In 2014, University of California psychologists launched an online course with a simple goal: to teach students how to be happy in just eight weeks.
Incredibly, it seemed to work. Thousands of students took itScience of Happiness course(which can still be audited for free on edX, a provider of open online courses) and learned about the science of connection, compassion, gratitude and mindfulness. Perhaps more importantly, they also engaged in a number of simple activities that research suggests increase happiness.
Those who fully participated saw theirspositive feelings increase every week. They reported feeling less sadness, stress, loneliness, anger, and fear while feeling more joy, enthusiasm, and affection, as well as a greater sense of community. During the course, students' happiness and life satisfaction increased by about 5%. And this boost persisted four months after the end of the course (although it is difficult to fully disentangle this result; it could stem from the implementation of the activities, the students' new understanding of the psychology of happiness, or something else entirely).
How does this work? Can you really change how happy you are that easily?
According to research yes.
The malleability of happiness
"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 course called CourseraThe Science of Wellbeing.
One popular theory that suggests we can control our feelings isthe lucky pie chart, suggested in a 2005 article published in the Review of General Psychology (PDF). Back then, researchers suggested that 50% of your happiness is determined by your genes and 10% by your circumstances, but 40% by your daily activities. Although this breakdown hasexposed to criticism(that it's too simplistic and doesn't take into account how your genes and environment interact), it taps into an idea that's fairly widely held: At least some of your happiness is in your control.
"Science shows that our circumstances -- how wealthy we are, what job we have, what material possessions we own -- contribute less to happiness than we think," says Santos. (Research shows thatWealthier people are happier than poorer people-- but not by a ton.)
Another big misunderstanding? That happiness is the same as being in a consistently positive emotional state, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who co-teaches the Berkley course The Science of Happiness and is also the Science Director ofBerkeleys Greater Good Science Center. Being happy doesn't mean that you feel pure joy and happiness every hour of every day. Humans aren't designed that way (and remember how annoying you'd be if you were). You experience setbacks, problems, the loss of loved ones. And these negative feelings are also an essential part of your emotional life.
Happiness, experts say, means accepting negative experiences and having the skills to manage and deal with them and use them to make better decisions later.
"We think happiness is like a Facebook scroll with vacations and achievements and checkboxes for life goals," says Simon-Thomas. "But people who seek happiness in such a belief system end up being less happy than people who define happiness in a more overarching way that is about quality of life."
How to be happier according to science
The appeal of being able to control at least some of your own happiness is that you can do it from the comfort of your own home or anywhere, for free. Here are five exercises that clinical studies have shown improve your happiness and well-being.
(One important caveat: For people with clinical anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, these exercises are not a substitute for therapy, medication, or other professional intervention. However, some research suggests that they may be beneficial as an adjunct to these services. )
1. Improve your social connections
Social connections are the biggest factor affecting happiness, several studies have found. One of the most compelling is thisHarvard study on adult developmentwhich has followed the lives of hundreds of participants and now their children for more than 80 years.
Researchers found that close relationships (with spouses, family, friends, community members) are the biggest factor that keeps people happy throughout their lives. People with strong relationships are happier and healthier physically and mentally than those who are less well connected. (Researchers are still studying the link between relationships and physical health — there is evidence that good relationships lead to lower levels of stress hormones and less chronic inflammation.) Quality relationships (not quantity) are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or genetics, according to the study.
How important relationships are came as a surprise, says Robert Waldinger, the study's current leaderTED-Talk 2015the topic was viewed more than 34 million times. "We thought that you were probably happier when you were in good relationships, but we initially didn't believe the data showing us that good relationships actually keep our bodies healthier and help us live longer." And then other studies started finding the same thing."
Those relationships take work, says Waldinger. You need to keep up with people, which means giving them your time and attention — especially during the pandemic. Call them, video chat with them, take a socially distanced walk if you can. Make a conscious decision to spend time together.
According to the Harvard study, other ingredients for a long and happy life are not smoking or abusing alcohol, exercising regularly and finding a work-life balance. "Rather than just being your grandmother's good advice, there's real science behind it," says Waldinger. "You can quantify the number of years you will live longer if you do these things."
2. Engage in random acts of kindness
Find ways to do small, random acts of kindness throughout the day. These actions can be incredibly simple, from complimenting a stranger at the grocery store on their shirt, to making your spouse cook before work, to engaging a co-worker you don't normally talk to in a friendly Zoom chat.
Deliberately performing random acts of kindness can make you happier and happierless depressed and anxious, after aseries of studies(PDF) by Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside. Varying the actions you do for others affects your own happiness in the longer term.
This works because these actions tap into your natural prosocial behavior, or basic human impulse to help others, says Simon-Thomas. Investing your own resources in the well-being of others activates your brain's reward system—you feel good about making the other person feel good.
3. Express gratitude
At the end of each day, write down three things you are grateful for and why they happenedleads to a long-term increase in happiness and a decrease in depressive symptoms, according to a 2005 study by Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It doesn't matter how big or small each thing is - just write them down, in a notebook or your notes app or wherever. For example, you could write down, “I finished a term paper because I worked hard on it. Had a good conversation with my girlfriend because she called me.
It's about training the mind to focus on the parts of life that are good, rather than directing its attention to things that are distressing or irritating, says Simon-Thomas.
The pandemic may be making it harder to be grateful, but taking time to count your blessings is still a powerful way to improve well-being, Santos adds.
4. Practice mindfulness
Maybe you've already triedall these mindfulness apps. But exercises like meditation teach your brain to focus on the present rather than the past or futurecan increase feelings of self-acceptance, according to a 2011 study by the International Journal of Wellbeing.
"The idea is to be present — don't judge your emotions, acknowledge them," says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. If you need help, Dunn helped get it starteda free set of wellness exercises called Peace, of the fintech company Happy Money. These exercises use research in positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy to increase happiness and reduce feelings of stress.
(Another caveat: If you have PTSD, use caution or consult your doctor first, as mindfulness practices can trigger, experts say, because they can reveal trauma.)
5. Practice self-compassion
This might be the toughest item on the list, says Simon-Thomas. In the West in particular, people have accepted the tendency to self-criticism as a cultural value and tend to punish themselves when dealing with setbacks and failures, she says. But excessive self-criticism gets in the way of achieving your goals.
There are three parts to practicing self-compassion, and they draw on some of the other exercises on this list: Be present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or fearing the future. Understand that setbacks are part of being human and all humans experience them. Cultivate a warm, supportive inner voice rather than a hostile, self-critical one.
You can work on honing your inner voice of support by writing a letter to yourself and using the tone you would use if you were writing to a relative or friend who has asked for support, says Simon-Thomas. For example, if you lost your job, you could beat yourself up about it. But when a friend loses their job, you'd be more likely to say, "Hey, this wasn't meant to be. You have so much to offer and you will find the right opportunity.”
"It's an opportunity to find a different way of speaking to ourselves, which is important for overcoming difficulties and setbacks and growing with life's challenges," says Simon-Thomas.
Another major limitation: race
Almost all major happiness and well-being studies have one thing in common: the vast majority of researchers and participants are white. Lack of diversity is a major problem in most areas of psychological research: from more than 26,000 empirical articles published between 1974 and 2018 in top-ranked cognitive, developmental, and social psychology journals,only 5% highlighted breed, according to a Stanford University study published in June. The majority of editors and published authors of psychology journals were white, the study found.
"It is of theoretical and social importance to ensure that all people are represented in our science," says Steven O. Roberts, lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. “From a purely statistical point of view, you can't take insights from a subset of white, middle-class Protestant US citizens and make inferences about happiness, period. Because happiness obviously goes beyond that.”
Many of the fundamentals of happiness research and the effectiveness of the exercises above would likely apply across racial groups because the underlying human biology is more powerful than differences between groups, Waldinger says. This applies in particular to social contacts. However, the daily microaggressions and fears that people of color face could change the conditions of happiness for these groups, he adds.
One of the fundamental tenets of biological science is that race plays no part in how the brain responds to any stimulus. However, researchers are only beginning to learn more about itEpigenetics-- an emerging field of science that studies how trauma can activate certain genes and how people might pass those genes on to their children.
"The social experiences associated with racial identity can create differences in our psychological experiences," says Roberts. “Biologically we are all the same. There is no biological basis for races. But there is definitely a social basis for races.”
The diversification of research populations gives us a more accurate understanding of humanity as a whole, which could help us learn more about the basics of happiness for all. Finally, "People of color can be happy," says Roberts. "Anyone can be happy."