Can Science and Happiness Go Together?

James Logie
Photo by Hybrid on Unsplash

Do happiness and science go together? It seems bizarre to study something that seems so subjective.

What makes me happy isn’t the same as what makes you happy. But if you’re looking for more of it, there are a few tried-and-true things that will get you a little bit closer.

A few of these will be obvious, and some you may have never thought of.

With the obvious choices, there is at least some science to back them up — so you might not want to dismiss them so soon. The others are not as obvious, but they also have some science to back them up.

1. Help Other People

Let’s get one of the obvious ones out of the way. We need to pursue our own happiness, but if it becomes our primary fixation, it may leave us unfulfilled.

Happiness can be insatiable, and when you get so consumed with only achieving it for yourself, it can become a never-ending cycle.

The best way to oppose this is by making other people happy. Or, at the very least, try to make their lives slightly better. In return, you will find yourself getting happier.

A good example of this is through the things we buy. We often turn to retail therapy to find some form of happiness. This may work for a moment, but can quickly pass.

If you want to find a deeper level of happiness, The Journal of Happiness Studies says it’s better to buy something for someone else.

This study found that participants who recalled making a purchase for someone else reported higher levels of happiness than when they bought something for themselves.

But helping others doesn’t mean having to open your wallet. The Journal of Positive Psychology found that real “happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself.”

Their study looked at college students who either did something for themselves or others. Those who did something for others felt much happier than the group who focused on themselves. And the greater happiness resulted in a stronger connection with the person they helped.

“The surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Key Takeaway: It doesn’t have to be a big gesture, but anything you can do that improves the life of someone else can boost your own happiness. You can buy them coffee, give them a ride, or just spend time with them. When we focus on others instead of ourselves, the happier we get.

2. Plan a Vacation — and Don’t Take It

The joy in planning a trip can provide you with a level of happiness that doesn’t even require you to get patted down in customs.

It comes down to the fact anticipation is often better than the result.

When it comes to planning a trip you don’t take, the science backs this up. The Journal of Applied Research in the Quality of Life found that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stages of a trip more than the trip itself.

Travel is great, but our trips don’t always end up exactly how we expected. You may have taken some amazing trips and some that honestly just sucked. But during the planning stage, it’s all excitement and anticipation.

This can give you that boost of happiness you're looking for, as everything seems bright and rosy compared to laying sunburnt and hungover in a room that definitely doesn’t look like it did on the Airbnb website.

Key Takeaway: Give it a shot, and plan out an entire trip. Look up the best flights, destinations, how you’ll get to and from the hotel, and all the things you’d do while there.

It’s surprisingly effective.

3. Exercise — But Make it the Right Type, and in the Right Place

Exercise falls under the obvious category of how to feel happier. We all know we feel better and happier after exercise because of the accompanying endorphin release.

So we all know we need to do it regularly, but if I may speak from a 20-year career in the fitness industry: find your right exercise.

That may not sound grammatically correct, but it just means finding the best exercise for you. There’s no rule that says you need to join a gym, take spin classes, or train for a 5k.

That works for other people. If it works for you, great; but fitness is whatever you make it.

The best workout is the one you actually do — and want to do. So find what you like best. It may be running, swimming, squash, powerlifting, or dancing. Whatever motivates you to move is your best option.

I’ve spent so many years training in gyms that I can’t stand the sight of them anymore. I realized I shouldn’t dread doing something that’s supposed to make me feel better. Now, I’m now much more drawn to biking and hiking. So that’s what I do.

I’d also like to encourage you to get outside as much as possible. Even if it’s just for a walk.

When we exercise in the great outdoors, it can improve our heart health, mental health, and give us a better happiness boost than slogging away on an indoor treadmill staring at a screen.

When it comes to the science, studies from 2013 of human and environmental interactions found that exercising outdoors also:

  • lowers our perceived level of exertion
  • reduces stress
  • restores mental fatigue
  • improves mood and self-esteem
  • improves our perceived health

Key Takeaways: Whatever motives you to move: do that. And get outside as much as you can. Ideally — and according to those studies — the greener the environment is, the better.

4. Move Closer to Work

Here’s a way to get happier that isn’t often considered and has to do with our daily commutes. Even though this may not sound practical, it’s worth exploring deeper.

It turns out that shortening your commute can make a world of difference in your happiness.

Our time spent commuting, stuck in traffic, and on public transport is one of the biggest stressors we face. And it robs us of our happiness daily. Nothing makes me more miserable than driving and sitting in traffic.

If we can shorten this commute time, it can give our happiness an enormous boost.

A 2018 study by Time Out Magazine looked at the commute time of people living in London, England. (That’s where the horrific commute I mentioned took place, by the way.)

The city's average commute was 39 minutes (don’t get me started…). The study found that having a shorter commute time of less than 30 minutes — and closer to 15 — created a major boost for Londoners' happiness.

Furthermore, a study of 1,000 people in San Francisco found the ideal commute to be 16 minutes.

Again, this may not seem practical, but with the changing landscape of offices and working from home, more people are looking for a shorter commute; or no commute at all.

Does having a great job and an enormous house mean a lot if the travel to and from work each day is a misery?

More people have discovered a long commute just isn’t worth it anymore if they want to be as happy as possible.

5. Don’t Forget to Breathe

Let's save the simplest for last. But it’s something we don’t pay attention to.

I don’t mean that we forget to breathe, but more about the importance of truly conscious breathing. Whether this is meditation, exercise, or paying attention to your breath, it’s incredibly important.

Do you ever catch yourself holding your breath? I know I often do this. Whether it’s moments of stress or feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to forget to breathe.

It’s not that we aren't breathing during those moments, but it tends to be shallow breathing that isn’t filling our lungs and oxygenating our body the way it needs.

This can put our body into more of a fight-or-flight mode, as shallow breathing doesn’t allow us to relax. This may cause a rise in stress hormones that can further complicate the issue.

If you’re at work, or out in the world in a stressful situation, you probably can’t sit down for a deep-breathing, guided meditation — but you can still focus on your breathing.

Deep inhalation through the nostrils that fill your lungs and extend your stomach is the key to lowering stress and getting you closer to happiness.

When stress is in the way, happiness is impossible to achieve.

Perspectives in Psychiatric Care looked at the effectiveness of deep breathing to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. They found that training subjects to breathe deeply significantly reduces peripheral temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate.

The deep breathing brought the short, shallow breaths under control and effectively reduced anxiety.

Key Takeaways: if you can sit down at home each day and spend some time meditating or focusing on your breathing, it’s a great way to reduce stress. Even 5 to 10 minutes can beneficial.

The benefits that come from meditation; calmness, focus, clarity, and improved happiness really come from the deep breathing that goes with it.

If you’re out in the world and feeling overwhelmed, take a moment, pause, and get your breathing under control. Here’s a simple breathing exercise shared by the University of Michigan, and one I often do:

  1. breathe in through the nose four a count of 4 to extend out your belly
  2. hold your breath in, and silently count from 1 to 7
  3. breath out completely as you slowly count from 1 to 8, or as close to 8 as you can get
  4. repeat 3–7 times until you feel calm

Pro tip: if you can combine outdoor exercise with some meditation/focused breathing while in nature, you’ll create a pretty great happiness trifecta.

Final Thoughts

Happiness may always seem elusive. I think we need to define what true happiness means to us. That way, we’ll know if we achieve it.

You may have also found that it’s not one large thing that determines happiness, but those small, daily things that add up to something bigger.

Use this list as a jumping-off point for things you can add in each day to give you a boost of happiness.

Sometimes, it may only result in a slight boost, but a little happiness is still happiness.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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