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10 Ways to Become Happier, Backed by Research
Like most things, it's about habits
We all know that happiness is an important goal in life. Many even view it as the main goal, and this is worth examining.
Most people aren’t in the habit of asking “how important is happiness to me?”, but if pressed, almost all of us would list it as one of our top priorities.
But what does it actually take to be consistently happy with your life? Here are ten answers to that question, backed by research. But first…
The Different Kinds of Happiness
Before we dive into the ways you can make yourself happier, we have to address a fundamental question: what happiness even is.
Ancient Greeks philosophers made a distinction between two kinds of happiness: hedonia, or pleasure, and eudamoia, which represented a deeper sort of life satisfaction.
Modern psychologists make a similar distinction, but they often break happiness into three distinct constructs: hedonic pleasure, emotional well-being and life satisfaction.
As you might imagine, hedonic pleasure is feeling, while emotional well-being and life satisfaction are highly correlated and crucial to a good life. As we’ll see however, some of the things on this list have been shown to improve one but not necessarily the other.
So which kind of happiness does this article focus on? They’re all important, but this article focuses mostly on emotional well-being and life satisfaction, rather than hedonic pleasure.
Have a Sense Of Humor About Life’s Problems
According to research, humor is one of five qualities that characterize people who are consistently happy. In fact, a study that followed Harvard students from the 1940’s for the rest of their lives– 70 years– found that humor was highly predictive of life satisfaction.
Now I want to be very clear about something: having a sense of humor about something does not mean not taking that thing seriously. You should endeavor to solve your problems, even as you maintain a sense of humor about them.
The best framework for this, in my opinion, is what’s known in military circles as “embracing the suck.” The way this looks in practice is that someone complains while laughing, and then keeps persevering. For instance, a SEAL trainee going through BUD-S– widely considered the world’s most difficult special operations training module– might laugh and say “Oh man, this is brutal,” as he soldiers on and completes the course.
Sleep Well, Sleep Regularly
Regular readers will know that I harp on this issue a lot. That’s because it’s important.
Optimal physical and mental health in adults is generally associated with sleeping 7-9 hours a night, in a dark and quiet room, on a very regular schedule. In practice that means your sleep and wake times should usually not vary by more than an hour.
Healthy sleep has been strongly associated with mental health and emotional well-being, in quite literally more studies than I can count. Poor sleep has been implicated in mood disorders, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, pervasive developmental disorders, personality disorders, and most of all, depression.
Less commonly known is that sleep quality also correlates with life satisfaction. Intuitively, you might think that this is because poor sleep tends to make people objectively less successful in life, by making them less healthy, productive, etc.
While there’s undoubtedly a lot of truth to that, research has found that poor sleep, like resource scarcity in general, also causes zero-sum thinking. That is, it makes people believe that their amount of happiness is fixed, and that getting anything good in life requires giving something else up.
The effects of sleep on hedonic enjoyment are inconsistent, at least in the short term. Sleep deprivation makes the brain produce more endocannabinoids, causing a sensation similar to being stoned on marijuana. Oddly enough, this can cause transient increases in pleasure. In the long run though, sleep deprivation would be expected to decrease one’s propensity for enjoyment.
So that’s why sleep is important. As for how to sleep better, read the Better Humans guide to sleep and insomnia.
On a related note, if you consume more than 2 cups of coffee or other caffeinated beverages in a day, or regularly consume caffeine after noon, follow this program to cut your caffeine intake.
One last thing that I want to stress about sleep is that it’s one of those things that everyone knows they should do better at, but precious few actually make a priority. It’s easy to just nod along when you hear about it, but to really get it right you need to commit to systematically working on improving your sleep.
Maintain an Active Social Network
And I don’t mean your Facebook account– in fact that’s probably a negative for happiness. I’m talking about maintaining active relationships with the people in your life– in real life.
Most studies on this subject look at the sick and elderly, but there is now growing evidence that having strong friendships is associated with greater life satisfaction across all populations, including healthy young adults.
In practice, for most people this means talking to or corresponding with people you know nearly every day, and hanging out with friends or family at least once a week.
Of course, everyone varies in their need for social interaction; some of us are loners by nature. But even loners need someone in their life. In the words of Dr. Lara Pence, a clinical psychologist who works for Spartan (an obstacle racing company): “There are people who can be incredibly happy without being social, but they need to be connected, in terms of having at least one or two intimate relationships. So I’d say strong and stable relationships provide for happiness, whether or not you’re socially active.”
The difficult part for most people is meeting friends. Here are a few ideas:
Use meetup.com to find groups of people who share your interests
Attend religious services
Join a recreational sports league
Look for social clubs such as the Elks, Lions, or neighborhood associations
Volunteer for a local non-profit (more on this soon)
Pollution is bad for your physical health, of course. And knowing just how strongly physical and mental health are linked, it should come as no surprise that pollution has ben linked to mental health issues. But like sleep, this is something that tends to make people go “Oh, that’s interesting,” but then not take action.
So let’s be clear: the effect is massive. In a landmark study on populations of various Chinese cities, researchers stated: Consistent with the existing evidences, we found a significant association between higher levels of PM2.5 (a measure of air pollution) and MHS (mental health score) decrease. A 28% extra risk of reduction in MHS was associated with a 10 μg m−3 increase in PM2.5 and this effect remained robust after adjustment for different sets of covariates and other environmental parameters.
The difference between the most and least polluted Chinese cities was over 20 PM2.5. In other words– and this was directly demonstrated by the study– living in a highly-polluted city doubles your risk of mental health problems compared to living in a city with clean air.
So what can you do to reduce your pollution exposure? You probably don’t want to wear a mask everywhere, but you can and should choose to live somewhere with clean air. Next time you think about moving, look up the air quality index of every place you’re considering.
More immediately, you can buy an air scrubber to clean the air in your home. The EPA has a handy guide to home air purifiers to get you started.
There is now a substantial body of research to indicate that selfless behavior, such as volunteering and charitable giving, directly increases happiness.
One study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggests that this is because “Generous decisions engage the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in the experimental (charitable) more than in the control (non-charitable) group and differentially modulate the connectivity between TPJ and ventral striatum.” In other words, the link between generosity and happiness is built right into our brains.
Another possibility is that this effect works, at least in part, via cognitive dissonance. That is, we may rationalize selfless behavior by forming more positive beliefs about the world.
In any case, the effect holds for both charitable giving as well as volunteering. Furthermore, there is some evidence that selfless behavior confers more benefits, in terms of happiness and overall well-being, as you get older.
Sublimate Your Worries
According to the same study I mentioned earlier, sublimation is another of the five habits or qualities associated with lifelong happiness. So what is sublimation?
In short, it means channelling your negative feelings into productive action. For instance, if you feel unhappy because of a breakup or a death in the family, you may channel those feelings into a home improvement project, a work of art, or into your work.
This goes against a lot of advice to confront and process your feelings. You should do that too, but at some point it has diminishing returns. The mind is not a black box, and ruminating on your feelings beyond a certain point just isn’t helpful. Personal change ultimately has to involve some degree of interaction with the outside world.
So yes, you should confront your feelings– but before long, it’s time to move past navel-gazing and start taking action to better your life. Take positive actions, and positive feelings will follow.
Spend Time Outside
Many studies have explored the link between “nature experiences,” or “nature connectedness,” and happiness. The preponderance of evidence suggests that spending more time in nature has a small but significant positive impact on various measures of happiness.
As the authors of that meta-analysis put it, Those who are more connected to nature tended to experience more positive affect, vitality, and life satisfaction compared to those less connected to nature. Publication status, year, average age, and percentage of females in the sample were not significant moderators. Vitality had the strongest relationship with nature connectedness (r = 0.24), followed by positive affect (r = 0.22) and life satisfaction (r = 0.17).
The exact mechanisms behind this link are still under investigation, but there is some evidence that being in nature provides benefits that can’t easily be had via other means. A few initial studies have suggested that the benefits of being in nature might be due, in part, to inhaling beneficial microbes, negative ions in the air, and/or chemicals called phytoncides.
According to Dr. Pence, “People in hospitals, those who have a view of a tree recover and report less pain faster than those who don’t.”
Have a Pet
Common wisdom holds that owning a pet makes people happier. The evidence says that’s mostly true, with a couple of caveats.
Pet ownership is generally associated with better mental health. However, it can be a negative if either a) taking care of the pet is too much work, or b) the death of a pet has a very large and lasting psychological impact on the owner. But then, see the other pieces of advice in this article– if your pet dies, deal with it productively, for instance by sublimating those feelings.
Ultimately, I think the evidence supports getting a pet that’s low-maintenance, but also for balancing pet ownership with having active social connections with other human beings. In other words, don’t let the pet become the focus of all your “social energy.”
It seems that any kind of pet can do the trick– pet crickets seem to work. And if crickets are good enough, presumably other low-maintenance pets like lizards and fish are too.
On the other hand, more high-maintenance pets can help you to stay active. Dogs in particular motivate people to walk and play more, which means a) more exercise, and b) more time spent outside.
Ultimately, this is a personal decision that will depend on what kinds of animals you like and how easily you can fit a pet into your lifestyle. But overall, the data suggests that if you like animals and have the time and energy for one, owning a pet will make you happier.
Make– And Save– More Money
You know the old saying that money can’t buy happiness? It’s not entirely true.
You’ve probably heard about that study that purportedly showed that making more money only makes you happier up to $75,000 a year, and does nothing beyond that. Here’s the thing though– remember the different kinds of happiness?
That study from 2010 actually found that the impact on emotional well-being leveled off after $75k, but not the impact on life satisfaction. Making more and more money seems to improve life satisfaction, with no ceiling that research have discovered yet.
However, the relationship, for both emotional well-being and life satisfaction, is logarithmic. That means going from 30k to 60k has the same impact as going from 60k to 120k. And of course, you have to balance making money against other considerations, like work-life balance and doing something you enjoy for a living.
That’s just income though. It’s no secret that financial stress causes anxiety and unhappiness, regardless of how high your income in. Saving money is equally important. And indeed, studies show that having savings improves life satisfaction.
All of this leaves an important question unanswered: what should you spend the money on? You might have heard that it’s better to spend on experiences than possessions. That’s true, though it seems that social experiences are usually better than solitary experiences in that respect. And of course, the boundary between spending on possessions and experiences can get blurry– you can’t surf without a surfboard.
Additionally, spending money to buy back your time– by outsourcing tasks you hate doing– improves happiness. In the words of Dr. Pence: “Money can allow people to feel greater agency in their choices.”
Or as personal finance guru Ramit Sethi says in his book I Will Teach You To Be Rich, “Don’t believe the headlines. Money is a small, but important part of a rich life. And you can strategically use it to live a satisfied life.”
Practice Remembered Enjoyment and Gratitude
Several lines of research suggest that you can change how you feel about past events by rehearsing your memories of them.
In a pair of studies on dieters, subjects were able to increase their liking of healthy foods by habitually remembering the healthy foods they consumed in the past, and spending some time thinking about what they liked about those foods. These particular studies were focusing on pleasure, or hedonic enjoyment. The technique used would theoretically be expected work for other things you want to do more of, like exercise or working.
A related line of research has focused on gratitude, rather than enjoyment. According to Drs. Randy and Lori Sansone, The majority of empirical studies indicate that there is an association between gratitude and a sense of overall well being.
That’s strictly correlational, of course. Does gratitude actually cause happiness? And if so, is it a learnable skill?
Yes and yes. Several studies have tried asking subjects to practice gratitude as a way of increasing overall happiness. In one study, subjects who kept a daily journal of everything they were grateful for over a period of 14 days experienced significant improvements on multiple measures of happiness.
According to the study’s authors, The gratitude intervention managed to increase positive affect, subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce negative affect and depression symptoms. This change was greater than the changes in the control groups in relation to positive affect.
The practice of gratitude, and more generally appreciating what you already have in life, is explored more fully in How to Want What You Have by Dr. Timothy Miller. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to build the skill– and it is a skill– of appreciating all the good things tat are already present in their life.
A few Final Thoughts on Happiness
First, I would like to recommend a book that helped me become a happier person: How to Want What You Have by Dr. Timothy Miller. This book combines ancient wisdom with modern psychological research to show how humans can overcome their own nature to appreciate the life they have, even if they’re also striving for more at the same time.
What do I mean by overcoming our own nature? Humans have not evolved to be happy. We’ve evolved to always want more, since that helps us to have and provide for more offspring. And propagating our genes is, after all, the only “goal” of evolution.
Happiness is difficult because it’s not the natural default state of the human mind. Being consistently happy takes work precisely because it doesn’t come naturally to us.
Second, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most people have a few things they want to change or accomplish in order to become happy. I can’t comment on your specific goals; probably some of them will make you happier and some won’t.
What I will say is this: don’t make happiness dependent on achieving all of your goals in life. Too often, we fall into the trap of viewing happiness as the light at the end of the tunnel, the payoff we’ll receive if we do everything we want and need to do.
And yet, what do you do after achieving all of your goals? You probably set more goals. A life without goals is boring, purpose-less, and eventually depressing.
Happiness will therefore remain forever out of reach if you view it as something that only comes after everything else. The only endpoint in life is death.
Happiness is not the reward for living a good life, but rather the foundation of a life well-lived. There is no reason to put it off– you can, and should, start to become happier today.