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10 Scientifically Proven Ways To Become A Happier Person
It’s the holiday season and the new year is upon us. The holidays are not always an easy time of year—many of us are missing loved ones, while others are struggling with mental illness that stand in the way of feeling happy. This year, let’s explore 10 proven ways that we can all become happier and less stressed people. Now that’s a New Year’s resolution worth trying.
10 Give It A Shot
Anyone who has suffered from bouts of sadness knows what it is like to be told to just try harder. This can be frustrating advice, especially if it comes from someone who doesn’t understand what you’re going through. It is never good to tell someone to “get over it” when they can’t shake the blues. Whether that person is suffering from clinical depression or mourning the loss of a beloved family pet, there are countless reasons why it can be difficult to get over feeling down. Belittling someone’s emotions is not going to help anyone feel any better. While getting over it may not be an option, focusing on your own feelings and just trying to feel happier can actually elevate your mood.
According to two researchers from Knox College and the University of Missouri, just trying to be happier can improve your sense of well-being. In the first of two studies, volunteers were instructed to listen to uplifting music. One group of volunteers was told to try to feel happy while listening to the music and the other group was told to just listen to the music. The group that actively attempted to feel happier felt significantly more positive than the other group after the experiment.
In the second study, which lasted over two weeks, one group was just told to listen to and focus on happy music while a second group was told to listen to happy music but to focus on improving their mood. The participants who were told to focus on their own happiness reported the highest feelings of positivity after the experiment ended. The researchers concluded that concentrating on being happy led to happy results.
In today’s technology-filled world, people spend more time than ever on their gadgets. Research presented by academics from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed that people who are fiddling with electronic devices all the time are more likely to suffer from physical and mental problems such as stress, depression, and sleeping issues. It wasn’t just looking at the screens which caused the problems—stress was often the product of being constantly available. People reported feeling guilty because they felt like it was their responsibility to reply to texts and answer calls right away.
Adults aren’t the only ones suffering the negative effects of constant screen time, either. Children are at risk for anxiety and depression when they spend too much time watching TV, playing on the computer, or looking at mom’s cell phone. These mental health issues have been found to be most significant when children spend four or more hours on these kinds of devices, although effects start showing when children clock more than two hours looking at electronic screens.
The solution? Switch off every day. It’s important to find a way to deliberately disconnect from a life constantly connected via technology, whether it’s taking a ten minutes to stand up and stretch or choosing times where you don’t look at a screen. Cooking and eating a meal is often a good time to unplug. Taking time away from social media, responding immediately to texts, and answering emails can bring about big changes for your health. Some of the positive things that come from unplugging include improved sleep patterns, better productivity, and higher self-esteem.
8 Go Outside
We all know that spending too much time in the sun is bad for your health. From sunburns to skin cancer and immune system problems, obsessive tanning is not a good idea. This fear of UV exposure, combined with increased use of technology, has driven people indoors. Instead of following guidelines to be careful in the sun at times of peak UV radiation, we’re opting out of direct sunlight altogether. We’ve already covered how too much technology can be bad for you, but what about just being indoors all day?
The World Health Organization has suggested that more diseases can be attributed to not enough sunlight than too much. Many major health benefits come from the production of vitamin D, which our skin produces when it comes in contact with UVB radiation. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a plethora of mental and physical problems and studies say that vitamin D supplements aren’t enough to replace natural sunlight. Just 10–15 minutes of direct sunlight, without sunglasses, produces health benefits.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh concur that getting outside and soaking in the sun might have more benefits than risks. When our skin is exposed to the sunlight, the chemical nitric oxide is released into the blood stream that combats high blood pressure, a benefit that reduces the risk of heart disease and can prolong life. Furthermore, getting in touch with nature has been shown to improve moods and reduce stress.
This tip requires some concentration, but the benefits are tremendous. Although meditation has been around for eons, it’s not well-established in Western cultures. Early Western scientific studies on meditation showed how it could be a treatment for physical issues like migraine headaches and even diabetes. These studies started to see another positive outcome to meditation—focused meditation was reducing negative emotions. Everyone has a “set point” for their emotions, from which we move up or down to experience positive or negative feelings. This starting line can be changed with long-term meditative practice, starting after only two months of meditation. Meditation also makes people kinder and improves immune system responses.
Meditation might not be an instant fix, but it’s one of the most effective long term ways to become a happier person. It doesn’t just make it easier to be happy, it can actually alter your genetic expression. Researchers studied two groups of people to observe the effects of meditation on a molecular level. One group was instructed to spend a day being calm and relaxed, while the second group was comprised of skilled meditators who were instructed to spend a day engaged in mindful meditation.
What the researchers discovered was nothing short of remarkable. Before the study began, there were no differences between the groups in the genes that were being tested, but the experienced meditators showed molecular-level changes. One of these changes was a reduction in inflammatory gene expression. Meditation can not only make you happier and healthier, but it can make changes on a genetic level.
6 Spend Money (On Other People)
‘Tis the season for giving. If you keep that mantra all year round, you’re likely to be happier than those who don’t give to others. According to researchers from the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, money can buy happiness—but only when you are buying things for other people. The researchers found that households who had yearly incomes of less than $50,000 were less happy than people who earned between $50,000 and $75,000, but a bigger factor for happiness than income was giving to others. Money only affects happiness to a certain degree and only if spent right.
It isn’t all about money, either—daily acts of kindness and altruism can promote happiness and higher overall life satisfaction. In a study published in The Journal of Social Psychology, three groups of people were given different tasks. Every day for 10 days, one group was required to perform one act of altruism, another had to try something new, and the third group was told to live as they normally would. The first two groups reported higher levels of happiness after the 10-day period, suggesting that new activities and acts of giving can significantly improve our satisfaction in life.
5 Smile Like You Mean It
Before you say no one likes a fake who is smiling when they’re actually miserable, hear these researchers out. Smiling is not just a response to feeling happy—it can also make us happy. Our physical response to our feelings in turn affects our emotional states, and for many of us, it is easier to control our facial muscles than it is to control our minds. This theory was originally named the “facial feedback hypothesis” and many studies have been undertaken to test the reality behind the façade.
Researchers at the University of Cardiff in Wales studied people who had Botox injections and experienced difficulty frowning as a result of paralyzed facial muscles. Those who had did reported higher levels of joy than people who had no problem frowning, regardless of their actual levels of self-confidence. The researchers point to this as proof of the mind-body connection when it comes to happiness—if frowning can make you feel sadder, smiling can make you feel happier.
The reason this works is because your facial muscles give direct neurological feedback to your brain. If you are smiling, the muscle combination that is in use is associated with happiness and your brain receives those signals. That will spark some of those great happy feelings because your brain realizes that smiling has to do with joy. If your smile is particularly big, you’ll be working your orbicularis oculi, the muscle in the corner of your eyes. When this muscle gets flexed, your brain is even more convinced that you should be feeling good, because that muscle is only used when you are truly smiling.
Keep in mind that suppressing negative emotions was not shown to improve long-term happiness, and being emotionally stifled can have negative effects in other areas of our lives. It’s important to express negative emotions, but trying to crack a smile can make you feel better when you aren’t feeling so great.
4 Go With The Flow
We all know the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Scientists have a word for that feeling when you’re so engaged in an activity that you stop noticing the passage of time: “flow.” Flow happens when we are completely immersed and committed in an activity that we can do well but that also challenges us. What is unique about flow versus ordinary happiness is that flow is an active experience that you create, not one that was created by outside influences.
The activities that create flow are different for every person, because everyone has unique skill sets and preferences. An endurance athlete may experience flow during an exhilarating bike ride, while an artist might flow while painting the sunset. If it is possible to flow while doing anything, why are people not experiencing flow all the time?
What creates flow is not the activity itself but the circumstances surrounding it and your perception of the activity. The activity, whether mowing the lawn or sky diving, must fulfill three requirements—it must be seen as a choice, it has to be something you find pleasant, and it has to be difficult enough to require skill but not so challenging that you can’t be successful in the task. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of flow is that what you are experiencing is a lack of emotion. When you flow, you literally lose yourself in the moment. It is afterwards that you feel the joy of the experience.
This is why two of the things people regret most at the end of life is not living a life true to themselves and working too hard. When you work a job that you love, it is the flow that brings you happiness and it doesn’t feel like work. Even when you are not surrounded by people that you like, as long as you can find flow in your work, you are more likely to be happy. But don’t worry if you don’t have your dream job—if you focus on changing your state of mind, you can create flow in any job. Cutting corners may make your job seem easier, but it makes it less likely that you will feel successful or experience flow. The key is finding purpose in what you are doing, whether at work or play.
3 Reach Out And Touch Someone
Facebook gives people a sense of connectivity, but it doesn’t bring satisfaction or happiness. Researchers at the University of Michigan tracked the Facebook use of young adults along with their emotional state. They found that when people used Facebook more, the less happy they were. Their satisfaction levels continued to decrease over the two weeks of the study. When people interacted with others in real life or even over the phone, they felt much better than they did when using Facebook.
This study supports the huge body of research that says touch is a magic healer and that lack of intimacy is damaging. Touch has a myriad of positive effects, including improved immune systems and reduced anxiety. From the moment we are born, touch is one of the most important and undervalued basic human need. Children who don’t receive proper nurturing as infants are much more likely to suffer from social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Being deprived of touch means that two hormones that play an important part in the way we bond both emotionally and socially with others, oxytocin and vasopressin, are not released. This can have a lasting effect for the rest of a person’s life.
The benefits of touch don’t go away once we grow up, either. Oxytocin continues to be released throughout our lives when we embrace friends and family. It works to bond social relations and reduces our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, overall reducing anxiety. Holding hands can bring about similar positive results. Even cuddling with Fido can bring about major benefits for you and your beloved pet. Snuggling with your animals can make you feel less pain, help your immune system, and bring about lasting happiness.
Exercise has long been linked to a happier disposition and medical experts extoll the health benefits of regular workouts. That heaping dose of endorphins gives you an immediate boost following a good workout, but what about long-term happiness? Can regular exercise make you happy beyond the initial rush?
In early 2013, Canadian scientists found that people who were less physically active were twice as unlikely to be happy compared to those who were continuously active. Similarly, Penn State University researchers found that people who were more physically active felt higher levels of enjoyment than those who were more sedentary. There is even a growing body of scientific evidence that exercise may be more effective than antidepressants in treating depressed patients. It can even give us a marijuana-like high, thanks to chemicals called endocannabinoids that our brains produce when we work up a sweat. These chemicals reduce pain, stress, and anxiety. Next time you need to feel really good, reach for your running shoes and breathe in a runner’s high.
1 Don’t Make It Your Goal to Be Happy
Smiling when you don’t feel like it and trying to be happy when you’re down are good ways to improve your mood, but do not make it your goal to be happy. Happiness is not a permanent state and setting a goal to be happy is unfulfilling because happiness is an emotion, not an end point that you can know you’ve reached.
Realizing that happiness is a part of life and working to reduce negative emotional reactions by training your mind and body are more achievable goals. Researchers from the University of Denver have been studying how having a goal of happiness affects our emotional well-being. The results of their studies showed that people who were not stressed but put more value on happiness were less happy than those who didn’t value happiness as much.
According to the research, people who valued happiness more were setting higher goals for achieving it, making it easier to feel let down. Another cause may be that focusing too much on your own happiness can cause you behave selfishly and take away opportunities to create happy moments with others. Experts suggest instead to set short-term goals that focus on activities rather than emotions, such as making it your goal to successfully meditate, buy your sister lunch, or go for a daily walk outside. These smaller and more achievable goals naturally bring us more joy.
Kristance is a freelance travel writer, editor, and researcher. When she’s not compulsively traveling the globe, she’s looking up weird facts and making awkward YouTube videos. Connect with her on Twitter, read about her adventures at diggingtoroam.com, or have a laugh at her gif-filled Tumblr.