Happiness, of “subjective well-being”, is a state of mind – how we feel about ourself and our life. In this sense, anything we do can either makes us feel better or worse.
Here we gather the results of many scientific studies, outlining some simple activities in our life that can positively affect our emotional state and level of energy. This post is divided in body habits, mind habits, and life habits. If you are looking for some deeper changes to promote a fulfilling life, take a look at this post.
1. Exercise Regularly
In modern life we move our bodies less and less, and this has huge consequences for our physical and mental wellbeing. As Dr. Bob Butler once said,
If there was a drug that provided all the benefits that exercise does, the whole world would be taking it.
It’s not only for people who are obsessed with their bodies and self-image. Exercise releases proteins and endorphins in our brain, which makes us feel happier. It also makes us more productive at work. Exercise is essential for a happy life.
2. Eat better
Huge topic, and one that people have strong opinions about. What is clear is that what you choose to eat not only affects your health, but also your moods.
Joshua Rosenthal, author of Integrative Nutrition, suggests us to:
- Drink more water
- Practice cooking
- Increase whole grains
- Increase sweet vegetables
- Increase leafy green vegetables
- Eat less meat, dairy, sugar and chemicalized, artificial junk foods; consume less coffee,
alcohol and tobacco
Dr. John Fuhrman, MD, author of the bestseller Eat to Live, says that if you take only one advice from his book, it should be: eat two huge salads a day – the salad is the main dish.
Takeaway: two huge salads a day + more water
3. Sleep more
- Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
- Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
- Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
Here is a more complete list of the benefits of sleep.
In order to get more sleep, try to discipline yourself about your sleep time. I personally find that putting an alarm clock to remind me to sleep works well. Some people also find that a night session of meditation or binaural beats helps you get better sleep.
Takeaway: make sure you are getting enough sleep.
Starting to meditate is probably one of the best habits you can develop in life. Among dozens of proven benefits, it gives you increased focus, better memory, and emotional resilience.
According to Shawn Anchor, “research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness”. Another academic, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical school, also found in his research that meditation had a positive effect in treating anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking, and hostility.
Takeaway: start a daily meditation practice. Even 1 minute every day is good for a start. Consistency is the key.
5. Keep a journal
Journaling is a powerful way to process events in your life, build self-awareness, get more clarity, and keep yourself on track. Many great minds of humanity had this habit, including Leonardo Da Vinci.
Some people like using paper journals, others like using apps (like the uber-popular Day One, for iOS and Mac). How much and how often to write is up to you. What should you write about? Here are some triggers:
- random creative ideas that come to you
- things you are grateful for
- your goals and aspirations
- internal stuff that you need to process better
- food you eat, and other habits you are building
Takeaway: start a journal, even if only a few lines per day.
6. Practice smiling
This may sound corny, but smiling is healthy and also improves your well-being. It makes you live longer, look more attractive, be better at work, and feel better. There are quite a few studies about it – check out this TED talk for more information.
Takeaway: smile more freely.
7. Less TV time
Brian Tracy, author of the excellent No Excuses, tells us:
Your television set can make you rich or poor. If you watch it all the time, it will make you poor. Psychologists have shown that the more television you watch, the lower are your levels of energy and self-esteem. At an unconscious level, you don’t like or respect yourself as much if you sit there hour after hour watching television. People who watch too much television also gain weight and become physically unfit from sitting around too much. Your television can also make you rich—but only if you turn it off. When you turn off your television, you free up time that you can then use to invest in becoming a better, smarter, and more competent person. When you leave your television off when you are with your family, you will find yourself talking, sharing, communicating, and laughing more often. When you leave your television off for extended periods of time, you break the habit of watching television—and you will hardly miss it at all. Your television can be an excellent servant, but it’s a terrible master. The choice is yours.
The habit of watching too much TV destroys your health, leads to obesity, and shortens your life. It also makes us feel bad by creating anxiety in us – makes us want to buy buy buy, and chase fame and artificial beauty as essential elements of happiness.
In the book The Power of Full Engagement, the authors list “turning off the TV” as one of the key contributors to high achievement:
“Television, for example, is one of the primary means by which most people relax and recover. For the most part, however, watching television is the mental and emotional equivalent of eating junk food. It may provide a temporary form of recovery, but it is rarely nutritious and it is easy to consume too much. Researchers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have found that prolonged television watching is actually correlated with increased anxiety and low-level depression.
Much of the danger of overdoing television is also applied to media consumed through our computers, phones and tablets.
Takeaway: Cut your TV time in half. Pick up a book instead, have meaningful talks, or listen to some podcasts.
8. Simple life = happy life
There are several benefits for owning less stuff.
Too many options or choices makes us unhappy.
Too much activity distracts us and stresses us, preventing any real fulfillment.
Too much food makes us fat and destroys our health.
The list is almost endless. But “less is more”, so let’s keep it short 😉
The reason why it’s so hard to simplify is because we humans are wired to fear loss. We dread the thought of missing out on an opportunity, a friendship, or giving away those pants we spend a lot of money on but wore it only once 3 years ago. The problem is that we fail to realize how much this tendency is actually slowing us down and stuffing up our life.
Here are some (perhaps painful) exercises for you to try:
- Do a spring cleaning in you home, and give away / throw away half of all things that you have not used in the past 12 months
- Delete all the apps on your phone that you have not used on the past 6 months
- Close those 30 tabs open in your browser. Are you even gonna read all that stuff?
- Make a list of 3 people you no longer want to spend time with, because they are not adding anything to your life
- Make a list of 3 activities or projects you want to say “no” to
Feel the space that is made available when all that is not really needed is set aside.
Takeaway: simplify your life. Try the exercises suggested above.
9. Keep a beginner’s mind
That is a quote from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, one of my favorite bedside table books of my teenage years. The Japanese term for this is “Sho Shin”.
A beginner’s mind is full of energy, openness. It is ready to accept every challenge, because it doesn’t have a concept of how things should be. That is why there is such a pleasure and zest in starting something new, be it a new hobby, learning a new skill, and kicking off a new business or career.
The true enemy of beginner’s mind is laziness, and the desire for comfort. It closes us down to what we currently have and prevents us from growing to new heights.
Takeaway: Keep an open a hungry mind. Leave space for the unexpected, for serendipity.
10. Write down your goals
“Why should I write it down? I know them…”, you may say. But wait, take a look at this, from Forbes magazine:
There was a fascinating study conducted on the 1979 Harvard MBA program where graduate students were asked “have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” The result, only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again and the result was absolutely mind-blowing.
The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined!
So, writing down where you wish to be in your life, and journaling about it, will highly increase the likelihood of you creating the life you want. You can learn more about it in this
Info Self Development blog has a free e-book packed with hints about setting and sticking to goals.
Takeaway: Stop for a minute and write down your three most important long-term goals in life. Are they translated into short-term goals and present actions for you?
11. Nurture close relationships
Spending time with those you really care about – your close friends, your partner, and your family – will bring you much more satisfaction than the stuff your money can buy. Not spending quality time with the people you love is actually one of the top regrets of the dying. In fact, according to the Self-Determination Theory, relatedness is one of the three basic human needs.
Also, there are studies that correlate marriage, or a committed long-term relationship, to higher satisfaction in life. “Intimacy, commitment, and support do, for most people, pay emotional dividends”, reports Psychologist David Myers.
Takeaway: nurturing meaningful close relationships pays off.
12. Give, Volunteer, Serve
Giving to others promotes your own happiness, especially when connected to a cause you care about. Helping others, spending your money on others and serving, releases “happiness chemicals” such as dopamine and oxytocin (called by many the “compassion hormone”). Of course, this presupposes that you are giving or serving out of a caring heart, and not due to obligation or social pressure, and that you are doing it in a way that is balanced with your own personal needs.
In the words of Professor Martin Seligman, “father” of Positive Psychology:
…we scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
Don’t feel like you have time to give? Funny enough, a study published in the Journal of Psychological Sciences points out that people who volunteer feel they have more time. On the other hand, parenting itself is a way of giving and also releases similar hormones in the brain – so if you are a busy mom or dad, you may already have this covered.
Takeaway: every once in a while do something good for somebody that can never repay you.
13. Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature, even a 20 min walk in the park, is linked to higher levels of vitality and well-being, according to numerous researches. It also gets you some exercise and increases your concentration.
Here is a small excerpt from the book Brain-Power to this effect:
“Poets and philosophers have always counseled people regarding the benefits of being in nature, and now science is catching up. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2008, neuroscientist John Jonides, Ph.D., and his colleagues measured students’ performance on tests of memory and attention before and after taking a walk. One group strolled through a beautiful arboretum near the campus of the University of Michigan, and the other walked in downtown Ann Arbor. The researchers discovered that those who walked in nature improved their test scores by 20 percent, while those who walked in the city showed no improvement (moreover, they reported a decline in perceived well-being). The researchers concluded, “In sum, we have shown that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control. To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognize the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.””
Takeaway: spend some more time in nature.
14. Cultivate morning rituals
Having a daily morning ritual can help you big time setting up your mood and energy for the day. In fact, great minds seem all to have this in common. It is a great opportunity to take care of your body and mind, and start the day with the right foot.
You have to experiment and see what works in your lifestyle. Great things to include are:
- some stretching or light exercise
- a few minutes of meditation
- planning your day – write down the three most important things you need to do today
After that is done, then it’s a good time to check email, news and social media. Or just move on to work.
Takeaway: what is the best way to start your day?
15. Pause, look, proceed
Sometimes we need to just stop everything and take a break. Unwind. Turn inward and rethink our life; ask some hard questions and connect to our inner voice. Especially when things are getting out of hand or too busy.
To see well, you must not look always. You cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.
We have a cult of speed and busy-ness in our society. But being busy is not the same as being productive. It can often be an escape from something.
In order to live better, we need to create space to breathe, and to think. We need to praise slowness more.
Nothing is gonna happen if you miss that next update, phone call, or tweet.
Takeaway: slow down. Take a break when needed. Create space to stop and think outside of the box.
16. Read happy (bonus tip)
Feed your brain with things that give you insight, empowerment, and motivation. Even reading about authentic happiness makes you happier. That is why I set up this blog.
A few months ago I found about the Philosopher Notes. It is an amazing resource that allows you to read or listen to summaries of the top books on several topics (motivation, happiness, meditation, nutrition, performance, wealth, personal development). I truly recommend that for anybody that wants to grow, or to get more from life.
Please comment and let me know which habits are essential in your life to keep you happy.