How to be Happy: 63 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier

How to be Happy: 63 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier
Posted in: Life Advice

Almost everyone loves being happy (and sometimes we desperately need to be happier). With that in mind, here’s a roundup of scientifically proven ways to increase your happiness.

Most of the 63 ideas below are scientifically vetted (studies are provided via links), but if you still need a reason to read this article, point #41 might just help your sex life.

Before getting to recommendations about how to be happy, here’s an interesting happiness finding: in addition to making us feel good, happiness actually makes us more successful.

This article in the Harvard Business Review cites studies showing that physicians in a positive mood will diagnose 50% quicker and have three times more intellectual flexibility; students do better on tests when they’re happier; and even 4-year-olds asked to put LEGOS together will do so 50% faster, more accurately, if they’re slightly primed to be positive.

And — I feel like an 80s infomercial now — there’s more! … According to this Harvard study, being optimistic can reduce your chance of a heart attack by up to 50%.

How to be happy:

See the positive

Researchers have found that we’re happier when we see the positive. This doesn’t mean we live in a dream world where we don’t see problems. It means we notice the positive. The good news is that we can train our brains. over time, to more often see the positive.

Here’s how:

1 – Give compliments.
I know you can find at least one person to compliment every day. Maybe it’s your spouse for making breakfast, the barista you saw doing a great job, a colleague who did solid work. Give at least one compliment a day. Perhaps you begin each morning by sending a short email or text telling someone why you appreciate them.

You’re training your mind to notice more of the good things happening around you, which increases your own positivity and happiness.

2 – Start keeping a gratitude journal.
Write down three things you’re thankful for at the end of each day. Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Michael McCullough’s research found that people who kept a gratitude journal were 25% happier.
3 – Start a family thankfulness tradition.
A great idea I picked up from Ronald McDonald Camp is having a nightly family discussion about what we’re thankful for that happened that day. This encourages children to think about their good fortune and what makes them happy. It’s a way to have a verbal gratitude journal.

4 – Perform at least one act of kindness daily.
As you start performing acts of kindness, you’ll notice more and more opportunities to be kind. A study from Michael Steger showed that kind acts increase happiness, and performing kind acts starts shifting our mindset to a more positive outlook.

As far as acts of kindness go, think small. A “thank you note” in your spouse’s lunch, an email to one of your kid’s amazing teachers, etc. To get you started, here are over 100 easy, meaningful acts of kindness, and here are 25 random acts of kindness for kids.

Understand what (and who) makes you happy and unhappy

5 – Keep a journal and record what makes you happy as well as what makes you unhappy.
I thought I knew what made me happy and unhappy – and I did to an extent – but when I started recording it, I became much more aware of what I should incorporate more of and less of into my life.

6 – Flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi led pioneering research on flow, noting that lasting pleasure and satisfaction comes from activities that bring about a state of “flow”, a state where we’re fully engaged in an activity that is easy, rewarding and occupies our minds completely. Something that makes everything else fade away. For me it’s playing softball. For others it might be meditation.

Your journal might uncover some flow opportunities. Spend more time on them. They’re a lasting boost that clears your mind and raises your overall happiness level long after the activity has been completed.

7 – Keep the right company.
Write down the three people you hang out with the most. Next to each person’s name write their qualities. When you’re done, continue reading…

Do you want to be like these people? We’re most heavily influenced by the people we hang out with the most. This large-scale study shows, that being around happy people will make you happier. And, of course, if you’re around negative people, it will make you more negative.

How to be happy? Have the right perspective

8 – Don’t compare yourself to others.
Multiple studies show that social media causes unhappiness. Why? Because you’re comparing your real life to everyone else’s highlight reel.

I try to remind myself that I can’t assume anyone has it better, because I don’t know their lives or their problems.

Focus on you. What would be great for you? And, what can you do to get there?

9 – Help other people
I’ve always believed that helping others makes us happier, and now I’ve got scientific proof (By the way, even helping people at work makes you happier, according to this University of Wisconsin Madison study). Instead of focusing on your own problems, you’re helping someone else and empowering yourself in the process.

10 – Volunteer
Along the lines of helping others, volunteering allows you to put your problems in perspective. When you’re volunteering in a soup kitchen or hospital your work problems or piles of dirty laundry seem a lot smaller. Sometimes even small doses of volunteering can have a positive impact for weeks or months. (Click here for a study on the benefits of volunteering on happiness)

Scientific studies demonstrate that being in the moment – even for short periods of time — is one of the best ways to be happy. I find it difficult. I’ll be working and thinking about other things or doing something else while work thoughts pop into my head. But, I’m almost always in the moment when I’m volunteering. My mind is clear, and I’m relaxed.

11 – Spend money on others
A study by Harvard Business School and University of British Columbia professors found that once you’ve pulled yourself out of poverty, spending money on other people gives you more joy than spending money on yourself. They found that even minimal amounts make a difference. Try buying small gifts for friends and the people you love. (This fall under the category of how to be happy and how to make other people happy.)

Or, make a small donation. Hilde Back’s monthly $15 donations wound up having a life changing impact on over 350 children.

12 – Give people the benefit of the doubt
This is another suggestion that’s easier said than done, but still worth trying…Instead of getting frustrated with someone, try having compassion.

If someone is rude, I think to myself that the person is probably having an awful day, and I remind myself how lucky I am not to be him (and not to be rude).

Also, be careful about judging people. My cousin’s friend Meg was an investment banker. This is a competitive field that isn’t especially friendly to women. Yet, Meg made it to the executive level. She also had Cystic Fibrosis, which made it difficult for her to walk long distances. Although she looked healthy, she had a significant disability and was allowed to park in handicapped parking. When she parked there she often got screamed at by people who thought she shouldn’t be using a handicap space. The people screaming were unhappy and of course, it was awful for Meg and unfair to her too. She felt so bad that even though she fought her way to the top in her career, she decided to stop parking in a handicap spot. Save yourself and someone else anguish by being slow to judge.

13 – Remember, You’re not a mind reader.
This goes along with the prior suggestion. Don’t interpret someone’s actions as a slight. If you don’t know what someone meant assume the best or ask them to explain.
14 – Forgive
Holding a grudge only makes you feel bad. Don’t let someone who has treated you poorly have the power to take away your joy. (Of course, this is way easier said than done.)

15 – Give to yourself
Make time for you, your education and your health. We’re happier when we don’t forget to take care of ourselves.

Filmmaker Andy Sullivan visited my class and pushed all of my students to carve out 15 minutes a day to pursue a passion or something that would get them ahead. This resonated with my class and was embraced by almost every student. If we don’t invest in ourselves, who will! . . . And almost everyone can spare 15 minutes a day.

16 – Forgive yourself
At one point I was upset about a decision I had made, and I thought about it daily. Finally, I spoke to someone about it. After a while, the person asked, “What advice would you give to a friend, if she came to you with this problem?”

I replied, “I would tell her she didn’t do anything morally wrong. She just made a mistake and it’s not a big deal. She should move forward.” Then it dawned on me: I had to do the same. We tend to be harder on ourselves than we’d be on others.

Forgive yourself. You’re human.

17 – Take joy in other people’s accomplishments and cheer them on
You’ll be happier when you enjoy someone else’s success. Don’t be jealous; see role models and an opportunity to learn from them how you can achieve your own success.
18 – Live for today
Waiting for a day that is less busy is waiting for a day that won’t come. Don’t put off what makes you happy.
19 – Don’t look back
You’re not heading in that direction.

Personal Development

20 – See setbacks and obstacles as growth opportunities
Jack Andraka was rejected by 199 research institutions before he found a home for his research. Thankfully, he didn’t let the rejections stop him. He developed a breakthrough diagnostic cancer test (at age 15). Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school. It’s ok to fail. Your failures are your best opportunities to learn. Hopefully, you can see them that way. If it helps, read these famous failure stories to inspire you.
21 – Let yourself be a novice
No one begins as an expert. If you think about it, experts built the Titanic. A couple of students who didn’t know what they were doing built Google. Who would you rather be? Sometimes getting started now, on something that matters to you, will help you feel better.
22 – Don’t sweat the small stuff
Before you get upset, ask yourself, “Will this matter tomorrow, next week or in a year?”
23 – Don’t be a maximizer
Your gift for someone doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be thoughtful. Your house can be clean, but it doesn’t have to be immaculate. Very good is good enough. Deciding not to maximize saves time and reduces stress.

Find a purpose

24 – Find your purpose
UCLA researchers reported that people are happier when they feel a strong purpose and meaning in their life.

Perhaps it’s being a great parent, a great spouse, an excellent gardener or, if you’re ambitious, saving the world.

People are constantly searching for their purpose. Here’s an exercise to help you figure yours out:

Imagine you’re at your own funeral. What would you like people to say about you? How would you like to be remembered? What did you accomplish in life?

What you came up with is important, and shouldn’t be put off. What can you start doing now to go down that path? You don’t have to take a big step, but you do have to get started.

25 – Live true to yourself
“Prestige is a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Paul Graham, Y-Combinator founder
26 – Don’t try to squeeze yourself into someone you’re not.
Celebrate what you’re great at and accept that everyone brings unique strengths to the table.
27 – Find meaningful work:
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” – Steve Jobs
28 – And when you do, don’t work too much
Let’s face it — there will always be another email to answer. Don’t look at going to your son’s baseball game as shirking work responsibilities. Look at not going as shirking what’s important.
29 – Live your values
Believe and act upon your personal values. That builds contentment over time.

30 – Baby steps towards life goals
Many people have huge life goals — so big that working on them never starts. Break big dreams into small achievable steps, and then focus on taking one step at a time. The progress makes us happy, and the small steps give us a chance to succeed.

When I teach entrepreneurship, students often say they want a thriving restaurant or a successful fashion brand. They haven’t started because they see no way to immediately get there. I tell them to start small, like selling food out of their homes or selling t-shirts. From there we can build a plan with many small steps to eventually reach their dreams.

31 – It’s never the right time
Whether it’s changing jobs or pursuing your dream, the time is never right. Find a way to start small now.
32 – Teach someone
We can all teach something — even if it’s small — and teaching others makes most of us happy. As an added bonus, sometimes the smallest lessons make the biggest difference. Olympic gold medalist, professional baseball player and bestselling author Jim Abbott recalls that his third grade teacher showing him how to tie his shoes was one of the biggest inspirations of Jim’s life.

33 – This corporate manifesto is an awesome mission statement for life

Build Relationships

34 – Investing in relationships is a big answer to how to be happy
Studies show that having strong relationships makes you happier — even if you’re an introvert. According to researchers, your relationships are more important than money. One of the top five regrets of the dying is not spending enough time with family and friends.

Relationships can also help when you’re stressed. I’ve often thought I could get through stressful periods by focusing my energy on getting stuff done or researching answers to problems. Sometimes, the best medicine was to pick up the phone and call someone who’d make me laugh.

35 – Understand
Put more effort into understanding the people around you. Really listen and ask questions. You’ll have better conversations and better relationships.
36 – Go deep.
A study published in Psychological Science found that not only are relationships important, but having more substantive conversations rather than idle chit chat increased happiness.
37 – Talk to someone
If you’re unhappy, talk to someone. Your family and friends might want to help. A therapist can also help. How do you find a good therapist? If you’re too embarrassed to ask friends for recommendations, ask your primary care physician. Or, pick out a few therapists at Psychology Today. Call each therapist and see with whom you feel most comfortable. Research by Chris Boyce showed that therapy was 32 times more effective than cash at increasing happiness. (That said, I’d bet this isn’t true for those without financial stability.)
38 – Don’t talk bad about people
Look for the positive and talk about that. You’re also helping with your positivity, changing your mindset to see the positive, which makes you happier.

Be Kind and Be Thankful

39 – Be thankful
When the little things someone does drives you nuts, it helps to keep an eye out for the positive. Let’s take your spouse. When you start noticing the great things your husband does every day, it’s easier not to be bothered by the small things, like dirty socks on the floor.

40 – Choose to see the positive
This ties to being thankful. You have a choice to see things in a positive or negative light. Seeing things more positively increases happiness. I’m not suggesting you embrace someone who is trying to hurt you or tell someone it’s good that they’re sick, but you can train yourself to view things more positively.

You can be the person who looks outside and says, “it’s a beautiful day, and I’m excited,” or the person who says, “I’m disappointed it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

You can see a visit from friends as an opportunity to catch up or a hassle because you need to clean your house.

Looking for the positive trains you to think more positively and be happier (this is along the lines of points 1-4).

Find Opportunities in everyday living

41 – Have sex.
Yes, sex feels great.

Perhaps it can even count towards the scientifically proven point that exercise makes us happier than antidepressants (point 57)?

And, sex will help us sleep better, and more sleep = more happiness (point 59)!

Plus there’s scientific proof that sex creates significant happiness (Guys, you can thank me later for including this one).

Another study, by a Dartmouth College economist and professor at University of Warwick in England found that sex created more happiness than money. They estimate increasing intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to the amount of happiness generated by getting $50,000 in additional income.

42 – Be early
(Men, this has nothing to do with the prior point). I’m always stressed when running late. I’m not sure why it took me so long, but I decided to have fewer back to back meetings and give myself enough time that I’d always be early. Well, I’m not always be early (or on time for that matter), but being early more often sure is less stressful than trying to squeeze productivity into every spare minute.

43 – Avoid clutter
Having more stuff creates work, and stuff can simply weigh you down. Seeing your clutter is a constant reminded that you have work to do and things to clean.

I realized the truth in this from friends impacted by Hurricane Sandy. All of their basements were flooded. Every single person said they were surprised that throwing out everything in their basement was liberating. Their regrets were not throwing their stuff away earlier.

This UCLA study found that cluttered houses made mothers stressed and this study from Princeton University found that cluttered offices led to irritability and difficulty focusing.

If you declutter, here’s a comprehensive list of where to donate your stuff.

44 – Drink tea
Drinking tea has been proven to help with anxiety and stress. So, if you suffer from anxiety, tea can help you feel happier. Here’s a great summary of how different tea can help.
45 – Get a pet.
According to this research, pet ownership increases happiness — even in happy people.
46 – How to be happy? Have a happy mate.
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, a person’s happiness level increases along with their mate’s. It’s as important to contribute to your mate’s happiness as to your own!

Make it easy and fun

47 – Buy experiences
If you’re going to spend money, a study by Cornell University found that buying experiences makes people happier than buying things.
48 – Pay for help
We all feel so pressed for time that if we can afford to hire people for some routine chores, we’ll often increase our happiness.
49 – Make your own fun
This is another lesson I learned at Ronald McDonald Camp. Everything can be fun if we choose to make it that way. At this camp for kids with cancer, the medical staff created Dance for Your Meds Parties that made taking medication fun for the kids. If taking medicine that makes you feel sick can be fun, almost anything can be fun. It’s our job to figure out how!
50 – Change how you view chores
I’m not doing the dishes, because I have to. I’m doing the dishes because I want to make my wife happy. That makes me a lot happier about chores, and makes me look for more things I can do around the house (although my wife might debate this point). You can also say you’re doing chores because you enjoy the outcome – like a clean house.
51 – Don’t keep score
No one owes you for your acts of kindness. You’re doing the good deeds because you want to make a difference and you also know it will help you feel better. Keeping score takes away some of your joy.
52 – Keep reminders of happy moments
Hang happy photos, keep mementos around the house, create photo albums. Research shows that reminding yourself of enjoyable times increases happiness.
53 – Recognize and embrace your inspirations
Maybe there are movies, stories or people that inspire you. Seek them out and expose yourself to them–repeatedly. Some people like to read about individuals who have overcome enormous struggles to give them perspective. Others like to read about people who are saving the world. Choose what resonates with you.
54 – Listen to music.
According to a study from the Group Health Research Institute, over a 3-month period, people who listened to music had the same 50% decrease in anxiety symptoms as patients who received ten hour-long massages. (Note that their findings point to massage as helpful in reducing anxiety as well – it’s just a lot more expensive than music.) Choosing the right music can play a part in happiness. Happy and upbeat songs work for me. Some studies have found that sad songs increase happiness, so you might want to try different types of music to see what works for you.

55 – Laugh
At yourself, at funny movies and with your friends. Scientific studies have shown that laughter releases endorphins and even significantly increases our thresholds for pain. If you want a great laugh right now, check out this hilarious 1 minute read about unbelievable, real life courtroom exchanges recorded by stenographers — Disorder in the Court.

Although all laughter is good, group laughter has more of a benefit.

56 – Plan a vacation
A Dutch study found that just planning a vacation boosted happiness for 8 weeks. And that doesn’t even take into account experiencing the trip.

Focus on health and wellness

57 – Exercise
30 minutes of exercise has been scientifically proven to have more of an impact on happiness than antidepressants. Wow! In the six-month study, of depressed people, 38% of those using medication slipped back into depression. Only 9% of those exercising did. 31% of the people doing exercise and taking medication became depressed again. If nothing else, start walking 30 minutes a day.

58 – Eat healthy
You’ll feel better; that’s what numerous studies say.

Well, except when you have a giant ice cream sundae with your family for Saturday breakfast just because it would be fun. Spontaneous fun trumps eating healthy.

59 – Get more sleep
Studies show that 60-90 minutes more sleep would make most of us happier and that most of us don’t get enough sleep.
60 – Naps aren’t just for grandparents.
This study shows that naps desensitize us to negative emotions while making us more responsive to positive ones.
61 – Go outside
Numerous studies reviewed in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that being outdoors as well as being in nature increased happiness and vitality. Taking a walk outside might be a great step for boosting happiness.

62 – Meditate
Meditating is a great way to be in the moment. There are countless studies showing that people who meditate are happier. I haven’t mastered meditating, and I don’t think it makes me happier. However, I was introduced to a mini meditation that was helpful when I had a period of high stress.

I focused on counting and my breath, clearing my mind of everything else. Here’s how the mini meditation works:

  1. Close your eyes
  2. Count slowly to 4 while you take the biggest breath you can. Expand your stomach and then your chest as you breathe. Sit up straight to take in as much air as possible. You want to feel like you’re going to explode.
  3. Count slowly to 4 as you hold your breath.
  4. Then, count slowly to 4 as you exhale. Feel a little bit of tension leaving your body as you exhale.
  5. Repeat 8 times.

I was recommended to do this at the same time every day and when I was stressed. It worked great.

Optional addition: Try counting to 4 (or less) after you exhale and before you take your next breath.

Over time, I wound up increasing most of my counts above 4. Now, I do it in the car on the way to work (with my eyes open, of course).

63 – Meditation advice
Although meditating for 20 minutes (or even 10 minutes) didn’t seem to work for me, I used to start my meditation by thinking about what I wanted to improve. I wanted to be less bothered by little things. After a month, the daily reminder helped me to catch myself before I got upset.

At the start of each meditation, I also thought about how I wanted meditation to make me a better husband and dad, and I think it helped.

Keep in mind that you’re not going to be happy 100% of the time. Even though social media feeds make it seem like so many people are happy all of the time, they’re not. Have realistic goals and expectations. Aiming for incremental gains in happiness is a realistic goal, and it can change our lives..

Seeing the positive is an important part of being happy. If you want more positivity in your Facebook news feed, please consider clicking this link and liking my Facebook page. You’ll get inspirational stories, good news and a focus on the positive. (About one post a week.) Thanks! You can also sign up for my irregular email newsletter.

Hopefully you found some of these ideas worth trying as you ask yourself how to be happier or how to be happy.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll probably also like these:
103 Acts of Kindness that Will Make you an Everyday Hero
25 Random Acts of Kindness for Kids–Ideas for Raising Grateful and Kind Kids.

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