Find Your Happiness Habits
The pursuit of happiness is one of the best investments you can make. While our happiness is heavily shaped by the hand we are dealt (e.g. our genes, and socioeconomic rank), our fates are far from sealed.
Thanks to centuries of philosophy and psychology research, we have a solid understanding of how to make the most of the hand we are dealt.
This article shares a menu of simple, science-based happiness boosters. The fun part is trying them out, and figuring out which ones you can weave into your daily life. You can also keep this list in your back pocket and double-dip when you’re having a low day. As a bonus, many of these strategies provide broader mental and physical health benefits.
Defining and measuring happiness. Happiness researchers use a variety of different metrics. Some focus on more holistic measures like life satisfaction and a sense of flourishing (eudaimonic happiness). Others focus on in-the-moment feelings, and seek to enhance hedonic happiness (feelings of pleasure and enjoyment) or curtail negative feelings (like sadness). It’s generally well accepted that a multi-pronged approach is needed to be our happiest selves.
Happiness Boosting Habits
Gratitude practices are one of the quickest, easiest, and most universally-accessible strategies to boost happiness.
When and how you integrate gratitude practices into your life is personal. Gratitude journals are a popular and effective way to boost gratitude, as are thank you letters, but there are many other options. Just taking a few minutes to turn your thoughts towards what you have, rather than what you want, or your to-do-list, can go a long way.
Gratitude science. This 2019 trial of over 1,000 participants in Brazil examined the effect of gratitude journals compared to “hassle” or “neutral event” journals. Those who listed daily events they were grateful benefited by several measures: increased happiness and life satisfaction, greater positive emotions, and fewer negative emotions. On average, scores went up by about ten percent or so, but results varied from person-to-person.
For me, the best time to practice gratitude is on my evening strolls, when I’m free from the distractions of family life.
Healthy bonus? There is some evidence that gratitude is linked to better physical health, but it’s hard to sort out the chicken and the egg (which came first?). It’s easy to imagine ways in which happiness and healthy choices are mutually reinforcing.
A wide range of kindness activities can help foster happiness, not just the “random acts of kindness” to strangers that you may have heard about.
Some of my favourite acts of kindness include treating a friend to coffee, letting somebody with just a few items jump in front of me in line, and stopping to chat with a stranger — often an elderly person who seems charmed by my boisterous little ones.
Being kind to yourself can also go a long way. Ironically, some people find this practice to be more difficult than being kind to others!
Kind science. This 2019 study compared the impact of various kindness activities: being kind to others with either strong or weak social ties, being kind to oneself, and observing acts of kindness. Notably, the various kindness activities didn’t differ significantly in their impact. The average happiness boost was around 5–10%, but results varied greatly from person-to-person.
Spend your money wisely
For those who are fortunate to have discretionary income, spending your money wisely can help boost happiness.
- Prioritize shared experiences. This series of 2012 studies found that spending money on socially shared experiences produced the greatest happiness benefits — more than solitary experiences or material possessions.
Money well spent. My husband loves to quote me for saying “That was the best $75 I’ve ever spent”, as we wrapped up an exhilarating tropical zipline adventure. Clearly, I’m in the same boat as the participants in the above study!
- Use your money to buy time. For example, hire a helper to do some of the little jobs you despise. To amplify the effect, spend your newly freed up time on something you that enjoy.
The science of buying time. In this 2017 study, “Buying time promotes happiness”, researchers showed that those who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. The study encompassed around 6,000 samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands.
- Spend your money on others, but do so selectively. Spending money in ways that benefits others is known by social scientists as “prosocial spending”. This could be either directly to somebody you feel compelled to help, or through a charity.
“It’s not the case the lightening your wallet will automatically make you happier”. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money.
Happy Money science. This 2020 study replicated findings from earlier studies on the link between prosocial spending and happiness. Participants who were randomly assigned to spend gifted money on others (in the form of a goody bag) tended to experience greater happiness than those assigned to treat themselves, to the tune of 5–10% (with ample inter-individual variation).
To enhance the happiness glow from your giving, follow advice by Dunn and colleagues (2020) to look for i) a strong connection to the cause; ii) clarity on the impact of giving; and iii) a feeling of choice.
Physical exercise isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for your mental health, too, in a big way. While this strategy takes more effort than others, the rewards are profound — both mentally and physically.
Indeed, this is the one happiness strategy I lean on most heavily, particularly in stressful times.
If you’re struggling to get hooked on fitness, try these tweaks:
- Find your fit. You don’t need to hit the gym or run a marathon to get a happiness boost. Try different types of physical exercise until you find your winner (get help here!).
- Shift your pre-exercise thinking. Instead of focusing on the discomfort you dread, anticipate the happiness boost that follows.
- Optimize your exercise routine. Focus on making the first few minutes as positive as possible. For example, kick off with a few minutes of stretching or a delicious yoga pose like savasana or child’s pose.
- Optimize your exercise environment. Exercise in a place that you enjoy — the desire to get there will help you get moving. Building a dedicated fitness soundtrack that you enjoy can also promote positive anticipation.
Exercise science. Despite the substantial body of science supporting the mental health benefits of exercise, the underlying mechanisms remain incompletely understood. They are thought to stem from a combination of beneficial changes to our body chemistry, our environment and our state-of-mind.
The Bottom Line
We all accept the notion that physical health requires an investment of time and energy. It’s time to translate this mindset to mental health. While there is no simple formula for happiness, science can help us spend our time, energy, and money, wisely.
The strategies above can nudge you towards happier days, but bear in mind that their effects tend to be transient, and modest. Take your time figuring out which ones offer the most bang for your buck, and are sustainable in your life. You may find that you also get hooked on the bonus benefits — the happiness boosts you give to others, and the broader mental and physical health rewards.
Personalize your pursuit of happiness. The effects of different happiness determinants are known to vary across sub-populations. For example, this 2020 study of well-being in adult Americans found that women’s outcomes were strongly shaped by education and marital status, whereas men’s were heavily shaped by employment.
To be clear, this discussion focuses on little lifts, not life transformations. We haven’t touched on many happiness heavy hitters. These factors, such as sense of purpose in life, health, household financial satisfaction and freedom of choice, are often harder to change. This is not to say they shouldn’t be pursued — they definitely should — but there is no reason you can’t chalk up some easier wins on a daily basis.
Good luck with your happiness self-experiments. I’d love to hear what works best for you!
Disclaimer: If you think you may be clinically depressed, please seek professional help. The strategies in this article are not intended to replace professionally guided interventions.
This article was inspired by my conversation with happiness guru Professor Elizabeth Dunn, PhD. Dunn leads the Happy Lab at the University of British Columbia and is the author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.
- The Science of Gratitude (from the Berkeley Greater Good Foundation)
I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine. I love being active, eating tons of veggies, playing games, and talking nerdy.
My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices that they truly enjoy.
Sign up for my free newsletter and see more of my work (articles, videos, podcasts & healthy recipes) at FueledbyScience.com