More than a decade since the field of positive psychology got off the ground, this is now abundantly clear: Much of our happiness is within our power to control—roughly 40 percent, according to research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.
That’s an encouraging finding. What can we do to capitalize on that potential for self-made happiness? As Lyubomirsky reveals this month in a new Greater Good video, researchers have identified some specific, concrete activities that almost anyone can practice.
We’ve reported on many of these activities over the years, but as a companion to Lyubomirsky’s video, we’ve zeroed in on the seven that resonate most with us at Greater Good.
Keep your friends close… Perhaps the dominant finding from this line of research is that social connections are key to happiness. Studies show that happy people engage in more social activities. But some research indicates it’s the quality more than the quantity of our social interactions that really matter, suggesting that making time for those closest to us—people in whom we can confide and who’ll support us when we’re down—will bring us more happiness.
… and your enemies closer. Well, maybe not closer, but you might want to refrain from making enemies in the first place: Research suggests that holding grudges is a quick ticket to unhappiness. Groundbreaking studies by Everett Worthington, Michael McCullough, and their colleagues show that when we forgive those who have wronged us, we feel better about ourselves, experience more positive emotions, and feel closer to others.
Give thanks… Research by McCullough, Robert Emmons, Lyubomirsky, and others has revealed the power of simply counting our blessings on a regular basis. People who keep “gratitude journals,” recording five things for which they’re grateful every week, feel more optimism and greater satisfaction with their lives. Other research shows that writing a “gratitude letter” to someone study participants had never properly thanked made those letter writers significantly happier.
… or just give. Practicing kindness is a way to improve our own well-being even as we help others. A 2008 study published in the journal Science found that people reported greater happiness when they spent money on others than when they spent it on themselves, even though they initially thought the opposite would be true. This finding is corroborated by neuroscience research showing that when we give to others, our brains light up in areas associated with pleasure and reward.
Keep moving… Exercise isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s good for our minds. Studies show that regular physical activity increases happiness and self-esteem, reduces anxiety and stress, and can even lift symptoms of depression. “Exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities,” writes Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness.
… until it’s time to rest. We’re a sleep-deprived culture, despite scientific evidence that lack of sleep hurts our health and our brainpower. But it seems all this sleeplessness might impact our happiness as well. Not surprisingly, research has consistently linked lower sleep to lower mood; what’s more, a study of more than 900 women, led by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, found that getting just one more hour of sleep each night might have a greater effect on happiness than a $60,000 raise.
Pay attention. No doubt, it can be hard to practice mindfulness—a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and external circumstances. But the benefits are profound. Studies show that mindful people not only have stronger immune systems but are more likely to be happy and enjoy greater life satisfaction, and they are less likely to be hostile or anxious. And you don’t need to take years at a Buddhist monastery to cultivate it: Pioneering research by Richard Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and others has found that a basic eight-week mindfulness training program can significantly improve our physical and psychological well-being.
As promising as all these activities sound, it’s important to keep in mind that not all of them are right for all of us. Research suggests that different people respond to some of them better than others. So if one of these activities doesn’t feel quite right for you, try another until you find the right fit.
And you’ll need to stick with it. Trying any of these once or twice might give you a nice happiness boost, but lasting happiness only comes with commitment and persistence.
“You need to choose the strategy wisely,” Lyubomirsky says in her Greater Good talk. “You need to be motivated, committed to it, and put effort into it. It’s just like any other goal in life.”