Chances are you could be happier — and it would probably be worth your while, as research shows that happiness breeds health, money, stronger relationships, better marriages and more. But who has time to cultivate joy when there is so much to worry about?
The good news, according to growing evidence, is that there are plenty of small steps you can take to boost well-being in significant ways. "Everyone wants to be happy, and, for the first time, we know what dials to turn to make that happen," says psychologist Les Parrott, coauthor (with his wife, Leslie) of "Making Happy: The Art and Science of a Happy Marriage." A commitment to happiness, in other words, doesn't have to stress you out. For eight minutes a day, forget about global warming and your growing to-do list and try these activities instead.
Practicing gratitude as little as once a week for up to 12 weeks increases happiness by as much as 25%, according to many studies, and participants remain happier for up to six months after experiments end. Just concentrating on what's good in your life increases positive feelings, studies show, but keeping a gratitude journal may be more effective. Find a time that works for you and write down a few things you appreciate, from the latte a co-worker delivered to the support a sibling has offered over the years. Gratitude letters are another tested strategy. Write down why you appreciate a favorite elementary school teacher or a beloved grandparent. For the biggest boost, deliver the letters in person. "That's very powerful," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a happiness researcher at UC Riverside and author of "The How of Happiness." "It reconnects you to that person and makes you think about how your successes are not just due to you. You're standing on the shoulders of giants."
Imagine how you'd like your life to look in a few years: home, work, friends, relationships. Once you've identified your goals, you can make choices based on them. "If it's the end of the day and you're tired and don't feel like working out, but you thought recently about how you want to be a famous dancer, you'll do it anyway because you have that goal in mind," says Acacia Parks, a psychologist at Hiram College in Ohio and scientific advisor to Happify, a research-based app that uses activities and games to increase happiness.
Dreaming combines optimism and control, two major ingredients in happiness, Les Parrott adds. "Looking at the future and planning something exciting fills people with hope, and hope engenders joy," he says.
Every year in their Introduction to Psychology course at Seattle Pacific University, the Parrotts assign half of their 200 undergraduate students to do something indulgent for an afternoon. The others do something helpful with the same time slot, like pick up trash on campus or volunteer at a senior center. At the end of the day, the students who practice generosity score higher on happiness scales than those who watch movies or treat themselves to a good meal. Doing good gives people a sense of purpose and enhances the feeling that their lives have meaning, and that makes them feel good. Studies also show that doing five kind acts a day — above and beyond what you normally do — boosts well-being, as does spending just $5 on someone else.
Instead of wolfing down your lunch, consider the flavors and textures of your food. Instead of worrying about running late, appreciate the colors of the sunset and the smell of the evening air. A large body of research, including a major meta-analysis of mindfulness meditation studies published earlier this year, shows that being present in the moment can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, pain and depression. When Parks taught a class on positive psychology, she took her students to a hot-chocolate café in Philadelphia. They sat around their cups of steaming, extra-rich cocoa and discussed details like the interplay between the cool whipped cream and the warm liquid. "It was the best thing we ever tasted because we stopped to savor it," she says. "We could really break away from whatever we were worrying about because we were focused on what we were doing."
Social media can bring you down, especially if you start comparing your own life with the selectively glowing posts broadcast by friends. But there's a way to reclaim happiness both online and off, science suggests: Regularly celebrate the successes of others. Research with married couples shows that when partners respond to positive news with excitement and encouragement, relationships grow stronger and partners become happier. The same can be true for friendships. "If someone tells me they won an award, I go out of my way to remind them of all the ways that achievement is awesome," Parks says. "Maybe we go out to dinner and I tell the waiter about the award and invite friends. That's savoring at the social level, and a lot of research suggests that this type of behavior makes relationships closer."