As anyone who’s ever read a self-help book knows, there are many paths to personal happiness. Advice ranges from living in the present moment, to meditating, to exercising, to smiling more often. But how do we know what really works?
It turns out, many social scientists and psychologists are pondering that same question, and the happiness exercises we’ve listed here contain some answers. In all of the happiness actions listed below, the methods have been tested with rigorous science, using double-blind (where possible) methods and control groups.
So we know that these methods really do make people happier. However, it’s important to note that each happiness intervention is not ideal for each person. The scientists call this “Person-Activity Fit,” meaning that it’s best to try out a few and see what works best for you.
Turns out, mom was right. Counting our blessings really does improve our wellbeing. One study suggests that journaling about things that we appreciate in our lives is best done only once a week, while the findings from another study suggests that daily journaling of “three good things that happened” has the most positive effect.
Either way you choose, though, it seems that taking the time to find a causal link between the good thing that happened to you and why it means something is important.
Using your strengths in new ways
Identify your strongest character traits. Try using at least one strength in a different way each day in order to find more meaning in your life. There are many online assessment tools in order to help you find your strengths, including one from a leading light in positive psychology, Martin Seligman. The Values of Strengths in Action Assessment is free and highlights your best attributes, and once you’ve discovered what they are, you can then find new ways to use them each day.
Find your best possible self
In this happiness exercise, you simply write about your ideal future self. You can do this for any aspect of your life, from relationships to health to career choices. Also called “scripting,” you only need to write with feeling and emotion about the amazing possibility of the future “you.” It seems that this exercise taps into our deeper goals for ourselves, and gives us the possibility to dream and imagine a more vibrant life.
Scientists discovered that people who followed this exercise for twenty minutes per day over several days (compared to those in the control group who wrote about other topics) “were more likely to show immediate increases in positive moods, to be happier several weeks later, and even to report fewer physical ailments several months thence.” How’s that for happiness?
Love is all you need
Investing in relationships is one of the most significant factors in lifelong happiness. Use these techniques not just in your relationship with a significant other, but with friends and other family members, too. Studies have shown that we need the emotional support of other people to be happy and feel fulfilled. Some ways to keep those friendships and relationships with our partners strong include:
- Expressing appreciation and gratitude for each others’ good qualities and actions.
- Responding with happiness to each others’ good fortunes. Sharing in others’ happiness seems to be an even stronger need than supporting friends in hard times. By asking questions and validating the feeling of accomplishment when our friends and loved ones meet a goal or have something positive happen, we can strengthen our ties to friends and partners.
- Sharing about yourself. Especially with friends, it’s important to share our own experiences and dreams, as hard as they may be to voice. This creates deeper connections and allows others to share their inner thoughts, too.
Finding meaning in our careers and lives
Studies show that the outer trappings of “success” (money, accomplishment, advancement) will not make us happier. No matter what we choose to do with our lives, discovering meaning and connection to others is a more important indicator of happiness than any external factors. This doesn’t mean we need to become Mother Theresa in order to be happy, only that we need to discover what it is we do that is of benefit to others.
We can do this by reframing our current role. What is it about our life or career that is of service to others? How do we help to take care of others’ needs?
In each of these studies listed, scientists found that the longer the happiness activities are practiced, the longer the benefits seen. Most importantly, though, the research shows that change is possible for every person, even for those who may be seriously depressed. Leading a more meaningful and fulfilling life is achievable for us all.
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