Proven Happiness Boosters
By examining the characteristics of happy people, researchers have identified activities that can increase people’s happiness. While these exercises are not a cure-all panacea, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that relatively simple changes in our thoughts and behaviours can precipitate meaningful increases in happiness. The following techniques are proven happiness boosters.
Gratitude is the practice of noticing and appreciating the positive in the world and is strongly related to all aspects of wellbeing.
You can experience gratitude by:
- Appreciating the helpful actions of other people.
- Focussing on what you have rather than what you don’t have.
- Experiencing feelings of awe when you encounter beauty.
- Focusing on positive things in the present moment.
- Reminding yourself that life is short and to take stock of each day.
- Noticing how good you have it in comparison to others less fortunate.
You can also boost your feelings of appreciation by deliberately performing a gratitude exercise. The work of Robert Emmons from the University of California, Davis in particular has garnered a lot of attention for showing that cultivating gratefulness through journaling leads to overall improved well-being, including fewer health complaints and a more positive outlook toward life. One study found that those who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical ailments, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.
Positive Psychology pioneer Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania has also demonstrated that writing down three good things that happened each day for one week can increase happiness and decrease depressive symptoms for six months. Seligman has also shown that writing a letter to a benefactor thanking them for something and then visiting them to read the letter reported more happiness and less depression one month later.
Get started: For one week keep a daily dairy in which you write three things for which you are grateful. At the start of the week take note of how grateful you feel in your life. At the end of the week, take a moment to see if you’ve experienced an increase.
Disclosing information, thoughts, and feelings about personal and meaningful topics can have various health and psychological consequences.
In a series of studies James Pennebaker from the University of Texas and his colleagues have found that expressive writing about negative experiences can improve health problems and bolster coping and well-being. Compared to groups assigned to write about trivial or non-traumatic events, people who engage in expressive writing exercises experience reduced medical visits, improvements in immune function, increases in antibody production, increases in psychological wellbeing, reduced anxiety, and reduced depressive symptoms.
Pennebaker believes this is because writing forces us to stop and reevaluate our life circumstance and that the act of writing encourages us to label and acknowledge our emotions. By translating our emotions into words we start to see things differently and therefore behave differently in ways that may be better for us.
There is also an emerging line of enquiry pondering what the interplay might be between health and having a varied range of emotions. That is to say, taking the good with the bad may in fact be the key to good health.
Hal Hershfield, an expert in behavioural economics at the University of California, Los Angeles is delving into the link between varied emotions and health. In one study, Hershfield observed 47 adults undergoing psychotherapy to help them with difficult life events such as divorce or the transition to parenthood. They were given questionnaires and asked to write personal narratives reflecting on their thoughts and feelings. The results showed that people’s wellbeing wasn’t improved simply by increasing levels of happiness. It was the people who experienced a mixture of happiness and sadness who saw improvements in their wellbeing.
Get started: Keep a daily dairy in which you write down your emotions, being sure to include both the good and bad feelings you may be experiencing.
In this crazy, busy, stressed-out, hectic world, sometimes we may need a little help to redirect our attention back towards what makes life worth living. Optimism is a tendency to expect good things in the future. If you’re feeling optimistic you feel positive about events in your daily life, you have an inclination towards hope, and you think about the best possible outcome in any situation.
Studies have found that self-reported optimism predicts lower rates of mortality and cancer, and better cardiovascular health and immune function. Optimists also have a better chance of securing a stable, loving relationship. You’re also less likely to get depressed.
But thinking positively is easier said than done and researchers are hard at work trying to work out the most effective ways to boost positive thinking.
One method being shown to be effective is the practice of ‘benefit finding’. Inspired by James Pennebaker’s work on the effects of writing, researchers asked participants to write about the positive aspects of a negative experience (i.e., what they had learned or how they had grown as a result of the experience) and found similar health benefits that Pennebaker had found in his traumatic writing exercises. Another study of people with MS found that being able to see the good things that had come about as a result of their illness was associated with less depression. Similar results were found for a study on women with breast cancer.
Get started: Think about a negative experience that may be getting you down, then list out the positive things that may come out of it.
There is nothing quite like the warm glow you feel when you do something nice for someone else. Researchers are looking at the effects that this ‘helpers high’ has on our health and wellbeing.
When it comes to mental health, volunteerism has been linked to greater life satisfaction, more purpose in life, greater self-esteem and fewer depressive symptoms. One study demonstrated that people who were feeling worried and stressed about their finances felt better when they offered support to someone else. Another study found that people who help others are more resilient in the face of stress than people who don’t tend to help others.
Kindness is also being found to have health benefits. Researchers have found that people who volunteer four hours a week were 40 percent less likely to have developed heart disease. Another study found that people suffering from chronic pain experienced decreased pain intensity when they began to serve as peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain. In fact, research consistently links volunteering to lower all-cause mortality. In one study people who are 55 years and older who volunteered for two or more organisations were found to be 44 percent less likely to die.
Researchers are looking at the mechanisms that might help explain the health and wellbeing boost we get from being kind and believe that it’s likely a combination of things including the stress reduction that comes with being altruistic, the social benefits of feeling connected to others, and the shift in perception that comes when we shift our attention away from ourselves. A 2007 study showed that donating money makes the “feel good” reward centre in our brains light up giving us physiological evidence of the “warm glow” feeling we get from doing something nice for someone else.
But while there is mounting evidence linking well-being, happiness, health, and longevity with being compassionate, this comes with an important caveat. It is not the case that the more you give, the better you feel. It’s possible to take on too much and this can have significant negative health consequences. Burnout and depression in overburdened caregivers is not unusual and can contribute to “empathic over arousal” or “compassion fatigue” where the results can be severe stress, disrupted cognitive functioning, distancing from close relationships, professional attrition and depression.
Get started: Perform a random act of kindness and take note of the warm glow you experience afterwards. It could be anything from buying someone a coffee, to taking the time to write a letter to someone to whom you’re grateful, or volunteering your time for someone or an organisation in need. If your random act of kindness resulted in a boost to your levels of happiness, you might like to commit to consciously doing another every week.
Using Our Strengths in New Ways
In a 2005 study where people were asked to identify their top strength and then spend a week using that strength in a new and different way each day, participants reported feeling greater happiness even six months later. Other researchers have replicated the study with similar results, and have also found a boost in personal well-being and feeling more engagement in life, as well as an increased sense of life satisfaction. Some preliminary research also indicates you can get a happiness boost by working on your lesser strengths too.
Researchers Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman believe that we each possess three to seven (out of a possible 24) strengths which characterise us best. These strengths may include:
- Love of learning
- Social intelligence
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence
Get started: You can take a quiz to identify your own top strengths at the VIA Institute on Character’s website: www.viacharacter.org
Affirming Your Important Values
Life is full of vulnerable moments when we feel off-balance and unsure of ourselves. In these moments we are likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Social psychologists have developed a simple activity, called a ‘values affirmation’, that can intervene in such situations to restore our sense of equilibrium.
The activity involves reflecting on what is important to you and has been found to have a broad range of beneficial effects. An exercise such as writing about why you value friends and family has been shown to buffer against stress, reduce rumination, boost self control, and increase feelings of love and social connection. Neuroscientists have observed that when people reflect on important personal values, the rewards circuitry of the brain lights up which might help explain the feelings of increased wellbeing.
In one study investigating the effects of values affirmation on stress, participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test, which involves having to deliver a speech and complete a maths task under pressure. Prior to completing the test, half of the participants reflected on what values they felt were important to them and had a significantly lower stress response than people in the control group who didn’t think about their values.
These values based exercises have also been shown to encourage healthy lifestyle choices. For example, after completing a values task smokers are more likely to pick up a leaflet about how to quit, women on a weight loss program are more successful, and that people at risk of health issues are more likely to seek screening tests.
The researchers who study the effect of values exercises believe that they help by reminding us of the broad, principal values by which we define ourselves and our lives. In other words, values affirmations can be like a mental time-out; a moment to pull back, get some perspective, and reassure ourselves that we have integrity and that life, on balance, is okay in spite of an adversity before us. When we operate from this broader perspective, we react less defensively and act more effectively.
Get started: Make a list of the values that matter most to you. Perhaps you value your close relationship with your family, your passion for learning, or your strong faith in God. Choose one of those values that is central to your life and write about it for 10 minutes.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Loving Kindness Meditation, or LKM is used to increase feelings of warmth and caring for yourself and others. Like mindfulness, this practice is derived from Buddhist principles, but rather than passively observing thoughts, you concentrate on actively directing a feeling of compassion towards yourself and then extend your focus to an ever-widening circle of others, ultimately radiating warmth and compassion in all directions.
LKM has been shown to boost positivity and life satisfaction as well as reduce depressive and illness symptoms. A Stanford University study found that in just seven minutes of LKM, people reported greater social connection toward others.
A 2008 study led by leading positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil showed that LKM led to shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement, and awe. This mood boost was in turn linked to increases in a variety of personal resources, including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health.
It’s important to note that a ‘medium effect size’ means that while the technique has been shown to work, it doesn’t always work and it’s interesting that Frederickson’s recent work, published last month is starting to explore the genetic basis for why this type of meditation is effective for some people but not others.
Get started: The idea of LKM is to induce a mental state of unselfish and unconditional kindness to all beings. Begin by sitting or lying down comfortably. (If you’re prone to sleepiness when you begin to relax, I’d recommend sitting). Take a few deep breaths, filling your chest and stomach and slowly breathing out. Feel any tension in your body begin to release and relax. Close your eyes. Next, focus on directing feelings of warmth, kindness and compassion towards yourself. Then focus on a good friend, then someone you feel neutrally about (eg; your bus driver or postman), then a “difficult” person (eg; a person you may have negative feelings about); and eventually focus on the entire universe. You might like to silently repeat phrases, such as “may you be happy” or “may you be free from suffering” towards your targets.
Professor Fred Bryant from Loyolay Unveristy Chicago is a leading considered researcher on the topic of savoring which he defines as the use of thoughts and actions to increase the intensity, duration, and appreciation of positive experiences and emotions. Bryant’s idea is to go beyond just being in the moment (the practice of mindfulness) and try to make a positive experience last. He believes that if we have the ability to enjoy and savor positive experiences, then we will live a richer and more enjoyable life.
In one study Bryant looked at the relationship between positive life events, savoring, and happiness. He asked 101 men and women to keep an online mood diary and fill out a specially designed questionnaire for 30 days. They documented their positive life events, the degree to which they savoured those events, and their levels of subjective happiness. When Bryant and his team compiled the information from a total of 2805 diary entries, they found significant relationships between positive events and a happy mood. But what was interesting was that people who savoured the positive events in life experienced a greater boost in happy mood as a result.
This ties in nicely with research done at Professor Richard Davidson’s Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, showing that savoring a beautiful sunset and the positive emotions associated with it can contribute to improved well-being and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The team has demonstrated that a brain region called the ventral striatum is directly linked to sustaining positive emotions and reward. In general, people with more levels of activity in the ventral striatum report higher levels of wellbeing and have lower levels of cortisol.
Professor Jordi Quoidbach from University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona has found that happier participants were the ones that typically savored their experiences using a wide variety of strategies. He concluded that while numerous self help books and training programs advocate just one strategy (e.g., mindfulness mediation), his results suggest that we can become even happier by learning a variety of techniques.Get started: Based on the research by Quoidbach and others, here are some strategies to help you savor the moment:
- Show your happiness – Fully express your positive emotions with non-verbal behaviours such as smiling, hugging or clapping.
- Be present – Deliberately direct your attention to the current pleasant experience
- Capitalize – Share your good feelings and celebrate with others
- Time travel – Take a mental photograph of the moment and set the intention to recall it down the track