The internet is awash with self-help tips on how to lead a happier life. But online advice can often appear subjective and contradictory. To put the quest for happiness on a surer footing, here’s happiful’s guide to evidence-based positivity: nine everyday mood-lifters that are within everyone’s grasp and are backed up by proper, peer-reviewed research
1. Get closer to animals
Companionship, protection, loyalty, hairballs – these are among the joys that pets offer their owners. But according to a 2011 study, it goes much further than that. The study, led by Allen McConnell of Miami University, looked at 217 pet owners and found they “had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners”. Woof!
And if you don’t have room for a pet in your life, even just gazing at animals online can give you a measurable mental lift. Puppies and kittens in particular share many physical traits with babies of our own species, such as large eyes and button noses, which trigger cosy nurturing instincts in us – which in turn can activate the reward centres in the brain. The biological term for juvenile features that generate such a cross-species response is “neoteny” though you might know it better as “awwwww!”
2. Be more grateful
In terms of positive benefits received versus effort put in, the habit of saying “thank you” surely offers the biggest mood bounce for buck. Leading gratitude researchers Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, have conducted numerous experiments over the years that demonstrate the real, psychological power of those two little words. They’ve shown that jotting down a few sentences each day expressing gratitude for something good in your life can improve your sense of self-worth, fitness levels and overall health after only 10 weeks. Research like this has been linked to the well-documented “helper’s high”, in which your act of kindness releases mood-boosting endorphins in you as much as in your good deed’s recipient – although a recent study carried out by Oxford and Bournemouth universities has concluded that, “Helping others makes you happy, but the effect is relatively modest.” In any case, thank you scientists of “upstream reciprocity” (altruism, in lay terms) – we are modestly grateful for your efforts.
3. Play an edifying video game
In recent years, a barrage of scientific evidence has shot down longstanding arguments that playing computer games is an antisocial or psychologically damaging activity.
In 2010, the American Pain Society found that the endorphins released when playing video games could be an effective form of chronic pain relief, while a 2013 University of Iowa study suggested that regular gaming could stave off cognitive deterioration in later life by up to seven years.
There are a host of games out there that harness those certified positive vibes you benefit from when doing good for others: in the Re-Mission games, for example, players do battle in the bloodstreams of cancer patients, helping them develop empathy for real-life sufferers of the disease, while a study at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, has found that playing so-called “prosocial” games (in which the object is to co-operate or build to achieve the object, rather than engaging in violence) such as the classics Lemmings and Tetris can heighten players’ levels of empathy once they’re back in the real world.
4. Have a reasonable amount of sex (but don't go overboard)
While declaring that sex makes you happy might seem like stating the blooming obvious, many scientists have sought to prove it anyway. You know, for the sake of human knowledge. It’s actually turned out to be a fairly fertile field of enquiry. For instance, one oft-cited US study from 2015 suggests that having sex once a week can give you an all-round life satisfaction that’s equivalent to a $50,000 salary. But, before you put in your request for a sex-raise, the same study also found that doing it more frequently than that won’t necessarily give you a greater sense of wellbeing. More recent research suggests that this happiness ceiling might be because it’s not the shagging itself but all the affection and close contact that goes with it that really give rise to a sense of overall contentedness. To paraphrase Anik Debrot et al. in their 2017 paper More Than Just Sex: to improve your quality of life, use sex as the excuse to cuddle yourself happy.
5. Earn a decent salary
Wealth is another aspect of life in which moderation seems to get the scientists’ seal of approval. Analysing the responses of more than 450,000 Americans surveyed in 2008 and 2009, two Nobel Prize-winning economic scientists, Daniel Kahneman (also bestselling author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Angus Deaton, discovered that money does buy happiness after all – but only up to the value of a $75,000 annual income (about £57,500). Measuring “emotional wellbeing” across a range of everyday experiences including worry, sadness, stress and positive feelings, they found that the indicators of a happy life tend to rise in sync with earnings, until that magic $75,000 mark, where they all level off. “Beyond about $75,000 a year,” Kahneman and Deaton report, “there is no improvement whatsoever in any of the three measures of emotional wellbeing.” Which, if you think about it, makes the ideal amount of sex about 33 percent cheaper than the ideal amount of money.
6. Expose yourself to laughter
A good chuckle is a festival of psychological benefits. Various studies have found that as well as making you more attractive and helping couples stay together longer, a good solid laughter session every now and again generates a serotonin and dopamine kick – chemicals that put a check on stress and stimulate the brain’s pleasure and reward centres. One study last year at Sahmyook University, Seoul, found that, “laughter therapy is a non-invasive and non-pharmacological alternative treatment for stress and depression, representative cases that have a negative influence on mental health.”
The even better news is that an overheard giggle riot is officially contagious too. Biologists believe laughter evolved to help our ancestors bond into tighter, more mutually supportive social groups, a theory supported by research from the University of Portsmouth that has shown chimpanzees crack up in direct response to other chimps’ chortles. So even just being aware of the studio audience laughing along on Mrs Brown’s Boys is potentially doing you good – even if the gags leave you feeling a little queasy.
7. Get a job that's 20 minutes away
Work getting you down? If so, it might be more to do with your long commute than your terrible boss – at least if research by Daniel Kahneman is as on the money as his $75,000 magic number for earnings (see previous page). In a 2006 paper Kahneman published with Princeton economist Alan B Kreuger, he rated the most common barriers to “subjective wellbeing” and found that at the top of the drudgery list, above job, housework and childcare, “commuting in the morning appears particularly unpleasant.” Subsequent research has even suggested there’s a time limit for the optimum journey into work – a 20-minute-or-less commute ranks highly among the hallmarks of the happiest lifestyles, according to a survey of 4,000 people commissioned by the UK dairy company Yeo Valley in 2010.
8. Vent your frustrations (but channel them correctly)
Just like the Force, the positive glow from saying “thank you” also has a dark side. According to a penetrating, voodoo doll-based study at the University of Kentucky published in March this year, lashing out at someone who has slighted you triggers a direct and swift improvement in your own mood. The Machiavellian psychologists asked 156 volunteers to give each other feedback on essays they’d written – secretly manufacturing a set of responses to be overly negative and humiliating for some of the writers. Then they busted out the voodoo dolls, and found that a quick jabbing frenzy cancelled out the essayists’ hurt feelings. In some cases, they even boosted the stabber’s mood to match that of the participants who had received the most praise for their work. While these findings may “implicate aggression’s rewarding nature as an incentive for rejected individuals’ violent tendencies,” the long-term effects of revenge induce social unpleasantness and prolong closure. If you do feel vengeful, channel your intensity into your personal goals, because nothing beats success. And if you do meet your perpetrator down the road, hug it out. Scientists have found the act of hugging boosts our levels of oxytocin, the ‘truth’ hormone, which is proven to make us feel happier.
9. Surround yourself with yellow
Fans of custard, Norwich City Football Club, and Coldplay will not be surprised by this, but in 2010 scientists formally established the colour most closely associated with a happy mood… and it was all yellow. A team of medical researchers at the University Hospital of South Manchester investigating irritable bowel syndrome found that colour association could be an effective way of assessing patients’ mental state. Using a chart that became known as the “Manchester Colour Wheel”, the researchers found that a particularly bright shade of yellow was most often picked out as the hue happy patients were “most drawn to,” while patients suffering from anxiety or depression would associate themselves with grey.