If there is one thing we all have in common, it’s the desire to be happy. We can disagree on politics, fashion, and whether or not pineapple is an appropriate pizza topping, but when it comes to our emotional well-being we all want the same thing: happiness.
Now, what’s surprising is that for something so universally sought after, we know very little about what makes us happy. But today we’re going to change that.
If you’re a frequent reader here (thank you), you know that happiness has been a featured theme. This will be the final post on the topic, at least for now, and is the culmination of quite literally months of research spanning subjects from mindfulness to psychology to neuroscience.
A few months back, I began to incorporate this research into my daily routine. What follows are the 11 things that have made the biggest difference.
Studies show we’re happiest when we’re focused, engaged and living in the moment. But as we learned in our previous post, our minds like to wander, and usually to dark places — either stressing over the past or worrying about the future.
But meditation can prevent needless worry because it improves mental focus. Better yet, you can see benefits in as little as 2 weeks.
Starting a mindfulness practice is easy. Headspace and Calm are two apps that I’ve used, and both have free introductory courses that guide you through the basics of meditation.
Schedule Something To Look Forward To
Not even a Zen master can stop a wandering mind all of the time. So the next best thing is to give the mind a happy place to wander to. Having something on the calendar — a trip, concert, weekend with the guys, etc — can distract your brain from its habitual negative thinking.
How can an event weeks or even months away make you happier today? Because of the anticipation. In fact, in some cases, the happiness in anticipation is greater than the happiness during the actual event — known as “rosy prospection.”
It’s even better to schedule some fun at the end of a particularly difficult period. An all-inclusive trip to Cancun in March, for example, can ease the pain of a long, cold winter.
Spend Money (But Not On Stuff)
It turns out that money can buy happiness…if you spend it on doing rather than having. It’s not that buying fancy new things doesn’t bring happiness (it does), but the happiness it brings is short lived — your new shoes get dirty, you get used to watching games on a 60 inch screen, and your new car has all the bells and whistles until next year’s model comes out and then it doesn’t.
Spending money on activities and experiences, however, provides long lasting happiness. How can a one-off event like a concert or a vacation provide longer lasting happiness than a possession you could arguably have forever? First, the anticipation is greater — we look forward more to events than we do purchasing an item. Then, once the event is over, we have the memory, which we tend to remember fondly, as well as a social connection to the people we shared it with.
Get A Dog, Or Just Go Pet One
People who own pets are healthier, happier and more outgoing than those who don’t. Dogs especially make us happy and have mastered human companionship to the point where they can treat mental disorders like depression and PTSD. Even petting a dog is enough to reduce stress. So if you see a dog and are having a crummy day, go scratch his belly. It’ll make you both feel good.
Choose Hobbies Over TV
It’s always easiest to do what it easy. That’s why, after a long day at the office, most of us take the path of least resistance: comfies, couch, and TV. But what’s easiest isn’t what makes us happy, and although channel surfing provides some instant gratification, it does little for long term happiness.
Active leisure, on the other hand, is engaging and challenging and far more rewarding to our sense of self and happiness. So skip the TV and get a hobby — play guitar, cook, brew some beer. You’ll be better for it.
Cut Your Commute
It’s probably no surprise to hear commuting makes us unhappy. But it might be a little surprising to hear just how unhappy:
According to one study, if you cut an hour long commute each way, it’s the happiness equivalent of making an extra $40,000 per year.
This is due, in large part, to adaption. We get used to the things we’re willing to commute for — higher salary, bigger house, etc. — and as a result need more and more (about $40k worth) to maintain that level of happiness.
However, we never adapt to our commute. It’s not just bad traffic that makes commuting so terrible, but the uncertainty of how terrible today’s commute will be. Or as Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert puts it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is essential to happiness. When you don’t get enough…
- Your brain loses its ability to regulate emotion
- You’re 20x more likely to develop anxiety and 5x more likely to develop depression
- Your brain can actually deteriorate, causing a loss of brain tissue
Another study shows that getting one extra hour of sleep per night does more for your daily happiness than an additional $60,000 per year in income.
So how much sleep do you need? The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours per night but notes that for some people it might be as much as 10. The chart below summarizes the results of the foundation’s most recent study.
Hit Your Exercise Quota
Not only is exercise great for physical health but mental health, too. In fact, regular exercise has been shown to treat depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins — ‘feel good’ chemicals that produce effects similar to those in a shot of morphine. In addition, exercise…
- Reduces levels of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol
- Improves confidence and self-esteem
- Increases relaxation and improves quality of sleep
So how much exercise do you need? The magic formula seems to be 30 minutes at least 3 times a week. And it doesn’t have to be super intense either. A jog, brisk walk, or cutting the grass are all enough to increase blood circulation and deliver benefits to the brain.
Hug Someone For 20 Seconds
Is 20 seconds a long time for a hug? Probably. But researchers found that when you hug someone for 20 seconds, your body releases oxytocin, the love hormone that induces feelings of calm and attachment. So there. Now you have an excuse to linger.
Giving really is better than receiving, at least when it comes to happiness. Altruism — giving to others — is as important to our overall happiness as our self esteem and the strength of our social relationships.
A recent study shows people are happier buying things for others than they are for themselves, and another discovered that volunteers see greater benefits than the people they’re helping. So go out and give. It can literally make you happier all week long.
Practice Every Day
If you take 2 things away from this post, I hope it’s these:
- Happiness is attainable. It isn’t reserved for the rich or ultra-successful or for those with perfect, loving families.
- Happiness is found in the moment. It’s not in a daydream and it’s not waiting for you at the end of some major accomplishment.
Being happy requires a daily conscious effort to build a healthy mind, and building a healthy mind is a lot like building a healthy body: you have to work at it.
To read more on our series on happiness, follow the links below.
Has Evolution Hardwired Us to be Unhappy?