Is it scientifically possible for us to be happier?
This thought raced across my mind as I sipped my morning coffee. It had to be possible, I thought. But then again, what is happiness? How is it created? Is it a real “thing” or is it just an idea?
We know poets have their answers. The Romans and the Greeks certainly had theirs. But what does science have to say on the matter?
At this point, I was chugging my coffee. The caffeine hit my brain like a lightning bolt and I was off and running. I set out, like any rational human, with a simple Google search: How to be happier according to science.
Google had 302,000,000 answers. Three-hundred and two million pages claiming to have the answer.
Here’s what I learned…
First, how does science define happiness?
It seems almost pointless to define happiness. It’s instinctive, we know it when we feel it.
However, in order to study happiness, scientists need hard and fast definitions. Which is exactly how positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky sees it. She defines happiness two-fold:
- Experiencing the feeling of a positive emotion (joy, contentment, interest, positive well being)
- Experiencing the sense of satisfaction with your life
On a more technical level, scientists distinguish these two forms of happiness as Hedonic and Eudaimonic. According to Ryan and Deci of the University of Rochester, the two views of happiness are summarized as follows:
- Hedonic view — Happiness is the total sum of pleasurable experiences in life. Pleasures can be experienced both physically (like taking a nap) or mentally (like reading a book).
- Eudaimonic view — Happiness is derived from living a life of virtue. Some acts of virtue might not yield direct sensations of well-being but may form a deeper sense of living a life aligned with one’s values.
All in all, psychologists and philosophers tend to find themselves in one of the two camps and have debated for millennia over which one is the true form of happiness.
I won’t even attempt to enter the debate. However, I do want to explore ways we can become happier according to science. Most of what I will cover below fall under the Hedonic view but aren’t considered morally ambiguous (as to not offend the Eudaimonic camp).
And hey, according to new research, I may be onto something.
How to train our brains to be happier, according to science
Training our brains to be happier requires intention and awareness, which flies in the face of how we are hardwired.
To operate efficiently, our brains need routines or autopilot programming. If we had to decide each and every morning what we’re going to have for breakfast or how long should we brush our teeth, our brains would blow up.
That’s why going through the motions of our day isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, being happier does mean we need to break out of our mental routines from time to time and become more intentional with our actions.
Here are 8 ways we can do just that.
1. Find control
“Only you can control your future.” -Dr. Seuss
We live in an entropic universe, which means everything is geared towards disorder and chaos. Even our innate survival instinct tells us the more control we have the greater chance of survival we’ll experience.
However, humans have a unique capability of creating a sense of order and control over our lives. Psychologists call it our locus of control.
Those who have a strong internal locus of control see outcomes as direct results of their actions. In other words, they feel as if their actions matter and have an effect on their lives.
Those who have a strong external locus of control feel the opposite — that their actions are almost meaningless and have no effect on their lives.
Happiness is directly related to having a strong internal locus of control. Depression often is described as helplessness or a lost feeling of control. Whereas, those who feel their choices in life lead to more control end up with a greater sense of happiness.
First step to being happier, don’t discredit your actions. They matter.
2. Practice gratitude
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” -Epicurus
I’m sure you’ve already heard of the following study.
Researchers wanted to test the effects of gratitude on happiness. They had one group write down every day the things they were thankful for. The other group did nothing.
Can you guess which group was significantly happier at the end of the study? That’s right, the grateful group.
According to Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, gratitude has two aspects:
- “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world.”
- “Second, we recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves.”
Gratitude is important because time and time again, gratitude is linked to our overall sense of well-being, as well as, known to contribute benefits to the physical, social, and phycological sides of our lives.
So how can we practice gratitude?
- Write thank-you notes/emails
- Think about someone you are grateful to have in your life
- Keep a gratitude journal
Whatever you choose, practicing gratitude takes consistency and patience. According to one study where participants wrote gratitude letters, it took 4 weeks for any significant increases in well-being to set in.
In other words, practice gratitude over the long-run.
3. Enjoy short-term happiness
“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another. Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.” -K. Bernecker
How many times do you sit down on the couch to relax only to think: Dang, I really should be doing something more productive.
According to Katharina Bernecker, a researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich, she found that people who are able to engage in short-term enjoyments without thinking about the long-term goals they should be doing, contribute the same levels of self-satisfaction.
Of course, some levels of self-control are required here. One cannot simply lay around on the couch or pop into the bar whenever one pleases. More research is required, but Bernecker believes consciously planning and putting self-imposed limits on “downtime” helps with overall levels of happiness.
In other words, if you want to relax, relax. If you want to watch an episode of The Good Place, watch an episode of The Good Place. But make sure not to interrupt your simple Hedonistic pleasure with thoughts of “I should be doing… “
4. Eliminate fear of failure
“Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of the things that happen.” -Tal Ben-Shahar
How is it that we can fail at something and come out feeling happier?
Well, it’s not necessarily the failing part that makes us happier, it’s how experiencing failure helps us to approach future goals without letting the fear of failure get in the way.
Fearing you will fail induces levels of stress and anxiety which decreases your overall happiness. So learning to approach obstacles without these unwanted fears is addition by subtraction.
One of the weirdest acronyms to help us overcome fear of failure is WOOP. WOOP stands for:
“The obstacles that we think most impede us from fulfilling our wishes can actually help us to realize them,” says Gabriele Oettingen, the psychologist who developed the evidence-based method.
The premise is simple: imagine your wish or your goal then think about the outcomes you’d like to achieve. Next, consider all of the obstacles you may face along the way and set plans to overcome each obstacle.
The important part is the “Plan” which is basically an “If…Then…” statement. These if-then action plans reduce the fears of hitting an obstacle because the next step has already been made.
If you want to be happier, don’t avoid your fear of failure, approach it with WOOP. (They even have a nifty online tool you can try.)
5. Exercise regularly
“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will involve the patient in the proper use of food, fresh air, and exercise.” -Thomas Edison
Humans were made to move.
According to one study, “Acute exercise appears to improve mood by activating specific cortical areas and by inducing the release of neurotransmitters and trophic factors that contribute to adherence to a program of regular physical activity.”
Which is science for: Exercise, good.
From what we understand, exercising regularly does many things to positively affect the brain:
- It increases blood flow to the brain, replenishing it with oxygen and nutrients.
- It induces the release of proteins to keep brain cells (neurons) healthy
- It releases “happy chemicals” such as dopamine and endorphins
- It improves your sleep which also affects cognitive functions
Not only does exercise increase positive effects, but it also decreases the negative ones such as anxiety and stress.
How much exercise should you be doing to see your happiness go up? The minimum recommendation is 30 minutes of walking a day. However, you can do better.
6. Invest in your relationships
“Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.” -Aristotle
Just as humans were made to move, humans were also made for each other. Over the centuries, humans have become more isolated from one another, causing a cascade of ill effects.
However, according to one of the longest-running studies on happiness conducted by Harvard:
“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”
Our happiness is directly linked to the relationships we keep in our lives. Therefore, it’s important to cultivate those relationships and cut away the negative ones.
I’ve written before about the challenges adults face regarding making new friends as we get older. I used a Malcolm Gladwell quote to make a point:
“We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends, in other words. We associate with the people who occupy the same small, physical spaces that we do.” -Malcolm Gladwell
Find those physical spaces. Volunteer. Join a sports team. Get out and meet like-minded people. You’re going to need them.
7. Get enough sleep
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” -Homer
Of all the advice on how to be happier, this one is the most counter-intuitive. I mean, don’t you need to be consciously awake to intentionally be happier?
While that is true, all of us spend nearly one-third of our lives sleeping, so obviously it plays a vital role in our happiness. But by how much?
Well, science isn’t entirely sure about the matter. One study concluded that people who slept too much or too little were more likely to report poor health results. But the study failed to identify an “optimum” sleep level.
Another study even acknowledges the lack of literature on the sleep-happiness relationship:
“Sleep, although far less studied than social experiences, needs more research attention in future happiness research.”
While we can’t say for certain if better sleep improves our levels of happiness, we do know bad sleep detracts from it. Therefore, we should aim to cultivate better sleep practices.
The Mayo Clinic recommends the following:
- Set a sleep schedule and stick to it
- Don’t go to bed too hungry or too full (and definitely no caffeine)
- Create an environment conducive for rest
- Limit the amount of time you nap during the day
- Exercise or do daily physical activities
- Manage your worries before going to bed (write down to-do lists, get organized for tomorrow, etc.)
There’s no magical number of hours to hit for a “good night’s sleep.” However, our bodies don’t lie. If you feel tired day after day, get some more sleep. It’s not a waste of time.
8. Bonus: Put your phone away
“The phone could be a mediator, as it creates an impression to be a perfect reliable friend. However, in the end, it causes rather a sense of isolation, since it divides more than it unites. Eventually it appears not to be such a good friend but only a ghost friend.” -Erik Pevernagie
Keeping your phone out of arm’s reach is scientifically proven to make you happier:
“The presence of one’s smartphone enables on-demand access to information, entertainment, social stimulation, and more. However, our research suggests that these benefits-and the dependence they engender may come at a cognitive cost.”
The science says having your phone nearby puts a cognitive strain or a smartphone-induced “brain drain.” When our phones are within reach, the temptation to habitually pick them up adversely affect our working memory and “functional fluid intelligence” (aka think and reason abstractly to solve problems).
So if you want to be more focused on happiness-inducing actions, keep your phone out of sight and out of mind.
Science says a lot of things…
Eric Weiner once spent a year traveling to the world’s “happiest” places. He eventually wrote a book called The Geography of Bliss. In it, he shares how other cultures define happiness, how they achieve it, and what they find to be most essential to one’s own happiness.
He ends his book with his own attempt to summarize a year’s worth of travel about how to achieve happiness:
“Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.”
Whatever science says, you can be happier. You know it when you feel it. It might take a bit of work but don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Your happiness matters.