Finding happiness may seem daunting as you ride out a pandemic, vaccination debates, and the fatigue of working and schooling from home. But it is a worthy goal, both for your mental health and your physical well-being.
Happiness Is Healthy
Happiness can be measured in many ways – like a positive mood, your life satisfaction or your social freedoms – but in general, people who report being happy also report being healthier.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that people who were happy had significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone which has been tied to several chronic diseases. Results published in the European Heart Journal from a cohort study found that of the nearly 8,000 people involved, those who reported being satisfied across most of the happiness research categories had a reduced risk for coronary heart disease.
“Learning to be happier is something you can train your brain to do,” said Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Fellow Patrick Bowers, DO, with Samaritan Mental Health – Circle Blvd. “It is like any new habit; with consistency you create new neural pathways that give you a more positive and contented outlook on life.”
10 Habits for Happiness
1. Limit News & Social Media
This is especially important right now with the overwhelming amount of information available about the coronavirus and vaccinations, which can be equal parts scary and inflammatory. Pick two or three trusted outlets for your news and set a timer to limit your news consumption each day, including time you spend watching TV news. Reading endless pandemic-related news articles has been dubbed “doomscrolling,” but if you find yourself obsessively reading about any topic that makes you feel sad, depressed, angry or scared, it’s probably time to break the cycle.
Research on the impact of social media is still scarce, but a small study published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology found that participants who limited their daily social media use reported reduced loneliness and depression.
“Social media can be a good way to connect with people you can’t see in person, but it’s best to limit your daily use,” said Dr. Bowers. “Even traditional news outlets can impact your sense of well-being.” He recommended spending no more than 30 minutes a day catching up on all your friends and news-related content.
2. Eat Well
Cut out junk food and highly processed foods and choose a Mediterranean-style, whole foods diet. You know that a healthy diet can lead to long term health, but according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health, increasing your fruit and vegetable intake can also make you happier. The study took place over two years, and for participants who increased the fruits and vegetables in their diet from less than one serving a day up to eight servings a day, their improvement in happiness was substantial. The authors compared the increase in life satisfaction as equivalent to the gains of moving from unemployment to employment.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that study participants who slept well were more satisfied with life, even when controlling for individual characteristics like personality. It’s also a great way to boost your immunity. For adults, aim for seven to nine hours a night of quality, uninterrupted sleep.
4. Move Every Day
Exercise is good for your body and can improve your mood and feelings of well-being. A study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that people who participate in regular exercise are happier and more satisfied with their lives than people who do not. Walking is great exercise for most people and doesn’t require any special clothing or equipment. Follow these tips to safely exercise outdoors, or try one of these gentle indoor strength-building exercises. Start with just five minutes a day and build up to 30 minutes a day over the course of several weeks.
5. Connect With Others
Having a network of friends and family who support you can help make you happier and reduce stress, according to a paper published in the journal Social Indicators Research. Maintain friendships and social connection through online video chats, phone calls, and get togethers that follow CDC guidelines for safely interacting with others. There are still some guidelines to follow for safe gatherings, even if you’re vaccinated.
6. Devote Time to a Hobby
A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that spending regular time on a hobby or leisure activity can help you feel better in the short term by managing negative stress, and in the long term by adding satisfaction and fulfillment to your life. The study reported that having a hobby has a positive impact on your overall health and can improve your daily function, lead to less severe disease outcomes and a longer life. The benefits grew for study participants who were involved in several leisure activities compared to those with only a few.
It doesn’t matter what activity you choose but find one (or more) that leaves you feeling calm, refreshed and invigorated. Consider whether you enjoy doing things that are creative, nature related, social, physical, spiritual, reflective or involve travel.
7. Go Outside
Going for a walk or exercising outside is great for your body and mind, but even sitting in nature is beneficial. A study published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine found that participants who sat for 15 minutes in an old growth forest experienced lower stress, lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure compared with city settings. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that spending 30 minutes or more a week outside reduced depression and lowered blood pressure.
You don’t have to search for an old growth forest; going to your local park or the beach can have the same effect, said Dr. Bowers. Even sitting in your backyard or looking out your window for a few minutes can do the trick. The important part is to put down your phone and spend time focusing on nature.
8. Practice Gratitude
Researchers found that positive psychological attributes, such as optimism, gratitude and well-being, were independently associated with superior cardiac outcomes in a paper published in the journal Psychosomatics.
Practice gratitude by writing down three things that you are thankful for every night before bed, suggested Dr. Bowers. “You can start small, like being thankful for a comfortable bed, the sound of laughter or the smell of coffee in the morning,” he said. “It helps to remind yourself of the good things that exist in life, even if you are experiencing personal setbacks or disappointments.”
9. Give Back
Whether your passion is animals, children, veterans, seniors, the homeless, the arts or something else entirely, finding a way to give back to a worthy cause is a great way to bring happiness to yourself. An article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that altruistic emotions and behaviors were associated with increased well-being, happiness, health and longevity.
Find a way to share your time, money or expertise with others who appreciate it.
10. Take Care of Mental Health
There are some issues that need more support. If you struggle with feelings of depression or anxiety that are affecting your quality of life, talk to a mental health or behavioral health professional.
“A good counselor can help you identify your pressure points and learn skills to cope moving forward,” said Dr. Bowers. “Happiness may not come naturally or easily, but it is something you can learn with practice.”
Mental health and behavioral health professionals support your goals, including things like improving sleep, dealing with a medical diagnosis and reducing stress. Find a provider near you.