You may think that you know what it takes to be happier (like a bigger salary or losing ten pounds), but according to science, the key to a fulfilled and satisfied life can be found in some pretty unexpected—and attainable—places. Here, nine research-backed secrets of how to be happy.
1. Count Your Blessings
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked participants to jot down a few sentences each week, focusing on specific topics. One group wrote about the things that they were grateful for that week, a second group wrote about the things that had displeased them and a third group wrote about things that had happened (neither positive or negative). After ten weeks, researchers found that those who had written about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than the other two groups. Not only that, but they had also exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor. So grab a notebook and try to jot down a few things that you’re thankful for each week. Hey, even no traffic on your daily commute is a win in our book.
2. Do Something Cultural
Women who engage in cultural activities such as playing music or creating art are more satisfied with their lives, according to a study published in the British Medical Association's Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Interestingly, the study found that for men it was enough to passively do something cultural (like go to a museum or take in a concert) to reap the mood-boosting benefits. Haven’t picked up a paintbrush since middle school? Try adult coloring books—they’re surprisingly relaxing.
Not only does doing something good for others help those in need, but it can also boost your own happiness. That’s according to a report published in BMC Public Health in which researchers reviewed 40 studies from the past 20 years. They found that volunteering is associated with lower depression, increased well-being and a higher sense of life satisfaction. (Oh, and a 22 percent reduction in the risk of dying, so you know, not too shabby.)
4. Do Something Awe-Inspiring
A small study published in Psychological Science found that when people were shown something new and awe-inspiring, they were more likely to feel happier and volunteer their time to help others (which you now know also leads to happiness) compared with those who were simply shown something that made them feel happy. This was true even when participants were shown something only briefly or just read about someone else’s experience. Meaning that if you can’t experience a sense of awe on a daily basis, then even reading a great book about something inspiring is enough to boost your mood.
Here’s something crazy: According to a Harvard University study, meditation may actually change the structure of your brain (in a good way). Researchers found that people who meditate had a decrease in brain cell volume in the amygdala, the area of that brain that is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress. Whoa. Want to meditate but not sure where to start? Here are five great meditation tips for beginners.
6. Spend Money on Others
And you don’t need to be a millionaire, either. A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia gave $5 or $20 to 46 people with instructions to spend the cash by 5 p.m. While some participants were told to spend the money on themselves, others were instructed to donate the money to charity or use it to buy someone else a gift. Here’s the kicker: Those who gave their money away were the happiest at the end of the day, no matter how much money they had spent.
7. Sleep More
You already know that getting enough shut-eye is linked to improved memory and better skin, but it can also have a serious effect on your happiness levels. In fact, according to psychologist Norbert Schwarz, “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.” That’s a good enough excuse for us to head to bed one hour earlier tonight (although we wouldn’t necessarily say no to an extra 60 grand, either).
8. Don’t Eat Lunch at Your Desk
We’ll be the first to admit that we’re guilty of eating al desko more often than not. But it’s not doing our mental health any favors. That’s according to research carried out by the University of Sussex that found that employees who leave the office to eat their lunch are more positive and feel better about their jobs, whereas those who eat at their desk are more likely to be unhappy. Get thee to a bench.
Getting your sweat on has been proven to decrease stress, improve sleep, boost productivity and lift your mood. That's largely thanks to those feel-good chemicals, endorphins. And according to the American Psychological Association, you should feel the mood-enhancement effects of exercise after just five minutes (and it doesn't have to be a strenuous workout, either). But you knew that already, right?