While it may seem counterintuitive to think of happiness as a science, you’ve probably seen it all over magazines and in your local bookstore. Here’s the short of it: Many researchers acknowledge that there are numerous biological, sociological, and psychological factors that create or deter happiness. Harnessing the emotion goes far beyond simply deciding that you will be happy, no matter what someone giving you a well-meaning pep talk might say.
In the wake of the pandemic and the uneven rebound back to everyday life, I recently took a course on the science behind happiness in order to learn practical tips to help improve my relationship with the emotion.
During my class, I was required to complete one “happiness practice” a week. Sometimes that looked like reflecting on my emotions or examining interpersonal relationships. In the process, I learned so much about how I approach happiness, and how I can cultivate it in my day-to-day life. Here are six easy-to-try activities that are a great start to fostering happiness on a regular basis.
Practice Active Listening
While I appreciate the ways in which virtual platforms like Zoom and FaceTime can keep people connected, I’ve found myself frequently letting my mind wander during meetings. On my worst “checked out” days, I’m guilty of browsing the web during calls, barely paying attention.
I’ve managed to be better recently, thanks to active listening, which involves truly engaging in the conversation without taking it over. As Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D, one of the co-instructors of the course and the Director of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California Berkeley, explained, the main goal of active listening is to “deepen your connection and communication and… try to really get to the bottom of what they’re trying to tell you.” During the course, she noted “how important interpersonal connections are to your happiness.” Thus, any way you can nurture those bonds will help with overall happiness.
Body language is a huge component of active listening. If you’re having a conversation on-screen, position yourself in a way that lets the speaker know you’re really paying attention, whether that’s turning towards them or nodding your head on camera. Ask questions without interrupting, and use “I” statements instead of blanket ones or assuming the other person agrees or has the same opinion. And unless you’re explicitly asked for your take, hold back on the advice — you’re there to listen and emphasize, not tell the speaker what to do.
Perform Random Acts of Kindness
This was one of the most rewarding (yet hardest) exercises to do, particularly during strict lockdown days. The idea is to do a few nice things each day for other people, such as saying “thank you” to the grocery store clerk or checking in on a friend.
You may wonder how all this would make you feel better, but a big takeaway from the course I took was how central gratitude is to overall happiness. The more grateful you are — and the more you express it — the better your overall mood will be. Performing random acts of kindness is just one way to practice gratitude, but there are many ways to do so, from thanking a partner for supporting you, to telling a coworker how much you appreciate their support.
Mindfulness is another buzzword that has garnered a lot of the spotlight in recent years. During my course, co-instructor Dacher Kelter, Ph.D, described it as “practices that cultivate this state of non-judgmental awareness [… which] tend to boost positive emotions and reduce stress and negative emotion, and strengthen coping.” You can practice it by performing a body scan (laying down and focusing on how each part of you is feeling in the moment) or a loving-kindness meditation, in which you focus on feelings towards a particular person.
Given how overwhelming the past year has been, I found the body scan particularly helpful, especially when falling asleep. “For people to benefit from a positive activity (or any self-improvement behavior, for that matter) they have to effortfully engage in it, be motivated to become happier, and believe their efforts will pay off,” Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph.D, author of “The How of Happiness” points out, In other words, in order for any mindfulness exercise to have a good chance of working for you, choose one that you’re genuinely excited about and truly hope will help.
Sure, you’ve likely heard the jokes about taking a “silly little walk” for your mental health, especially in the past year. How is this different? Well, it takes into account awe, an emotion that pulls your focus away from yourself and to the greater world. This allows you to experience a sense of wonder and appreciation for the world from which you might have otherwise been tapped out.
The next time you take a walk, slow down and stop to appreciate things like how nice the sun feels on your face or the beautiful view of the mountains from your house. If you’re still wary of spending much time in public and prefer something more solitary and low-risk, this is an easy and accessible option — and it doesn’t cost a cent!
Write a Self-Compassionate Letter
Can I be honest? When I was tasked with writing a letter to myself that was full of compassion, it was more than a little uncomfortable. The practice requires focusing on a trait that you don’t necessarily like, as well as forgiving yourself for it. According to Emma Seppälä, Ph.D, the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, there are plenty of benefits of self-compassion, including better physical health, increased levels of coping with stress, and lower rates of both perfectionism and anxiety and depression.
When I wrote my letter, I forgave myself for feeling anxious during a very uncertain time in the world. Perhaps you always get nervous before presentations at work or find it difficult to be motivated to exercise some days. Science shows that by accepting these as a part of yourself, and not approaching them as something that needs to be “fixed,” you’ll be on your way to a happier and healthier life.
Envision Your Best Possible Self
Personal narratives, including how you think of the little things in your day-to-day life, as well as your stressors and triumphs, are huge factors in your overall happiness. The good news is, if your own narrative is currently less than sunny, it can be re-written.
One good way to go about re-thinking your reality, is the “Best Possible Self” practice, developed by Laura King, Ph.D of the University of Missouri; it has been shown to cultivate happiness. Take a few minutes to envision living your best life at some point in the future. Write down how you feel and act. What have you achieved? Where do you live? How do you feel about work, your relationships?
The exercise requires you to consider what you truly want in life and how you’ll feel when you accomplish your goals can help keep things in perspective during turbulent times. I found the exercise immensely helpful for dealing with my stress during the peak of the pandemic, and appreciated the focus on the “how” you would feel at your best. No one is ever 100 percent all the time, but having a sort of game plan has kept my anxiety in check, lowered stress responses, and made me feel more at peace.