Science knows the secret to happiness — and it’s a lot more simple than you’d think.
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That, at least, was the message of a recent New York article that summarised the scientific consensus on what makes humans happy. And, well: turns out that you could probably guess the answers. Beyond having your basic needs met, money, as your mom probably could have told you, does not buy happiness — though it can buy free time to do what you want, which does make you happier. Gratitude is good. Social connection is important. Doing things for others makes us feel better about ourselves.
This is all well and good for the long term. Sure, we all plan to incorporate more family time into our days, take up a hobby, and give back. But when you’re having a crappy day, it’s not enough to plan for the future — you want to know how can the research on happiness can make your day better now.
You’re in luck. Here are five ways you can turn your day around right now. That’s right: we mean right now.
We get it: you’re busy. So busy, in fact, that while it may be great to go to the spa, go for a run, or even take a twenty-minute snooze, you hardly have time to run to the bathroom. But there is still one thing you can do to bring some calming vibes into a busy day: breathe.
Harvard Medical School recommends a simple exercise to practice deep breathing. Sitting or lying down, simply practice breathing from — as any high school music teacher will tell you — the diaphragm. Allow your lower belly and chest to rise as you fill your lungs with air. If you’re breathing deeply, your stomach will expand outwards. You can practice this for a few minutes right now, closing your eyes and breathing deeply to feel more relaxed and refreshed.
Nice guys do, in fact, finish last — because the mean guys die early. That’s right: research has found that caring for others actually helps people live longer. Acts of kindness can also improve our happiness in the short term, giving what’s called a “helper’s high.”
So if your day is less than stellar, take a few minutes to help number one by helping someone else. Your random act of kindness could be tiny, like stopping to chat with a neighbour, making sure to leave your spouse a full tank of gas, or even (yup, we said it) calling your mother (we know you miss her too).
If you’ve ever sat at a Thanksgiving table as you go around and say what you’re each grateful for out loud, you may have felt a bit, well, awkward. But we bet you also developed a serious case of the warm and fuzzies as you realised how much there really is to be grateful for in life.
Science backs this intuition up. Research has consistently found that practicing gratitude makes us happier and healthier. In one study, participants who wrote a sentence about what they were grateful for each day not only reported increased happiness than participants who wrote about their annoyances — they also exercised more and reported fewer visits to the doctor.
You know the lingering exhaustion that lurks after yet another insomniac evening scrolling through feeds of your friends’ fabulous lives? Turns out that malaise isn’t just in your head: too much screen time really can make us depressed, according to recent research about teenagers’ smartphone use.
From the expectation of constant availability to stress about current events and self-comparison (FOMO is real), being plugged in can be exhausting. While the dream would be to unplug for the day — or heck, even the whole weekend — that may not be realistic, at least in daily life.
But we can choose to cultivate better phone habits overall. For example, we can turn our phones off to sleep, turn on “do not disturb” mode or keep them away from the bed. We can actually turn them off in the movies or at public events, and not just pretend to silence them. We can have a strict no-phones rule when having conversations or eating dinner with other people. And we can, for the love of all that is holy, quit bringing the phone with us into the bathroom. There are some things that just don’t have to go into your Snapchat story.
In the classic book Go the F**ck to Sleep, that particular command is directed at children. But it’s pretty good advice all around. Not getting enough sleep turns humans into cranky, miserable seamonsters. It’s not just your partner telling you this because they find it unbearable to be around you when you’re tired (guilty): science agrees, too.
Lack of sleep can lower your cognitive abilities, make you a terrible driver, lessen your immunity, have an all-around negative effect on your mental health, and to conclude, make you feel generally miserable. Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, improves your memory, sharpens your attention, improves your metabolism, and makes you feel a whole lot better about life.