Friday, October 25, 2013

Science: 10 things to make you happier

Edited by Wisdom Quarterly based on (Buffer, Aug. 6, 2013) via Higher Perspective and Shawn Achor (The Happiness Advantage)
Smile! (
The smiling Buddha (
Happiness is interesting. It may not be the end of suffering, but sometimes it's all we have. It can pleasantly divert us as eustress in a world-of-thought that seems distressing.
There is rapture, bliss, joy (piti), but "happiness" (sukha) provides a nice counterbalance to overt forms of dukkha (misery). We may all have different ideas about what "happiness" is and how to get it, so we would be far better off on a quest for nirvana (the end of all disappointment).

But, instead, happiness is all we get. Naturally, we get obsessed with it. Most of us would like to be happier. What does science, our great secular "religion" with its white-lab-coat-clad priestly caste, have to say about it? Here are 10 things. 

1. EXERCISE more: 7 minutes might be enough.
A seven-minute workout? Says who? The New York Times reports... No time? Maybe there is time. Exercise has a profound effect on happiness and well-being.
It’s been proven to be an effective treatment for overcoming depression. In a study cited by Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage, three groups of patients were treated for depression with either medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results were that although all three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels to begin with, the follow up assessments proved to be radically different:
The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate. Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest improvement came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent! [Exercise beats allopathic medications].

Everyone benefits from exercise. It can help us relax, increase brain power, and improve body image, with or without weight loss.
A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised felt better about their bodies, even when they saw no physical changes:
Body weight, body shape, and body image were assessed in 16 males and 18 females before and after both six times 40 minutes exercise and six times 40 minutes reading. For both, body weight and body shape did not change. However, various aspects of body image improved with exercise.
Exercising makes us happier, according to Leo Widrich. What does it do to our brains? It releases proteins and endorphins that make us feel happier:

make yourself happier - exercise 

2. SLEEP more: It makes us less sensitive to negative emotions.
Surrender to sleep; it does a bodymind good.
Sleep helps bodies recover from the day as they repair themselves, which helps us focus and be more productive. It’s also important for happiness.
In NutureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how sleep affects our positivity:

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala [a part of the brain]; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus [another part of the brain]. Sleep-deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is the sleep-deprived fail to recall pleasant memories yet can recall gloomy memories just fine.

In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of words with a negative connotation, such as “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of words with a positive or neutral connotation, such as “sunshine” or “basket.”
The BPS Research Digest explores another study that proves sleep affects our sensitivity to negative emotions. Using a facial recognition task over the course of a day, the researchers studied how sensitive participants were to positive and negative emotions. Those who worked through the afternoon without taking a nap became more sensitive late in the day to negative emotions like fear and anger.
Using a face recognition task, here we demonstrate an amplified reactivity to anger and fear emotions across the day, without sleep. However, an intervening nap blocked and even reversed this negative emotional reactivity to anger and fear while conversely enhancing ratings of positive (happy) expressions.
Of course, how well (and how long) one sleeps will probably affect how one feels on waking up, which can make a difference to one's whole day. This graph showing how brain activity decreases offers great insight into how important enough sleep is for productivity and happiness:
make yourself happier 
Another study tested how employees’ moods when they started work in the morning affected their work day.Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods. And most importantly to managers, employee mood had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it.
3. MOVE closer to work: A short commute is worth more than a big house.
Is your wife home? - Yeah, she's in there.
Our commute to the office can have a surprisingly powerful impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice a day five days a week makes it unsurprising that its effect would build up over time and make us less and less happy.According to The Art of Manliness, having a long commute is something we often fail to realize will affect us so dramatically:
…while many voluntary conditions don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we acclimate to them, people never get accustomed to their daily slog to work because sometimes the traffic is awful and sometimes it’s not. Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”

We tend to try to compensate for this by having a bigger house or a better job, but these compensations don’t work:
Two Swiss economists who studied the effect of commuting on happiness found that such factors could not make up for the misery created by a long commute.
4. TIME with friends and family: Don’t regret it on your deathbed.
But those Kennedys keep dying all the time.
Staying in touch with friends and family is one of the Top 5 regrets of the Dying. It can make us happier right now.
Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we generally feel. Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it:
We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends, and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.
George Vaillant is the director of a 72-year study of the lives of 268 men.In an interview in the March 2008 Newsletter to the Grant Study subjects Vaillant was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant said: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

He shared insights of the study with Joshua Wolf Shenk at The Atlantic on how the men’s social connections made a difference to their overall happiness:
The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses. Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

Rebeccah, Erika, Isaac, Johnny, and Brennen (Spencer Finnley/
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states than our relationships are worth more than $100,000:
Using the British Household Panel Survey, I find that an increase in the level of social involvements is worth up to an extra £85,000 a year in terms of life satisfaction. Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.
Actual changes in income buy very little happiness. So we could increase our annual income by hundreds of thousands of dollars and still not be as happy as if we increased the strength of our social relationships.The Terman Study, covered in The Longevity Project, found that relationships and how we help others were important factors in living long, happy lives:
We figured that if a Terman participant sincerely felt that he or she had friends and relatives to count on when having a hard time then that person would be healthier. Those who felt very loved and cared for, we predicted, would live the longest.
Surprise: our prediction was wrong… Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
5. GO outside: Happiness is maximized at 13.9°C [57.02°F].
Get outside into the relative warmth.
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor recommends spending time in the fresh air to improve happiness:

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory…

This is pretty good news for those worried about fitting new habits into already-busy schedules. Twenty minutes is a short enough time to spend outside that could easily fit it into a commute or lunch break.
A UK study from the University of Sussex also found that being outdoors made people happier:

Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all natural environments than they were in urban environments.

The American Meteorological Society published research in 2011 that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even the average temperature over the course of a day. It also found that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C. 

6. HELP others: 100 hours a year is the magic number.
Each one teach one according to ability.
One of the most counterintuitive pieces of advice to make ourselves feel happier is to help others. In fact, 100 hours per year (just two hours per week) is the optimal time to dedicate to helping others in order to enrich our lives. 
Going back to Shawn Achor’s book, he says this about helping others:

…when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities -- such as concerts and group dinners out -- brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness.

The Journal of Happiness Studies published a study that explored this topic:

Friends vs. partners (Spencer Finnley/flickr)
Participants recalled a previous purchase made for either themselves or someone else and then reported their happiness. Afterward, participants chose whether to spend a monetary windfall on themselves or someone else.
Participants assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported feeling significantly happier immediately after this recollection; most importantly, the happier participants felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall on someone else in the near future.

Spending money on other people makes us happier than buying stuff for ourselves. What about spending time on other people? A study of volunteering in Germany explored how volunteers were affected when their opportunities to help others were taken away:

Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before the German reunion, the first wave of data of the GSOEP was collected in East Germany. Volunteering was still widespread. Due to the shock of the reunion, a large portion of the infrastructure of volunteering (e.g., sports clubs associated with firms) collapsed and people randomly lost their opportunities for volunteering. Based on a comparison of the change in subjective well-being of these people and of people from the control group who had no change in their volunteer status, the hypothesis is supported that volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.

In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives:

…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.

7. SMILE: It can alleviate pain.
Turn the frown upside down, Smiley.
Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to this study:

A new study led by a Michigan State University business scholar suggests customer-service workers who fake smile throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts -- such as a tropical vacation or a child’s recital -- improve their mood and withdraw less.

Of course, it’s important to practice “real smiles” where we use your eye sockets as well as our cheeks and mouths. It’s very easy to spot the difference:
make yourself happier smiling
A is a fake forced smile, whereas B includes the eye sockets as is more convincing
According to UK site PsyBlogsmiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks:

Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our attentional flexibility and our ability to think holistically. When this idea was tested (Johnson, et al., 2010), the results showed that participants who smiled performed better on attentional tasks that required seeing the whole forest rather than just the trees.
A smile is also a good way to alleviate some of the pain we feel in troubling circumstances:
Smiling is one way to reduce the distress caused by an upsetting situation. Psychologists call this the facial feedback hypothesis. Even forcing a smile when we don’t feel like it is enough to lift our mood slightly (this is one example of embodied cognition).
8. PLAN a trip: But don’t take one.
Not warm enough? Plan a trip to the tropics.
As opposed to actually taking a holiday, it seems that planning a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness. A study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as employees enjoyed the sense of anticipation:

In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks. After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people.

Author Shawn Achor has some information on this point as well:

One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.If [one] can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar -- even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it. 

9. MEDITATE: Re-wire the brain for happiness
Meditation for Dummies available
Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm. It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness:

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.
Meditation literally clears the mind and calms us down. It’s often proved to be the single most effective way to live a happier live. This graphic may best explain why:

calming-mind-brain-waves make yourself happier
According to Shawn Achor, meditation can actually make us happier in the long-term:
Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.
The fact that we can actually alter our brain structure through mediation is most surprising and somewhat reassuring that however we feel and think today isn’t permanent.
10. GRATITUDE pays: It increases happiness and life satisfaction
It's not just for Hallmark, Inc. anymore. This seemingly simple strategy makes a huge difference to our outlook and happiness levels. There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things we are grateful for, to sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or partner, to going out of our way to show thanks when others help us.
In an experiment where some participants took note of things they were grateful for each day, their moods improved just from this simple practice:
The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the three studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect [emotion] appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings [good fortune] may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.
The Journal of Happiness published a study that used letters of gratitude to test how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness:
Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a three-week period. Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction, while decreasing depressive symptoms.

We were born to mature. Ripening means being alive (Martine Franck/
10+ Quick last fact: Maturing (which, yes, means getting older) will make us happier.
The joyful nuns of Plum Village (Quest4pce)
As a final amazing point, as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend to grow happier naturally. There’s still some debate over why this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas:

Researchers, including the authors of the study, have found that older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and better remember the happier ones and less so the negative ones. 
Other studies have discovered that as we age, we seek out situations that will lift their moods. For instance, we prune social circles of friends or acquaintances who bring us down. Still other research finds that older adults learn to LET GO of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater well being.
Cooper (
So if we thought getting old would make us miserable, rest assured that it’s likely we’ll develop a more positive outlook than we likely have now. The end. Original version posted on Buffer by .

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