Happiness has become a popular field of study for researchers over the last decade, and universities are creating whole courses around the topic. Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor in psychology and cognitive science, teaches a hugely popular course on happiness at Yale and is a leading researcher on the science of happiness. Through her research, she has developed science-based recommendations on how we can increase our happiness levels. Here are five simple ways we can create happier, healthier lives for ourselves.
According to Santos, writing down three awesome things about your day can have a significant effect on retraining your brain to feel more gratitude and, as a result, feel happier. Pairing this practice with another habit, such as brushing your teeth, can enhance your awareness and make it easier to remember to do each day. Becoming more aware of the things for which you feel grateful—even small things such as your morning cup of coffee or a call from a friend—is a great way to help you focus on the positives in your life rather than the things you may perceive to be lacking.
People who are physically active for even small amounts of time each week (150 minutes or less) have lower odds for developing depression And the options for adding activity to your day are endless. Take your dog for a walk, for example, or go to a playground and play on the equipment. Practice mobility drills while watching your favorite television show. Find stairs and take them. Go for an easy swim in a lake or work in the garden. The point is to get moving, whenever and wherever you can.
The writer Anne Lamott wrote, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Taking time away from technology is important, particularly for those who feel overstimulated and fatigued by constant notifications and work-related stress. And if you can unplug outdoors, even better. David Strayer, a professor and cognitive psychologist, has been researching brain-based measures in cognitive restoration and believes that spending time in nature is important for elevating mood and reducing stress. For example, one study of people walking through an urban green space showed that participants’ brains exhibited lower frustration, engagement and arousal while in the green area. So get outside without any tech. Again, the possibilities are endless. Walk through a garden. Go hiking. Scramble up some rocks. Run barefoot in the grass. Rent a canoe. Listen and take it all in, allowing nature and its calming effects to wash over you.
Acts of kindness make us happier and spending time caring for others is a great way to increase your happiness level, says Santos. “Spending time and money on ourselves isn’t as fulfilling as focusing your time and money on other people,” Santos explains. “Those that volunteer more, tend to be more on the happier side than those that do not volunteer.” Pure altruism—the kind that you want to do rather than feel obligated to—has long-lasting effects on happiness levels, so take some time to think about issues or causes that speak to you and consider what simple acts you can take to help. Could you offer to go grocery shopping for those who may be unable to leave their homes or take dinner to someone who recently had a baby? If you love nature, consider planting perennials for bees and butterflies. Send a friend a favorite book. Bring in your neighbor’s garbage cans. Send a card full of encouragement to someone who needs it, or volunteer for your favorite organization. Time spent helping others is time well spent.
So much of modern life is geared toward getting as much done as possible, which leads to increased stress and anxiety. Meditation is a way to use the breath to help calm the nervous system. When you breathe properly, the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps you connect to the parasympathetic system. Just 10 minutes a day can begin to change the patterns of your brain. While starting a meditation practice can feel challenging, here are some ideas on how to get started: Begin your day in silence, before you check your phone for emails or texts. Find a comfortable chair or go outside and find a peaceful spot where you can pause and bring awareness to your breath. Close your eyes and count your breaths for 10 minutes. You can also find many useful apps that will help guide your meditation practice, which can be particularly useful for beginners. While learning to meditate requires discipline and practice, it doesn’t have to require a lot of time and you don’t have to do it perfectly to reap the benefits.