The science of happiness
Making 2019 happier
What science has discovered about lifting mood and creating a positive outlook on life
How does physical activity affect your mental state?
It plays a vital role. That’s why all those people who vow in their New Year’s resolutions to start an exercise program are onto something. Any regular workout will improve your mental well-being as well as improving your physical health. Researchers at the University of Michigan who analyzed 23 research papers on the connection between physical activity and happiness discovered that as little as 10 minutes of exercise a day was linked with joyful moods. The type of exercise didn’t matter—some happy people did yoga, others walked or jogged. But people who exercised for at least 30 minutes most days were around 30 percent more likely to consider themselves happy compared with people who were less active. “While anything helps, a bit more is probably better,” said University of Michigan scientist Weiyun Chen.
Where can you go to be happier?
Outside, into open green spaces. And you don’t even need to go far. A 2015 study from Stanford University found that participants who spent 50 minutes wandering through campus parkland had lower levels of anxiety and performed better on memory tasks than those who walked in busy, urban locations. Another Stanford study from the same year showed that a 90-minute walk in parkland resulted in lower neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that lights up when we have negative thoughts. The study’s lead author, Gregory Bratman, says that nature may change “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.”
How else can you boost your mood?
Be grateful for the good things in your life—and keep a gratitude diary so that it becomes a habit. Researchers from the University of California at Davis asked a group of volunteers to write down five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, the joyful journalers reported 28 percent less stress. That could be because feeling grateful sends a message to our body that all is OK, reducing the release of the stress hormone cortisol. A nice bonus: People who kept gratitude diaries ate better and exercised more. The process of actually writing down what you’re grateful for seems to retrain the brain to be more positive and less consumed with worries and resentment. “The more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day,” said British psychologist Christian Jarrett, “the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.”
So what should you be grateful for?
Plenty—but most of all, your friends and loved ones. A Harvard University study on happiness that tracked the same group of men for 80 years found that living a healthy, happy life was more dependent on good friendships than on exercise or cholesterol levels. And we fare even better if loved ones offer support in the form of hugs, according to a 2018 study by Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers discovered this joy-cuddle correlation after speaking to 404 adults daily for two weeks and asking if they’d experienced any conflict or tension that day—and whether they’d received a hug. Being embraced, they found, noticeably increased participants’ positive feelings.
Will these happiness hacks make you live longer?
That’s unclear. A 2015 study that followed some 720,000 middle-aged British women for about a decade concluded that happy people do not live longer than sad people. But another British study that followed about 3,800 people ages 52 to 79 for five years found that participants who reported feeling the least happy died at nearly twice the rate of the happiest people during the research period. Even after adjusting for income, illness, and depression, participants who reported being the happiest had a 35 percent lower risk of death. But it’s hard to know what’s cause and what’s effect: It may not be that happy people live longer, just that folks who are ill are, understandably, less happy.
Can you just resolve to be happier?
Sadly, no. In fact, trying too hard be happy may even have the opposite effect, causing people to become fixated on setbacks and failure. In a 2018 Australian study, 39 participants were asked to solve 35 anagrams (without knowing that 15 were actually unsolvable) in a room filled with motivational posters and literature and a happiness-spouting proctor. A similar-size group was tasked with completing the same anagrams in a neutral space, while another was given solvable puzzles in an upbeat room like the first. Surprisingly, those given impossible tasks in a neutral space weren’t especially upset—they recalled that experience as calmly as those given a solvable puzzle. The people in the “happiness room,” though, obsessed about their failure. So relax, and add “Don’t try too hard to be happy” to the New Year’s list. ■