As someone who has dealt with various fluctuations in my mental health throughout my life, I am perpetually interested in the subject matter of happiness. More specifically, I am interested in learning about the factors that influence our happiness, and conversely, the facets of our lives which lead to increased feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness. Perhaps surprisingly, scientific research in the domain of happiness is actually relatively significant. Happiness isn’t merely a vaguely-defined and esoteric concept, but rather it has been quantified and analysed. Our knowledge about happiness and the factors that influence it is increasing, and we can corroborate this research with our experiential knowledge to influence our lives practically to ultimately increase our levels of happiness. This is particularly relevant when the presence of mental health problems is seemingly ubiquitous, and we live in a world where negative news stories are cyclical and constant. Moreover, we are able to directly observe and compare our lives with every single other person who has a public instagram, facebook and tik-tok account, fostering a sense of dissatisfaction in our lives that we may have been content with had we had nothing to compare it to. Thankfully, happiness researchers, such as Harvard psychologist Shaun Achor, have developed scientifically-supported behaviours that we can incorporate into our lives that can counteract these negative influences and, conversely, increase our overall levels of happiness. But it does take some effort.
In order to quantify happiness and increase our experiences of it, we need to first construct a universally-applicable definition. The first google search result for me defined happiness as “the state of being happy”. Truly groundbreaking. More helpful definitions describe happiness as a state of contentment and fulfilment and a sense of positive well-being. It is the absence of consistent negative emotions, and the presence of a positive emotions and a sense of overall satisfaction. In other words, it is not merely a transient feeling of pleasure, but a long-lasting and overall feeling of contentment about our life.
It could be said that we all seem to possess a base level of optimism, whereby some people seem to have a propensity to view the world with a negative lens whilst others see the glass as half full. Our perceptions and the way we perceive external circumstances is the result of our biology and environment, and a great deal of our happiness is caused by how we perceive our external circumstances. Moreover, our happiness levels are not fixed, unchanging truths but rather can be adaptable through hard work and changing our daily thought-processes and patterns of behaviour. Whilst it’s true that feelings of happiness come easily to some and to others it requires more effort, the key take-away is that we play an active role in shaping our happiness levels. No matter our past or pessimistic attitudes, it’s liberating to know that we can indeed curate greater levels of happiness if we focus on the variables we have control over.
Ways to Improve Happiness
Whilst it’s interesting to explore the scientific background of happiness, what’s even more useful is knowing how to improve our happiness on a practical level. The good news is that there are simple behavioural changes we can make that don’t require a complex understanding of the human brain, or forking out thousands of dollars on a wellness retreat. Happiness researcher Shawn Achor has studied the concept of happiness for several years. He has identified practical behaviours and habits that we can incorporate into our daily routine to ultimately improve our base levels of happiness. His research has shown that incorporating positive behaviours into lives on a daily basis and making them a habit can significantly increase our well-being and life satisfaction. This is the case after just three weeks of implementing these new habits, and the benefits extend far beyond that initial time period. So what exactly are these habits Shawn identifies?
- Gratitude practice and journalling
It might seem cringe-worthy and cliche, but incorporating a daily gratitude practice into your routine is imperative if your aim is to increase your levels of happiness. Achor says that writing down three things you are grateful for that happened over the preceding 24 hours, will be demonstrably beneficial for your wellbeing. Not only will you experience greater appreciation for the things you do have in your life that you may have previously overlooked, but the act of being thankful creates a a cycle of positive thoughts where little room is left for negativity and pessimism. If you are struggling to formulate new things to be grateful for on a daily basis, one ostensibly dark tip I have is to conjure up an unfortunate scenario in your mind – losing a limb, a family member becoming ill, your house being destroyed by a natural disaster. Explore how you might feel if one of these were to happen, and think about the implications this would have on you. Now bring yourself back into the present moment and your current life. It’s likely you will feel an immense sense of gratitude that the awful event you’ve thought of hasn’t actually occurred – and you have now have things to be grateful for – such as an in-tact home and a healthy family.
Another practical task we can incorporate into our daily routine to elevate happiness levels is journalling about a positive experience from the previous day. More specifically, spending several minutes recapping the positive occurrence and writing what happened in as much detail as possible. This allows you to re-experience the positive emotions you felt at the time, whilst also solidifying it in your mind as a meaningful experience. It can seem like a waste of time spending 10 minutes journalling about a relatively mundane experience from the day before, but it is the accumulation of small, seemingly innocuous behaviours that add up to shape our attitudes, feelings and overall world-views. Even on the terrible days, you should still be able to think of one moment that conferred feelings of happiness, whether it be small-talk with the barista at the coffee shop, or simply binge-watching a reality show. It doesn’t have to be an amazing and novel occasion, because ultimately the exercise is about appreciating all positive experiences, particularly the ones that you may have previously overlooked.
2. Fifteen minutes of cardio
It’s hardly groundbreaking to advising to engage in regular physical activity as a means to increase our feelings of happiness, but it’s a cliche because it’s simply true. Just fifteen minutes of cardiovascular activity, such as walking your dog, a sweaty HIIT class or simply cleaning your pool or doing gardening, can have profoundly positive impact impacts on our happiness. In fact, Shawn’s research, and indeed other studies, have shown that engaging in daily cardiovascular exercise can be just as beneficial for improving our mental health as taking an antidepressant for those diagnosed with depression. Simply the act of doing something creates space for productivity and it creates a cascading effect of activity whereby we feel motivated to do more things, which in-turn will allow us to achieve our daily goals and feel that sense of satisfaction we all crave at the end of the day. These feeling of productivity and satisfaction will lead to increased levels of happiness both in the moment after your exercise but also in your life overall. You will be pleased that you are moving closer to achiever your goals and that your behaviours are aligned with your values.
Former monk turned author, life coach and social media powerhouse Jay Shetty states in his book “Think Like a Monk” that he meditates every day for over two hours. Whilst he seems like a genuinely likeable bloke and well-equipped on the subject of happiness, I’m not suggesting you need to mimic his behaviour and attempt to focus on nothing but your breathing for hours. I think if that were me I would either fall asleep after fifteen minutes or spiral into a state of insanity. However, the research around meditation seems to be overwhelmingly positive, and for most people it seems to confer a benefit on our mental health. In order to increase our levels of happiness, Shawn suggests taking two minutes every day to stop the activity you’re doing and simply focus on your breathing. You can do this at your desk at work, or at home before bed when you need to unwind. Meditation can seem difficult and pointless at the time, but the research does support it as a means of reducing our stress levels and consequently increasing our well-being. I suggest downloading an app (for example, the Insight timer app) and committing yourself to two minutes of meditation a day. Maybe it won’t have any profound affects on you, but the simple act of setting a goal and incorporating it into your routine creates a sense of achievement and this in turn will lead to increased happiness.
4. Conscious act of kindness
Often we can be so caught up in our own troubles and woes that we forget about other people and the struggles they might be going through. If we are constantly focussing on ourselves, our flaws and mistakes, it can lead to rumination of previous negative experiences and hyper-critical thoughts about our abilities and achievements (or lack thereof). Rather than focussing our thoughts on ourselves, a way to improve our happiness in the immediate and long-term is to consider other people and how you can consciously do something kind for them. For example, Shawn suggests sending a short email or text to someone you know at the beginning of every day with a comment that praises them or shows your appreciation of them. The benefits of an act like this is obviously two-fold: you feel a sense of satisfaction by making someone else feel good, and that person in turn feels happier and appreciated.
5. Deepen Social Connections
I have previously written about the importance of social connectedness in shaping our overall levels of life satisfaction and happiness. Shawn corroborates this view and confirms that our social-life and relationships predict how successful and healthy we are, as well as our life expectancy. Basically, we need to focus on strengthening and maintaining solid relationships with our friends and family if we want to be happier. It’s not necessarily the amount of friends you have, but rather the quality of the friendships that you have which is the important factor. If you have at least one person that you can confide in about a personal issue you are having, then this will go a long way in predicting your levels of happiness. The key is to ensure you maintain these close relationships as best you can. This can be difficult for introverts like myself who can sometimes find social interactions daunting, but when you find similar people that you gel with, it’s imperative you continue the lines of communication as much as you can. It can be easy to lose contact with close friends, and often it happens gradually. As we get older, we begin to appreciate the ease and simplicity of our relationships from our youth. As an adult, you need to actively work hard at maintaining social connections by scheduling in time to see people, and making genuine attempts to catch up with friends.
Happiness is a fascinating concept. For those who should be the happiest people in the world, the wealthy and famous who’s main form of transportation is a yacht, happiness seems to evade them. Conversely, people who appear to have very little possessions and who might not have the most followers on instagram, can often be the most content and satisfied people we know. Whilst our base levels of optimism and positivity are shaped by our biology and environment, the good news is that these don’t define us for the rest of our lives. We can increase our happiness by engaging in simple behavioural changes that do not require much effort at all. By incorporating the above changes in our daily routines, it is likely we will see an immense shift in our happiness and contentment over time.