Everybody wants to be happier, right? The problem is — as anyone who’s ever dated that sulky loner knows, or told themselves that buying those expensive shoes will make you feel better — that we don’t always have the sense of what will or won’t bring us joy. Which is why you might want to turn to science: In the last few decades, researchers who dedicate themselves to exploring the makeup of human happiness have tested everything from how you spend money to how you spend your lunch hour. We’ve gathered nine suggestions you can tackle now.
Count Your Blessings
When was the last time you sat back and gave some thought to all those things, big and small, that make your life great? A study from the University of California, Riverside and Duke University found that counting one’s blessings can indeed make you happier. "It makes you more mindful and aware of the good things in life," says psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The Myths of Happiness." So, if you can’t remember the last time you did this, start counting now. Maybe it’s that painting you toted all the way home from your trip to Mexico that always brings a smile to your face, or the solid group of friends and family who always have your back. Whatever it is, pause on each thought and relish the good you have in your life.
Not all free time is created equal: While Americans on average spend two months a year watching TV, study after study shows it actually makes us pretty morose. A better choice: Taking a class. “Intrinsic activities—those that allow you to connect with others or help you grow, tend to make you happier in the long run,” says Lyubomirsky.
Go for Walks
Getting outside is good for you—and it doesn’t matter where you wander. For a University of Michigan study, a group of college students were asked to take walks, half in a quiet nature setting and half in noisy city streets. Afterwards, both groups reported feeling happier (though the Walden walkers also showed improved attention and memory.)
Pay Down Debt
Even if your friendly credit card company is encouraging you to run a balance, chances are you would be happier paying that off and building up your rainy day fund. Negative experiences impact us more than positive experiences, says Lyubomirsky, "Owing $100 feels much, much worse than having $100 feels good."
Take a Friend to Lunch
Spending money on other people tends to make us happier than if we spend it on ourselves, says Laura Vanderkam, author of "All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending." Treating a pal is even better because it allows you to strengthen your bond, and spend time together. “Humans are social creatures,” says Vanderkam. “If one person pays for the lunch, there will probably be a second one, because the other person will want to return the favor. It extends the happiness.”
Put Down that Big Mac
Having trouble giving up fast food? Here’s some inspiration: Spanish researchers tracked the eating habits of almost 9,000 people over about six years and discovered a direct relationship between eating more fast food (hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza) and commercial baked goods (croissants, doughnuts, cupcakes) and a greater risk of depression. Those who indulged the most were 40% more likely to be depressed!
Get Multiple Small Treats (Instead of One Big One)
Remember how psyched you were when you got your new car? A few years later, are you still psyched to be driving it? Exactly. Fact is, says Vanderkam, we tend to get used to new things, and after a while, they don’t give us the same pleasure they did in the beginning. That’s why, if you’re going to treat yourself, you should try to do it in as many doses as you can. "For example, people spend big chunks of money on diamond engagement rings," she says. "But imagine if instead, you saved some of that cash for other things for your marriage—flowers, dinners out together, weekend trips away, small presents, babysitting. Chances are, you’d still be enjoying those long after you got tired of staring at the ring on your finger."
Get a Massage
Really, we mean it. In a study of 17 previous clinical trials, researchers from China’s I-Shou University found that most people felt significantly less blue after receiving their first massage, and even happier with each one after. In fact, people who received multiple massage sessions were 73% less likely to suffer from depression than their peers. If that’s not a reason to set up a weekly appointment, we don’t know what is.
Make Yourself Go to the Gym
When you’re sitting on that couch with the remote in your hand, nothing sounds less appetizing than squeezing into some Lycra and hitting the weight room. But try to make yourself do it, suggest Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton in their book, "Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending." Dunn’s research shows that we tend to overestimate how unpleasant a workout will be—and under-estimate how much we’ll enjoy it.
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