It’s not too difficult to make our lives happier, and here are some science-backed ideas to help us get there.
This is a list-post of ten happiness hacks from positive psychology, the science of happiness. These are psychologists-recommended happiness hacks that emerged after a slew of studies. Each of these strategies has been proven to raise one’s happiness levels.
When we say “happiness hacks,” we mean activities that make us happier. The activities we’ve picked up for you in this post are mostly a breeze. Studies show these are quite effective at making us more joyful in real-time. Give them a try today!
In each instance, we mention the scientific studies that led to the hack.
10 Happiness Hacks Backed By Science
You may quickly grab the list-pic below if you are short of time. If you enjoy these happiness hacks and want to know more, please read on for a better understanding of each point.
Hack #1. Get Social
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard professor and author of the wildly popular humorous read, Stumbling on Happiness, says:
We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.
This one is perhaps the easiest happiness hack on this list. It is also the one that gives the most — who else can make you happier than your friends or family?
- Study: Fowler, James H., and Nicholas A. Christakis. “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.” BMJ 337 (2008).
- Book by Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling On Happiness, 2007.
Hack #2. Exercise
This one is perhaps the most common New Year’s resolution around the world. Our own health always holds the top position in our health plans. Science validates this. People who exercise are happy because they feel better about their bodies, they stay protected from depression.
Why does exercise make us happier? Here’s why: a study in the Journal of Health Psychology found people who exercised are higher on happiness because they feel better about their bodies.
Find out more on what’s the brain science behind exercise and happiness.
Once you get into the habit of exercising, this happiness hack keeps you giving for years and decades. So, start a habit of exercising as a daily routine, and see yourself become happier.
- Studies: Richard Carter: “Exercise and happiness.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 17.3 (1977). Chris Tkach and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “How do people pursue happiness?: Relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being.” Journal of Happiness Studies 7.2 (2006).
- Book by John Ratey and Richard Manning, Go Wild, 2015.
Hack #3. Meditate
Meditation over long periods changes the brain structure — scientifically termed neuroplasticity (read the fascinating story of the “Silver Spring monkeys” who gave science one of its best breakthroughs in this field) — to enhance more self-awareness, compassion, and calmness within us. It also reduces our stress response to unexpected events, actual or anticipated.
Meditation increases self-awareness, compassion, and calmness within us.
Mindfulness meditation is an easy and accessible way to meditate.
Mindfulness is defined by Marlatt & Kristeller as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”
Mindfulness meditation provides many known benefits, including:
- reduction in stress levels
- increase of self-awareness
- improvement of focus
- enabling calmness in the face of difficult emotions, like frustration, resentment, boredom, and anxiety.
Here’s a little guide to begin mindfulness practice: Mindfulness In 7 Steps (PDF).
One thing to say of importance here is that you can get most of the benefits of mindfulness through mindful meditation, but also via mindful eating, mindful walking, and mindful contemplation.
- Book by Sharon Salzberg: Real Happiness, 2010.
- Book by Andy Puddicombe: The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, 2016
- Book by Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness for All: The Wisdom to Transform the World, 2019
Hack #4. Stop Overthinking
Overthinking, in simple words, means thinking the same thought over and over. It’s also called rumination in scientific jargon.
If one keeps over-analyzing everything, seeks untold meaning behind every word, and runs and re-runs the same thoughts in their mind, then they are into the habit of overthinking.
Overthinking is a common problem. And there are many dangers of overthinking.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the world’s leading researcher on rumination, found that 73% of people between 25 and 35 years identified themselves as overthinkers. And among those, more were women (57%) than men (43%).
A large study of 33,000 people found rumination and self-blame were significantly responsible for anxiety and depression in those who had a family history of mental health difficulties.
Overthinking can pull down one’s confidence, cut down their decision-making power, and steal away their problem-solving ability.
- Book by Steven Schuster: Clear Your Mind: Stop Overthinking, Tune Out Mental Chatter And Worry Less, 2017.
Hack #5. Take A Nap
A 2011 study done by The British Psychological Society and published in their Research Digest showed that people who stay awake throughout the day become increasingly more sensitive to negative emotions.
Whereas, people who take an afternoon nap are desensitized to negative emotions, and yet more responsive to positive ones.
The researchers put forward the reason behind this that, possibly, the prefrontal cortex in our brain becomes fatigued throughout the day, and therefore less able to dampen down emotional reactivity in the sub-cortex.
By the way, do you know, for the greatest benefit, how many minutes are the best length of an ideal nap?
- Study: Oerlemans, Wido GM, Arnold B. Bakker, and Ruut Veenhoven.”Finding the key to happy aging: A day reconstruction study of happiness.” Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2011.
- Book by Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution, 2016.
- Book by Sara C. Mednick, PhD: Take a Nap! Change Your Life, 2006.
Hack #6. Go For A Nature Walk
Spending time outside in nature freshens our mood, improves our working memory, and reduces our stress. George MacKerron, in his paper Happiness Is Greater In Natural Environments, writes:
On average, study participants are significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than they are in urban environments.
This one is another easy happiness hack that you could well include in your weekend plans.
- Studies: Zelenski, John M. and Elizabeth K. Nisbet. “Happiness and Feeling Connected To The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness.” Environment and Behavior, 2014. Marselle Melissa R., Irvine Katherine N., and Warber Sara L. Ecopsychology, “Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study,” September 2014.
Hack #7. Be More Grateful
Gratitude is the practice of counting our blessings and being thankful for the good things in our lives.
Those who have established the habit of gratitude in their lives have greater levels of emotional and interpersonal wellbeing as compared to others. Gratitude increases our long-term happiness.
By the way, gratitude is not just saying thanks. To show gratitude is to do three things:
- appreciate it,
- feel it,
- say it.
- Study: Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough. “Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003.
- Book by Robert A. Emmons, The Little Book of Gratitude, 2016.
Hack #8. Spend On Others
We, as human beings, are naturally wired to derive emotional gains from spending our money to help others (what psychologists call prosocial spending). It is the happiness advantage of prosocial spending.
Participants in a 2013 social experiment by Lara Aknin, Robert Biswas-Diener, and Elizabeth Dunn, who were randomly assigned to buy items for charity, reported higher levels of positive affect than those who were asked to buy the same items for themselves.
- Study: Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. “Spending money on others promotes happiness.” Science, 2008.
- Book: Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, Happy Money, 2014.
Hack #9. Listen to Happy Music
Music therapy has a positive effect on various mental health disorders like schizophrenia, depression, and substance abuse. Recently, Gold and others in the study found that, in addition to usual care, individual music therapy can have a therapeutic advantage for clients with low motivation.
- Study: Hunter, Patrick G., E. Glenn Schellenberg, and Ulrich Schimmack. “Feelings and perceptions of happiness and sadness induced by music: Similarities, differences, and mixed emotions.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2010.
- Book: Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music, 2007.
Hack #10. Adjust To Life’s Challenges
We saved the best happiness hack for the last. If you were to ask me, this is one hack you should use as much as possible. It is this:
Be flexible to the challenges life throws at you.
Human beings have the potential to tolerate better and effectively use emotions, thoughts, and behavior to extract the best possible outcomes in varying situations. This wide range of dynamic abilities forms the essence of health.
After all, a healthy person is someone who can manage themselves in the uncertain, unpredictable world around them, where novelty and change are the norm rather than the exception.
- Study: Todd B. Kashdan. Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Clinical Psychology Review, 2010.
- Book by Todd B. Kashdan: Curious?, 2010.
What Are Happiness Hacks
Happiness is a moving target if you pursue it. Everybody seems to desire it in direct or indirect ways. But if it were easy to get a firm and lasting grip on it, the whole of humanity would be happy, and we wouldn’t have to keep looking for it.
The 10 happiness hacks you find here are based on happiness-enhancing activities that positive psychologists recommend. These are called happiness interventions, that is, treatment methods or intentional activities aimed at cultivating positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive mental processes such as thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving.
However, remember that correlation does not indicate causation. That is, these do not guarantee you an immediate happiness uptick, but we can safely say most people who did these got happier over time.
In response to the accusations leveled by the critics of positive psychology (which may be bunched together as witch-hunting), the point to mention here in defense is the one championed by Robert Biswas-Diener in defense in his co-authored book The Upside of Your Dark Side:
Reading the research gave us our ideas, not the other way around. It is a mistake to think that we had ideas and then went searching for odd studies to support them.
Easy Ways to Take Charge of Your Happiness
- Forgive yourself as well as others. Carrying guilt, regret, and anguish only makes you feel down and bitter. Stop crucifying yourself for the same mistakes over and over. As humans, we all make mistakes. So, learn to forgive yourself and get into forgiving others.
- Maintain a gratitude journal. The easiest way to do this is to write down three things you are grateful for to have happened to you during the day. Learn to do the Three Good Things (TGT) happiness exercise.
- Set goals for yourself. Have some goals in your life. Having and working toward your goals make your life of happiness and more successful. Learn how to set goals (especially these 2 secret tricks of goal-setting). Have a personal definition of success.
- Exercise regularly. Being physically active causes the release of endorphins (and other chemicals) in the brain, which reduces stress and improves overall well-being. So, set up an exercise regimen for at least 5 days a week.
- Laugh without offending others. Laughter boosts your immune system, improves your mood, reduces pain, and protects you from the negative effects of stress. So, tune in to your favorite comedy shows or movies, or listen to your favorite comedians. Look for hidden humor in everyday situations.
- Meditate mindfully. Initially, it may seem hard to do it for even one minute, but within a few weeks, you can do it for 15 minutes a day. It will help you refresh your brain, reduce your stress, and decrease your chances of heart disease.
- Cultivate meaningful relationships. Your real-life friends are your biggest assets when it comes to increasing your happiness. Spend time with great friends, who care about you as much as you do about them. Get out of toxic relationships. Talk to your parents if you cannot meet them every weekend.
- Be altruistic. Altruism is the principle and practice of unselfish concern for other people. Altruistic acts, like spending money on others and devoting time to charitable causes, can significantly boost your happiness and life satisfaction.
- Spend your money to boost your happiness. Here’s what psychology says on how to use your money to maximize your happiness. For one, buy experiences rather than material goods. Because experiences fill your memory bank with positive images which you can recall later to get a boost of joy.
- Ask for help. Depression, anxiety, or a mental illness, can bring down your happiness greatly. Reach out to a trained, certified therapist who can assist you in dealing with your mental health issues that are affecting your happiness.
- Get enough sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, especially for a long period, your concentration, memory, and mood all suffer. All of us must know how to go to sleep fast.
Happiness Tips From Pope Francis
In July 2014, Pope Francis compiled his Top 10 To-Do Things for Happiness, based on his own experiences. We mention three here:
- Be giving of yourself to others.
- Proceed calmly through life.
- Have a healthy sense of leisure.
The Pope also asked parents to make time to play with their children and turn off the TV while eating together.
A Harvard study about the factors determining the overall happiness in life, the Grant Study of Adult Development, was conducted over more than 75 years, charting the physical and emotional health of 268 participants since their sophomore years at Harvard.
It resulted in three books — Adaptation to Life (1977), Aging Well (2002), and Triumphs of Experience (2012) by George Eman Vaillant, a psychiatrist, and professor at Harvard Medical School. Vaillant’s main conclusion was that the ‘warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction.’
His exact words when he talked about the study are something you will remember for a long, long time:Love is really all that matters for humans to be happy. Happiness is love. Full stop. — George E. Vaillant Click To Tweet
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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