Here’s how to increase happiness, according to Aristotle—depend on yourself. And this is way before we decided our joy must surely rely on job titles and #couplegoals.
The idea that we can simply choose to be happy is a popular one, and for good reason—it puts the reigns to a more blissful life in our own hands. And shocker, it’s actually true; science shows that some of our joy is in our control. So the old guy was onto something after all. Weird.
How to Increase Happiness ASAP, According to Research
Maybe we can’t change our circumstances, or our genetic predisposition to crying tears of despair every time the internet goes down, but we can choose to partake in actions and activities that boost our happiness and lead to greater life satisfaction.
Let’s see what the science has to say about how to increase happiness and take a look at four ways we can get a little more bliss in our days.
How Much Happiness Is in Our Hands?
Here’s how much happiness we can actually control: Genetics account for roughly 50 percent of our happiness levels, according to studies of twins both raised together and raised apart. Ten percent comes down to circumstances (things like money, relationship status, and background). And the rest of it—40 percent—we can effectively control, says happiness researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirksy.
Excellent news, right? This means that we can incorporate intentional happiness-boosting activities into our daily lives and, research shows they’ll make a difference.
This could be anything from avoiding social comparison (goodbye supermodel Instagram accounts) to practicing a religion to moving your body, according to Dr. Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
Here are four strategies from science about how to increase happiness.
1. Choose happiness-boosting activities that work for you
Some of us love getting up at 6 a.m. to get their sweat on. For others that might be the definition of torture. And that’s okay. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. Selecting activities comes down to your personality, strengths, and preferences. Psychologists term this “person-activity fit”. It’s really just about knowing what works for you. And this is important because the science says we’re more likely to stick to activities we have a strong preference for.
Here’s an example: Thrive on connecting with others? You probably want to choose something that consistently exposes you to new and different kinds of people, according to research. More of a go-it-aloner? You may get more out of reflective activities like using a meditation app or recalling the good stuff from the past day.
It’s not all about fun. Engagement matters too. Dr. Lyubomirsky advocates for “doing more activities that truly engage you… in which you ‘lose’ yourself, [activities] which are challenging and absorbing,” she writes in an article on CNBC. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the reward, right?
2. For maximum joy, change it up
The caveat: We adapt to intentional activities over time.
Imagine a big change like marrying the love of your life or scoring your dream job. At first, we’re flushed with happiness but, in time, the glow fades. The same thing has been shown to happen with intentional happiness-boosting activities. Psychologists call this hedonic adaptation. And it’s kind of a bummer.
The challenge: To become happier long term, according to Lyubomirsky, we have to beat hedonic adaptation.
The solution: We have to be strategic with our strategies. How? By introducing some variety into our activities. While making a happiness-booster a habit is good in theory, doing so gives us less reward over time. Instead, make the process of getting started on your happy action automatic, but switch up how you’re actually doing it.
Here’s an example: Getting sweaty works for you, so you set out to boost your happiness by running. The habitual part? Going for a run every other day. The keep-you-guessing-for-maximum-happiness part? Mix up the route, intensity, duration, and pace to keep it challenging and engaging. You’re running wind sprints one day and pulling a Forrest Gump on others. Hedonic adaptation = dodged.
3. Thank your way to happiness
You don’t have to keep a gratitude journal or even acknowledge the “g” word if you’re over it. But appreciating what you have, and taking time to think about it, is a research-backed way of becoming happier.
A gratitude practice is when you consciously focus on the things in your life that you’re thankful for. They could be anything: warm carbs, an ab-hurting laughter episode, the first sip of a cold beer on Friday night. No matter how small, appreciating the things that make your life good makes a difference.
That’s because gratitude is tied to other good feelings, according to research. When our levels of gratitude rise, our happiness, contentment, hope, and other positive emotions can rise too, the study found. Bonus points: Practicing gratitude can boost our optimism about the future and even reduce depressive symptoms. On-board yet? Because we are.
So how often should you practice gratitude? The research is a little mixed.
- In one study, subjects kept either a daily or weekly gratitude journal. Those who journaled daily had a greater improvement in mood over those who did it weekly—though there were benefits in positive feelings for both groups.
- In another study, positive improvements were seen only in weekly gratitude-reporters, while participants who journaled more than that (three times a week) didn’t see the same benefits. The reason? Boredom, speculated the authors. Hedonic adaptation strikes again.
So why the lack of consensus between studies? It could come down to differences in age groups, demographics, methodologies… Whatever the case, it just reinforces what we’ve said above: Things work differently for different people. So while gratitude, in general, has consistently shown some encouraging results, how frequently we think on thanks, and what method we use to do it, boils down to what works for us.
4. A surprising happiness tip: Don’t always be happy
Yup, we’re telling you how to increase happiness using unhappiness. Confused much? It turns out that feeling unhappy sometimes is a part of happiness. We can’t be happy all the time. And that’s absolutely fine. In fact, accepting negative emotions has been linked to greater mental health. This may be because, when we accept feelings like anger and sadness, we also acknowledge that they’re temporary, inevitable, and well…human.
A 2017 study found that people who were more accepting of negative emotions responded better to stressors overall. While accepting the bad didn’t immediately make them happier, it did help them experience less adverse feelings over time and have stronger mental health long-term. Short-term pain for long-term gain.
To put it simply: There’s no point feeling bad about feeling bad.
Instead, we should do our best to accept negative emotions and allow ourselves to experience them—without dwelling on them, judging ourselves for them, or trying to run like hell from them. (Guilty.) Knowing that they’ll pass allows us to look forward to the future in a way that will contribute to our long-term happiness.
How to increase happiness, on your terms
At the end of the day, happiness is a little more complex than a smile. It’s hard to define, hard to measure, and looks different to different people.
But slippery as it may be, there are things we can do to get a better grasp on it. Like accepting the things we can’t control and taking power over the things we can. And finding those little activities that add value to our lives and make us feel more positive. And accepting that hard stuff is supposed to be hard and letting ourselves sit with that.
In doing so, we start to see that happiness is about what we choose to do every day, rather than a permanent state of bliss. And maybe that’s better.
Your turn: What’s one thing you do every day to boost your happiness? Give us the details in the comments below.
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.