There is no secret to happiness, but there is a science to it, says Tim Bono, a psychology lecturer in Arts & Sciences who teaches courses on happiness at Washington University in St. Louis.
In his recent book, “When Likes Aren’t Enough: A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness,” Bono explores how the often overlooked details of day-to-day life can have a sizeable influence on our personal sense of well-being and happiness.
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, move around, take a walk. Research confirms that a few minutes of exercise 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.
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 vacation or concert will far outweigh and outlast the happiness from acquiring another material possession. Doing good things for other people strengthens our social connections, which is foundational to our well-being.
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 empowered to tackle the next project, helping us feel more in control of our lives and even less pressed for time. This translates 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 all 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 try to 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 major 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 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 enhance mental acuity and help us to 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.
Strengthen your willpower muscles. Just like exercising arm muscles strengthens our capacity to lift heavy things, exercising willpower muscles in small, everyday behaviors strengthens our ability to stay focused at work. Resist the temptation to check the cellphone for new text messages or emails while walking somewhere, or resist the temptation to get the candy bar when in the checkout line at the grocery store. That will allow willpower muscles to become stronger and, in turn, resistant to temptations that could sidetrack us in other aspects of our lives.
Introduce variety into your day-to-day activities. Human beings are attracted to novelty, and we can get bored if we have to do the same thing over and over. Changing things up every once in a while by taking on new projects, or by doing the same task but with music in the background, or by interacting with different people, can be one way to introduce variety and remain motivated to complete a task.
Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s hard to avoid tuning into what everyone else is doing, who just got the latest raise or promotion, or who’s moving into a new house or going on a fancy vacation. But social comparison is one of the biggest barriers to our overall happiness and motivation. Redirecting attention to our own internal standards for success and making progress based on what’s realistic for us — instead of getting caught up in how we measure up to others — can go a long way for our psychological health and productivity.
Reach out and connect with someone. Nothing is more important for our psychological health than high-quality friendships. Find an activity that allows you to get together with friends on a regular, ongoing basis. A weekly happy hour, poker night or TV show ensures consistency and momentum in your social interactions. 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. Facebook and Instagram often exaggerate how much better off others are compared with how we might feel about ourselves at the moment. Many studies have shown that too much time spent on social media usually is associated with lower levels of self-esteem, optimism and motivation while leaving people feeling — ironically enough — less socially connected to others.
Use your phone in the way phones were originally intended. The next time you are tempted to use your phone to scroll through social media, scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.
Practice gratitude. It’s easy to get bogged down with life’s inevitable hassles, so make an effort to direct attention to things that are still going well. On the way home from work, fill the time that could go toward ruminating over bad parts of your day with the things that went well. Study after study has shown gratitude to be one of the simplest yet most robust ways to increase psychological well-being.
And here are a few tips on how to actually make those New Year’s resolutions stick…
Identify an important reason why you are resolving to change something in your life (e.g., “I’m doing it for my kids” or “This is to improve my overall health”). Research shows that reminding yourself of how your daily behaviors fit into big-picture goals will keep you motivated to stay on track.
Acknowledge potential barriers that might get in the way of implementing your goals (you might get lazy, tired, forget or be lured away by another temptation), and then identify contingency plans for how you will respond in those moments: “When I start getting distracted in the middle of a big work project, I’ll give myself a quick break and then remind myself how rewarding it will feel to be finished with it.” Better yet, select environments that are free from distractions altogether. If you know you’re always tempted to surf the web while completing work, take your laptop to a place where there’s no wifi and leave your phone behind.
Set specific dates and times when you will incorporate the behavior — when you make a schedule for new behaviors you’d like to incorporate into your life, they require less psychological strength to implement. When you get in the habit of running every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the behavior becomes much easier to initiate because it simply becomes part of your routine, like brushing your teeth or taking the dog on a walk.
Make your goals measurable, break them up into smaller sub-goals, and the reward yourself each time you hit a particular milestone. If your goal is to lose 50 pounds in the new year, treat yourself to a movie or other fun outing for each five pounds you lose.