Fridays with Franky: Happiness Is Good
It is common knowledge that happiness is good for you. Happy people are healthier, they have more energy, they make better choices and they live longer. Yet, in this day and age, so many people are unhappy. They are fearful of what’s to come, will they have enough, what will others think of them – they’re filled with worry. It is no wonder depression rates are climbing so rapidly.
Now to be clear, although happiness is a choice, depression is not. It is a mental illness. And in many cases, medically diagnosed depression needs much more than simply choosing to put a smile on one’s face, it frequently needs treatment and therapy. But, there are still many correlations between trying to choose a positive outlook and managing depression effectively.
Unhappiness is, no doubt, a part of the life process. Bad things happen and we can’t simply smile them off and move on. We can wallow in our sadness endlessly or we can experience the sadness, acknowledge why we are sad and begin the (sometimes long) process of recovery from our sadness by seeking the positive where we can find it.
Science supports our need to be happy in order to live a healthier, longer life. Belle Beth Cooper recently penned an informative post in Huff Post Science entitled 10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science. Here is an abbreviated version of the 10 Simple Things:
1. Exercise more – 7 minutes might be enough
You might have seen some talk recently about the scientific 7 minute workout mentioned in The New York Times. So if you thought exercise was something you didn’t have time for, maybe you can fit it in after all.
You don’t have to be depressed to gain benefit from exercise, though. It can help you to relax, increase your brain power and even improve your body image, even if you don’t lose any weight.
2. Sleep more – you’ll be less sensitive to negative emotions
We know that sleep helps our bodies to recover from the day and repair themselves, and that it helps us focus and be more productive. It turns out, it’s also important for our happiness.
In NutureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep affects our positivity: Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.
Of course, how well (and how long) you sleep will probably affect how you feel when you wake up, which can make a difference to your whole day.
3. Move closer to work – a short commute is worth more than a big house
Our commute to the office can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice a day, five days a week, makes it unsurprising that its effect would build up over time and make us less and less happy.
According to The Art of Manliness, having a long commute is something we often fail to realize will affect us so dramatically: “… while many voluntary conditions don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we acclimate to them, people never get accustomed to their daily slog to work because sometimes the traffic is awful and sometimes it’s not.” Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”
4. Spend time with friends and family – don’t regret it on your deathbed
Staying in touch with friends and family is one of the top five regrets of the dying. If you want more evidence that it’s beneficial for you, I’ve found some research that proves it can make you happier right now.
Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we feel, generally.
I love the way Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it: “We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”
Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
5. Go outside – happiness is maximized at 13.9°C
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve your happiness:
Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory.
The American Meteorological Society published research in 2011 that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even the average temperature over the course of a day. It also found that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C, so keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of fresh air.
The connection between productivity and temperature is another topic we’ve talked about more here. It’s fascinating what a small change in temperature can do.
6. Help others – 100 hours a year is the magical number
One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice I found is that to make yourself feel happier, you should help others. In fact, 100 hours per year (or two hours per week) is the optimal time we should dedicate to helping others in order to enrich our lives.
If we go back to Shawn Achor’s book again, he says this about helping others: “…when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities–such as concerts and group dinners out–brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called ‘prosocial spending,’ also boosts happiness.”
In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives: “…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.”
7. Practice smiling – it can alleviate pain
Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to this study:
A new study led by a Michigan State University business scholar suggests customer-service workers who fake smile throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts – such as a tropical vacation or a child’s recital – improve their mood and withdraw less.
Of course it’s important to practice “real smiles” where you use your eye sockets. It’s very easy to spot the difference.
Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our attentional flexibility and our ability to think holistically. When this idea was tested by Johnson et al. (2010), the results showed that participants who smiled performed better on attentional tasks which required seeing the whole forest rather than just the trees.
A smile is also a good way to alleviate some of the pain we feel in troubling circumstances.
8. Plan a trip – but don’t take one
As opposed to actually taking a holiday, it seems that planning a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness. A study published in the journal, Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as employees enjoyed the sense of anticipation.
If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar–even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.
9. Meditate – rewire your brain for happiness
Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness:
In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.
Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life. Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.
The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through mediation is most surprising to me and somewhat reassuring that however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.
10. Practice gratitude – increase both happiness and life satisfaction
This is a seemingly simple strategy, but I’ve personally found it to make a huge difference to my outlook. There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show gratitude when others help you.
In an experiment where some participants took note of things they were grateful for each day, their moods were improved just from this simple practice.
Quick last fact: Getting older will make yourself happier
As a final point, it’s interesting to note that as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend to grow happier naturally. There’s still some debate over why this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas:
Researchers, including the authors, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less.
Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down. Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing.
So if you thought being old would make you miserable, rest assured that it’s likely you’ll develop a more positive outlook than you probably have now.
So, by choosing to live happier, you are choosing a healthier and longer life. Seems like a pretty good deal to me. Thanks for reading everyone and have a great weekend!