit more when they engage in moderate and high intensity exercise, which increases heart rate.
Moderate exercise is anything that makes you slightly out of breath – you can still talk, but you probably can’t sing a song.
2. Prioritize connection
The most recent pursuit of happiness shows that our social ties are important in terms of well-being and life satisfaction. Indeed, taking the time to talk, listen, share and have fun with friends and family is a habit that I try to promote.
But a recent study found that we generally engage more with our friends and family when we feel unhappy and less when we are happy. This may be because we naturally seek reassurance and support to feel happier and pursue other activities when our happiness is stable.
It seems to come down to a matter of balance, too much time alone can lead to negative emotions and so looking out for others is a natural way to alleviate this and improve our mood.
On the other hand, when we feel positive and happier, we are more likely to support others and provide a shoulder to cry on. Nevertheless, spending time with friends and family offers both short-term and long-term happiness gains.
3. Practice gratitude
Our outlook on life and the way we evaluate things also play an important role in our level of happiness. Studies have shown that having more optimistic state of mind and practicing a sense of gratitude can dampen negative emotions and increase happiness.
Practicing daily gratitude, like counting my blessings or listing the things throughout the day that I’m grateful for, helps me think more positively and feel happier. You can do this in a number of ways, for example, a daily gratitude journal, which can be handwritten or kept on your phone.
The intervention of the three good things is a quick and easy habit to adopt to increase optimism. You simply write down three things that went well each day and think about what was good about them.
Now there are many apps that can invite you and keep track of your gratitude. Other apps let you create vision boards and positive affirmations for your days. Although some may seem fanciful, it is all about that slight nudge towards positivity, that science backs. Or in other words, practicing and cultivating an attitude of gratitude and appreciation generally works and helps you feel more positive about your life. Gratitude also helps you see the bigger picture and become more resilient in the face of adversity.
You can also practice gratitude more naturally by giving thanks — telling someone what you’re grateful for that day or sending thank you messages. Indeed, this may seem trivial, but it is important because research shows that daily feelings of gratitude are associated with higher levels of positive emotions and better social well-being.
4. Spending time with pets helps, too.
My pets are an integral part of our family routine and also support me in my daily happiness. I find walks easier to do because of my dogs. Research shows that dogs motivate their human companions to be more active and in turn, dog and human have a shared enjoyable experience that increase their happiness.
I also like to sit with my cats drinking tea and reading a book. Studies have shown that pets provide many health and happiness benefits as they not only provide companionship but also reduce incidents of depression and anxiety while helping to boost our levels of happiness and self-esteem.
The main ingredients of happiness and what the research boils down to are social connections and activity – both of mind and body. And finding a flow of life through our daily habits and intentions can lead to happier, more fulfilling lives.