WashU Expert: Top 10 tips for a happier New Year​

There's a science to happiness, says positive psychologist

Wishing family and friends a “Happy New Year” is all well and fine, but if you’re serious about spreading cheer in the New Year, consider passing along more specific advice from a psychologist who studies the science of happiness at Washington University in St. Louis.

There is no secret to happiness, but there is a science to it, says Tim Bono, PhD, a psychology lecturer in Arts & Sciences who teaches courses on happiness at the university.


Based on his own research and other scientific studies, Bono offers the following tips for getting and staying happier in the coming year.

Get outside and move around. Research confirms that a few minutes walking around in nature can boost both mood and energy levels. Exercise is key to our psychological health because it releases the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.

Reach out and connect with someone. Ask people about their happiest memories and most will mention experiences shared with loved ones. People with high-quality relationships are not only happier, they’re also healthier. They recover from illnesses more quickly, live longer and enjoy more enriched lives.

Limit time on social media. Sites like Facebook often exaggerate how much better off others are compared with how we might feel about ourselves at the moment. Bono’s research on college students shows more time spent on social media usually is associated with less self-esteem, optimism and motivation while leaving people feeling less socially connected to others.

Spend less of your time checking email. Adults who check email only “in chunks” at designated times during the day — instead of checking and responding to messages continuously — are significantly less stressed and less distracted throughout the day. And they’re still just as accomplished with their work.

Get more happiness for your money. Studies show little connection between wealth and happiness, but there are two ways to get more bang for your happiness buck — buy experiences instead of things and spend your money on others. The enjoyment one gets from an experience, like a nice dinner or weekend getaway, will far outweigh and outlast the happiness from adding another possession. A different study found adults given $20 to spend were happier when they spent the money on someone else.

Carve out time to be happy, then give it away. People dream of finding an extra 30 minutes to do something nice for themselves, but using that time to help someone else is more rewarding and actually leaves us feeling less pressed for time. Doing a good deed empowers us to tackle the next project, helps us feel more in control of our lives and leads to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.

Delay the positive, dispatch the negative. Anticipation itself is pleasurable and looking forward to an enjoyable experience can make it that much sweeter. Wait a couple of days before seeing a new movie that just came out, plan your big vacation for later in the summer and take time to savor each bite of dessert. On the flip side, get negative tasks out of the way as quickly as possible — anticipation will only make them seem worse.

Enjoy the ride. People who focus more on process than outcome tend to remain motivated in the face of setbacks. They’re better at sticking with big challenges and prefer them over the easy route. This “growth mindset” helps people stay energized because it celebrates rewards that come from the work itself. Focusing only on the end outcome can lead to premature burnout if things don’t go well.

Embrace failure. How we think about failure determines whether it makes us happy or sad. People who overcome adversity do better in life because they learn to cope with challenges. Failure is a great teacher, helping us realize what doesn’t work so we can make changes for the better. As IBM CEO Thomas Watson once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Sweet dreams. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. Our brains are doing a lot of important work while we sleep, including strengthening neural circuits that both consolidate memories from the previous day and that help us regulate our moods when we are awake. Sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairment similar to that of intoxication, and often is the prelude to an ill-tempered day.

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