Why is it so hard to be happy? Why does it feel like happiness is always just out of our grasp? Even though we’re always learning and living new experiences, it seems like happiness is just out of reach. The good news is that there really are keys to happiness…and it doesn’t even involve any magic. In recent years, studies have been conducted to find out just what it is that makes us happy. Professor Tal Ben-Sharpar from Harvard actually studies happiness and assures us that the secret to a happy life is accepting it as it is, and that doing that will “free you from the fear of failure and perfect expectations.” Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, director at the Center for Happy Minds at the University of Wisconson-Madison says that “happiness and well-being are skills that can be learned and trained.” So, what does science say are the keys to happiness?
7 Simple Keys to Happiness
1. Stop looking for happiness and start living it
As professor Ben-Shapar said, one of the causes of unhappiness is the expectation that we have to be happy. When we constantly think and worry about being happy, it actually leads us to feel more unsatisfied with our lives. One study by Jane Gruber showed that happiness causes unhappiness…but why? If we’re unable to control our frustration, we won’t be able to “find” happiness.
We have to remember that happiness isn’t the result of doing one thing, but probably actually requires many actions working together in order for us to see a difference. Rather than deciding to sleep more, for example, we have to try to make a true lifestyle change, which will take longer than simply going to sleep earlier one night. The things that really matter, like learning how to relax, letting go, being thankful, and being kind to yourself, take time and patience.
Mathama Ghandi said “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. Listen to Ghandi and live how you feel. Spending your time worrying about what others are thinking or feeling is a waste of time, which we learned from Bonnie Ware’s palliative care patients. At the end of their lives, the only thing that they regretted was not having lived the life the wanted. They spent their time worrying out how other people wanted them to live their lives rather than living the life they really wanted. We have to be brave and live how we feel.
2. Live in the “now” to be happy
Living in the present and being connected to the moments that you’re living are some keys to happiness, but it’s one of the hardest things for us to do. In a famous study conducted by Killingsworth & Gilbert, they saw how people spend more than 47% of their time wandering and distracted, which ended up making them unhappier…and that number isn’t even the most staggering part of the study. They showed that a group of teenagers would actually prefer to receive electric shocks than to sit idly, just showing that living in the present is necessary for being happy.
Recent studies conducted by Dr. Davidson have shown that practicing mindfulness decreases the activity in the brain areas that light up when we are wandering or not doing anything (medial prefrontal areas and the anterior cingulate), which helps us focus on the present. This also means that meditation can help us as we strive to focus on the present and stop worrying about the future.
3. Learn to be grateful to be happy
Gratitude, being appreciative of the things that we have, is a key to happiness. Being appreciative means accepting your life for what it is and learning how to live in the moment.
Be grateful for what you have, for your friends, for your family, for the sun in the morning, for the nature that surrounds you, and for the universe. Learn to appreciate everything you can see, smell, feel, experience…
Studies have confirmed the impact that gratefulness has on emotional well-being and happiness. For example, professor Toepfer from Kent State University saw how writing thank-you notes increased happiness and satisfaction, while decreasing the feeling of depression in participants. It’s something so small, but writing a short thank-you note in the morning could make a big difference for your happiness in the long-run.
4. Exercise to be happy
Exercising is on every health and well-being list on the planet. The positive effects of exercise on both our physical and mental health are endless. When we exercise, our body releases endorphins, which are natural opioids that decrease pain and actually make us feel happier.
In a study with depressive patients, researchers saw how those who had changed medication for physical exercise didn’t only show improvement in their condition, but also had fewer relapses in the future.
So get out and do some exercise everyday. You don’t need to go running any marathons and you don’t have to start doing Crossfit, but getting out and walking just 30 minutes a day has been proven to help patients both physically and mentally.
5. Help others and be generous to be happy
If you want happiness for an hour- take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day- go fishing.
If you want happiness for a month- get married.
If you want happiness for a year- inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime-help others.
They had the right idea, and for centuries they’ve known that the secret to happiness is other people’s happiness. Short-term benefits like fishing or taking a nap will only make us happy for a little while, but if we are able to help other people and positively impact their lives, that happiness will create more happiness, and it will last longer than short-term, material pleasure. In a meta-analysis (a study where various studies were done about a certain subject), for example, researchers saw how when a volunteer donated their time, they felt happier and had a higher sense of well-being.
In fact, one of the biggest indicators of happiness is quality of social relationships. When looking at the brains of people who were forced to live in social isolation, we can see that the same brain areas light up as when one experiences physical pain, which means that to our brain, being socially isolated is physically painful. So, what’s the best way to improve social relationships? Without a doubt, altruism and pro-social behaviors are what create and improve social links between people, which includes empathy (being able to understand others’ feelings), and compassion (genuine concern for others).
Pro-social behavior, or being kind to others, increases being accepted within a group. In other words, the nicer we are to our friends, the more we’ll like each other and the more likely we will be good friends.
Altruism, or being generous with others, also considerably increases our perception of happiness according to a study conducted by the University of British Columbia, where participants who spent money on other people felt happier than those who did not.
Altruism and pro-social behaviors aren’t only associated to happiness and well-being, but also to a healthier and longer life. We’ve seen this happen not only happen in children and adults of a certain society, but cross-culturally and universally.
So, you can see why one of the keys to happiness is to heed Ellen DeGeneres’ advice and be kind to one another.
6. Smile or laugh out loud to be happy
We all know the wonders a good laugh can do. It makes us feel happy, it relaxes us, and it even bonds us with friends. This isn’t just something we feel, but it’s actually been proven in a study. When looking at people who were genuinely laughing and then at people who forced a laugh, those who were really laughing actually improved their mood, while those who were faking decreased.
So, try to laugh…but don’t fake it! Think about good things and things that make you happy: holidays on a deserted island, think about your child or someone you love, about something funny that happened to you…
7. Surround yourself with positive people
They say that you can catch everything but beauty, which I’m not sure is actually true (you can’t actually catch everything…), because when you’re surrounded by happy, positive people, it rubs off a little on everyone around. The same goes for sadness. Have you ever felt exhausted and kind of angry after spending the day with a negative person? Have you noticed how some people seem to suck the energy out of you?
Well, it seems like science agrees with us. In a study conducted by Framingham Heart Study, 5,000 people were followed for 20 years. Over this time, they saw that their happiness actually depended quite a bit on the happiness of the people around them.
Stay away from toxic people and work to create a network of happy, positive people to share your time with.
There you have it! The steps are simple enough, but learning to follow them takes a lifetime. Work everyday on improving one aspect of your life- help someone everyday, try to really laugh, and surround yourself with positive, loving people.
Molly is a writer specialized in health and psychology. She is passionate about neuroscience and how the brain works, and is constantly looking for new content from interesting sources. Molly is happy to give or take advice, and is always working to educate and inspire.