37 Secrets To A Happier Life

From owning a pet (especially a dog) to wearing sunglasses, these small habits can boost your mood—and your well-being

Stacy Lee Kong with Ishani Nandi Updated: Dec 23, 2019 17:07:15 IST
37 Secrets To A Happier Life

There are plenty of reasons to seek happiness. Research has shown that arthritis patients who think positive are able to take more daily steps than their unhappy counterparts. Merry people tend to avoid getting sick during flu season, and they even live longer. Plus, experiencing joy just feels good. Try these 37 small, surprising ways to beat the blues. 


Do things that give your life meaning

1. Keep a diary—and reread it from time to time. According to a 2014 study in Psychological Science, writing in a journal can make people happy, even if the entries are mundane. We tend to forget the little things in life that bring us pleasure, but documenting those ordinary moments allows us to rediscover them.

2. Director and head of Max Hospital's mental health and behavioural sciences department in New Delhi, Dr Sameer Malhotra recommends taking up a hobby that allows for ‘me’ time. “A creative and constructive hobby that aligns with your interests provides positive reinforcement. It acts like an internal reward system for having created or done something positive. It also forces you to take time out to prioritize yourself. Music, painting, volunteering are just a few examples.” Bonus points if it’s something you’re not good at—say, stand-up comedy, making chocolate, balloon animals or joining a choir—even if you’re not an accomplished singer. That’s because we’re happier when we’re learning and connecting with other people. 

3. Forgive (even if you can’t forget). Holding a grudge is stressful and can make you feel angry, sad, anxious and out of control. But forgiving someone who has hurt you doesn’t cause negative emotions at all. 

4. According to Neil Pasricha, author of You Are Awesome, published earlier this year, reading 20 pages of a novel every day will make you happier. “Literary fiction is shown to increase brain activity and improve our capacity for empathy, compassion and understanding,” he says. He recommends paper books to reduce screen time.


5. Figure out your purpose. “This is about having some kind of goal or principle that orients your life and moves you into the future,” says journalist and author Emily Esfahani Smith. It could be a big goal, like getting involved in politics, or a more personal option, like being a good parent. Either way, it should be one that motivates you and organizes the activities of your day around something greater than yourself.

6. Think about negative emotions as an opportunity. “It’s important to acknowledge that unhappiness is part of the human experience,” says Meik Wiking, the author of The Art of Making Memories, which released in September this year. “We will struggle; we will be heartbroken; we will experience setbacks—overcoming them is what makes us both human and happy.” 

7. … which is why you should rethink your approach to stress. “Stressful situations make us feel like victims, but adopting a problem-solving approach empowers us. The moment you start taking steps towards solutions, you feel in control and more positive,” says Malhotra. According to Gurugram-based clinical psychologist Ashima Puri, “Remember that stress is not always a bad thing. It can be beneficial in that it helps you focus on tasks, confront challenges, prepare better and work towards solutions. But stress turns into strain when the task at hand affects memory and judgment. Practise abdominal breathing to calm your mind and think mindfully—concentrating on the here and now—to overcome it.”


Focus on relationships

8. A 2019 psychology study concluded that dads are happier than mums, perhaps because they were more likely to report that they were playing with their kids rather than doing housework. Says Chennai-based psychiatrist and relationships consultant, Dr Vijay Nagaswami, “When it comes to child-rearing, one needs to move away from the stereotypes of the ‘disciplining mom’ and ‘fun dad’. It is key that both parents play the roles of good cop and bad cop and mums need to have as much playtime with children as do fathers. Equally, dads need to participate in the disciplining process as well.” 

9. According to Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, strong relationships are key to happiness. Whether they’re romantic partners, friends, children or co-workers, other people help “remind us of what’s important in life,” he says. Adds Puri, “We all value freedom but we are also interdependent. So who you are is defined in a big way by the people around you—most significantly, your family—which is the biggest support system we have.”

10. Act extroverted—even if you’re not. “We found that when introverted people reported that they were acting outgoing, those tended to be their happier moments,” says John Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. That means talking to strangers on the bus or chatting with a barista can boost people’s happiness, even if they’re naturally solitary types.

11. Owning a pet can make you happier. A recent Washington State University study found that just 10 minutes of petting a furry friend resulted in reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And dogs might have an edge over cats—in a recent survey of Americans, 36 per cent of dog owners rated themselves as “very happy” compared to only 18 per cent of cat owners. 


12. Nagaswami, who has authored several books on marriage and relationships, advises new parents to begin fostering an environment of positivity and support early on in a child’s life. “Both parents should be clear about the ‘home culture’ they would like to create for themselves and the children and apply this consistently, periodically reviewing it to ensure that kids have a safe, predictable, rational and cheerful home life. Criticism should be offered in a non-threatening manner and the ‘rod’ should always be spared. Also, parents need to walk the talk, since they can’t reasonably expect their children to assimilate a culture that they themselves are unwilling to commit to,” he explains.

13. Grab an early coffee with your co-workers. A 2018 study out of the University of California, Davis, found that colleagues who drink a cup of coffee together before starting their workday were more engaged, focused and receptive to ideas compared to those who shared a coffee with workmates later in the day.


Get out of the house

14. Being outside can boost your mood. In a study led by Zelenski, people who spent 15 minutes outdoors reported about 60 per cent more positive emotions than those who stayed inside. “Nature walks, bird-watching, a picnic in the park or even tending a home garden are all ways to disconnect from work pressures and technology and bond with nature and close ones,” says Malhotra. And while the effects aren’t quite as strong, simply watching a nature documentary will do in a pinch.

15. Stare at trees. Esfahani Smith says nature offers transcendent moments: “[When] you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away and you feel connected to a higher reality.” In 2015, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, asked 90 students to look up at 60-metre-tall eucalyptus trees for one minute. After, the subjects reported feeling less self-centred, and they behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone.


16. Start following sports. According to the psychology professor Daniel L. Wann, author of Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Fandom, rooting for a team leads to social connections, which provide a buffer against depression and alienation as well as increasing self-esteem and self-worth. But choose wisely: Losing teams don’t offer the same benefits.


Take care of your body

17. Eating lots of fruits and veggies can “enhance mental well-being,” according to a 2019 study in Social Science & Medicine. Aim for 10.5 portions per day—where a portion equals a cup of raw vegetables or fruits, or half a cup of cooked veggies. Says Malhotra, “Meeting the simplest needs of the body—enough rest, maintaining a timely pattern for sleep and meals, balanced nutrition, an active lifestyle—can boost happiness levels manifold.” 

18. It may not feel that way while we’re doing it, but exercise makes us happier. Several studies have found that people who work out for at least 30 minutes five times per week were at least 30 per cent more likely to consider themselves happy than people who never exercised. And it may not even take that much—other studies found that just 10 minutes of daily exercise can make you cheerful.


19. Stand up straight. According to a 2017 study published in the journal Biofeedback, people who slouched while walking felt more depressed—but when they stood in a more upright position, they reported a significant bump in their overall outlook and energy levels.  

20. A 2015 Gallup poll found that if you’re sleeping less than six hours per night, you’re about 30 per cent less happy than people who get between seven-and-a-half and nine hours of shut-eye. “Disturbed sleep is one of the first signs of burnout and stress. Improper rest can directly lead to poor recall, decision-making, impaired work performance and problems in behaviour, which directly affect our relationships at home or at the workplace,” Puri says.


Location, location, location

21. Live near water—and yes, a pool counts. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, water makes people feel positive emotions. And if you need motivation to book a beach vacation, a 2016 study found that ocean views are linked to lower levels of psychological distress.

22. Regardless of the size of your city, you’re likely to be happier if you live somewhere with sidewalks, parks and bike paths—so long as you use them, of course.

23. And if you spend less time commuting. Researchers in the United Kingdom found that adding just 20 minutes to your daily commute has the same negative impact on life satisfaction as a monthly pay cut of $550 (nearly Rs 40,000).


Change your habits

24. Eat at home. (Even better if it’s healthy food.) A 2011 study of 160 women found they felt more intense positive emotions and fewer intense negative emotions after a meal prepared at home. Although going to a restaurant feels like a treat, it’s easier to make healthier choices at home, which triggers good feelings—which, in turn, encouraged them to keep making healthy choices. 

25. It turns out, Wednesdays—not Mondays—are the worst day of the week, according to University of Vermont data scientists who studied patterns of web-based messages. The use of positive words peaks on Sunday, then steadily declines to its lowest point on Wednesday before rising again. To offset the impact, plan something nice for hump day.

26. Cutting back on screen time makes for happier people. In one recent study of teens, just one hour of screen time a day was correlated with greater unhappiness, and as screen time increased, happiness continued to drop. These findings likely apply to adults, too. Pasricha says, “Cellphones are … totally addictive comparison machines that hijack our brains and turn us into anxiety-riddled, stress-addled, thin-skinned versions of our best selves.” 

27. In his book, The Upward Spiral, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains how wearing sunglasses can trick us into feeling happier. When it’s bright outside, we tend to squint, which activates the corrugator supercilii muscle in our foreheads. We also use this muscle to frown when we’re upset. So, what do our brains do? Get confused about just what we’re feeling. But donning sunglasses can stop that biofeedback loop.

28. When we think about the things in our lives that make us happy (like our families, hobbies and friends) and then imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have those things, it makes us appreciate them more, which makes us happier, says Kira M. Newman, an editor at the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley.

29. Do one thing at a time. According to creator of the app Track Your Happiness, Matthew Killingsworth, who is a senior fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, we feel less content when our minds wander. His research showed that people are happiest when having sex, exercising or conversing—all things that require focus—and least happy when resting, working or using a home computer.  


Spend money smarter

30. According to a 2017 study by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, when people spent money on things that saved them time, they reported greater life satisfaction. So invest in a home appliance or shop at the grocery store that’s closest to home, even if it’s a bit more expensive. 

31. Be generous. According to a 2008 study from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School, people who spent money on others were happier than those who spent money on themselves. Says Puri, “Giving is a powerful happiness generator. It works by reminding you to appreciate what you have, which elicits gratitude and humility.” Adds Malhotra, “Most of us tend to take people and possessions for granted and be overly critical, which magnifies the negative aspects of our lives. Acknowledge and be grateful for what you have. Generosity and caring for others bring satisfaction too.”

32. If you’re looking for lasting happiness, spend your discretionary income on experiences. According to Waldinger, buying material items “makes us less happy for less time than using that money to buy experiences, especially those with other people, [such as] vacations or outings with family and friends.”


And yes, think positive

33. A 2016 study published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology found that happy people use humour in positive ways—for example, to entertain others or cope with difficult circumstances. Unhappy people, on the other hand, use humour to manipulate or criticize others. 

34. Esfahani Smith says storytelling—that is, the ways we think about the events of our lives—can be a powerful way of shaping our moods. “We’re constantly making narrative choices, so if we’re telling ourselves a bad story, or one that’s holding us back, we have the power to edit that story,” she says. 

35. “Make conscious choices to invest time and emotions equally across the different spaces in your life—self, marriage, primary family, peer and friends, work and community. Love wisely, not too well,” says Nagaswami. 

36. If practising gratitude doesn’t come naturally, start by simply noticing good things. “You can always see good things, even if you don’t feel grateful for them in the moment,” says Newman. “You really start to notice them more when you pay attention. It’s a day-to-day exercise, like strengthening your muscles.”

37. And … don’t think about happiness too much. According to Newman, obsessing over happiness can actually backfire. Instead, pursue other things, like relationships or hobbies, and happiness will be the unexpected by-product. 

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