How to Be Happy, According to Science

Here’s what the research says about the things we can do every day to improve our happiness, even during immensely challenging times.

“There’s a misconception that happiness is built-in and that we can’t change it,” says Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who teaches a free Coursera class called The Science of Well-Being.

“The science shows that our circumstances — how rich we are, what job we have, what material possessions we own — these things matter less for happiness than we think,” Santos says. (Research does show that wealthier people are happier than poorer people — but not by a ton.)

Another big misconception? That happiness is the same as a consistently positive emotional state, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who co-teaches Berkley’s The Science of Happiness course and is also the science director of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Being happy doesn’t mean you feel pure joy and cheerfulness every hour of every day.

Happiness, experts say, means accepting negative experiences, and having the skills to manage and cope with them, and to use them to make better decisions later.

Here are five exercises that clinical studies have shown improve your feelings of happiness and well-being.

(An important caveat: For people with clinical anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, these exercises aren’t a replacement for therapy, medication or other professional interventions. However, some research suggests they can be beneficial as a supplement to those services.)

1. Enhance your social connections

Social connection is the biggest factor affecting happiness, multiple studies have found. One of the most convincing is the Harvard Study of Adult Development which, for more than 80 years has followed the lives of hundreds of participants and, now, their children.

2. Engage in random acts of kindness

Find ways to perform small, random acts of kindness during your day. Deliberately performing random acts of kindness can make you feel happier and less depressed and anxious, according to a series of studies (PDF) from Sonja Lyubomirsky at UC Riverside.

3. Express gratitude

Writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day, and why they happened, leads to long-term increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms, according to a 2005 study from Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

4. Practice mindfulness

You may have already tried all those mindfulness apps. But exercises like meditation that teach your brain to focus on the present instead of the past or future can increase feelings of self-acceptance, according to a 2011 study (PDF) from the International Journal of Wellbeing.

5. Practice self-compassion

This might be the most challenging item on the list, Simon-Thomas says. Particularly in the West, people have adopted a propensity for self-criticism as a cultural value, and tend to self-punish when dealing with setbacks and failures, she says. But excessive self-criticism gets in the way of achieving your goals.

Excerpted from “How to Be Happy, According to Science” in C|NET. Read the full article online for more details on each of the happiness strategies.

Source: C|NET | How to Be Happy, According to Science, | © 2020 CBS Interactive Inc.

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