Want to be happy? Heading on a night out with friends or going on holiday should do the trick. But there are many different routes to achieving happiness and some of them are so simple you’ll wonder why you haven’t done them before! We take a look at 10 unexpected, evidence-based ways of injecting more happiness into your life…
1. Borrow a pet
Often thanks to all that dog walking, research reveals that owning a pet lowers the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol, as well as reducing blood pressure. Other studies suggest pet-owners are also less lonely, stressed and more popular.
How to do it: If you haven’t got a dog, websites such as Pawshake and borrowmydoggy.com link pet owners with local people for walks, weekends, even holidays.
2. Smell happy smells
Scientists have found that smelling the ‘right’ aromas can improve how we feel. Research at Wheeling Jesuit University revealed that peppermint decreases anxiety and tiredness, while 2015 research revealed that the smell of lavender increases feelings of trust.
Food smells can also improve mood and behaviour. A 2012 French study in the Journal of Social Psychology discovered that the smell of baking bread made people kinder to strangers.
How to do it: Research by BUPA in 2015 found that the smell of bread, bacon sandwiches and fine wine gives people a lift so don’t underestimate the power of everyday aromas to boost happiness. A German study exposed sleeping volunteers to the smell of roses or rotten eggs and the researchers discovered that the ’emotional tone’ of their dreams was more positive with the floral aroma. A bunch of flowers by your bed might bring an instant -if not pretty – boost to your happiness levels.
3. Discover the power of touch
Our sense of touch is the most developed sense we have when we are born and is vital for brain, emotional and social development as we grow, according to extensive research by Dr Tiffany Field, a pioneer in the science of touch. But can touch also make us happy? Professor Sonja Lyubormirsky, author of The How of Happiness, points to a study in which a group of students were given at least five non-sexual hugs to as many people as possible each day for a month while the control group was given none. After a month, the huggers were happier than those who went without.
How to do it: Touch someone on the arm. A 2012 study discovered that specific nerve fibres in the arms and face appear to have developed to transmit the pleasantness of being touched socially. The research shows it only has to be for a second to count. Or just dole out a hug to a loved one!
4. Go shopping!
Researchers in a 2014 study showed people objects that were either functional, beautiful or both. Scientists then measured mood profile, heart rate and emotional engagement (measured by a skin response) in order to gather a result that wasn’t under people’s conscious control. They discovered that when people looked at objects that were both beautiful and functional they were excited and happy. The purely beautiful objects made them calm and relaxed but the purely functional ones made them 25% more inclined to feel sad and gloomy.
How to do it: Budget some money to indulge in something, which is aesthetically-pleasing and functional that makes you happy from time-to-time. Whether this is a brightly-coloured food blender, books with stunning patterned covers (think Virago Modern Classics, for example) or a stylish bag that houses your laptop and assorted paraphernalia, you’ll be boosting your happiness levels.
5. Join a group
Belonging to a group to which you feel connected through shared values and interests can help you to feel happier. Studies have shown that people who surround themselves with happy people are more likely to be happy themselves– and that that this joy is contagious. They also discovered that the happiness factor lasted for up to a year. So will any group do? Research from 2014discovered that it has to be a group you identify with because ‘social identities provide meaning to life’, encourage social support and increase a sense of belonging.
How to do it: When did you feel most connected in a group setting? Maybe it was through a sporting activity, or perhaps it was a recent book group or sewing circle where you found kindred spirits. Search for groups on Meetup or start one yourself if one doesn’t yet exist. Not sure what group scenario would bring you happiness? Write a paragraph to clarify things, such as ‘I feel happiest when I’m out walking in the fresh air chatting to people about what makes them tick’.
6. Wear happy clothes
Clothes psychologist Professor Karen Pine, author of Mind What You Wear, found in a 2013 study that our mood can influence what we wear each day. The study of 100 women found that when they were down, women made different clothing choices to when they were happy.
How to do it: Professor Pine concluded that the strong link between clothing and how we feel suggests we could opt for clothes that we associate with happiness, even when we’re low. You know that favourite dress? Don’t save it for best – wear it when you’re feeling a bit flat and see how your mood improves.
We know that dancing can be a good form of exercise but can it make you happy? An Italian study observed that patients who took waltz classes as part of their recovery from heart surgery were happier than those who ran on a treadmill or cycled. Researchers in Australia found that people who learned to tango had lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and that dancing was more effective at anxiety reduction than meditation.
How to do it: Don’t be afraid to improvise – and to get it ‘wrong’. Dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt says people laugh more during dances in which it’s more acceptable to make mistakes such as country dancing. A study carried out at his Dance Psychology Lab at the University of Hertfordshire discovered that improvisation helps people to be happy to problem solve. All in all, it would seem that dance is great for mind, body and soul. If in doubt, just head out and dance the night away.
8. Be playful
Children know how to play, but for many adults it’s a lost art. However, as we know, playing results in laughter which brings with immunity-boosting benefits. Most importantly, play makes us happy. In his book ‘Play’, Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, says:
“The ability to play is critical not only to being happy but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”
How to do it: Reconnect with your inner child. This could be playing with your kids, nieces or nephews, trying arts and crafts, attending a theatre group or trying karaoke, etc.
9. Learn to mentally subtract – and we don’t mean maths
It’s easy to take for granted the things we have in our lives, but how would we fare if we were without loved ones, key events or beloved possessions? In a study, Minkyung Koo suggested that we should think of the ‘absence’ of something in order to appreciate the ‘presence’ of it – so-called ‘counterfactual thinking’ or mentally subtracting. Thinking like this can be clarifying and make us grateful and happy for everything we have.
How to do it: The study asked participants to describe an event they felt grateful for out of seven categories including health and holidays. Pick one then write about how it might have been had it never occurred or been a part of your life, whether it’s a short break to Paris with your partner or having your appendix out. List the positives and the negatives then focus on what the event brought to you in a positive way – fun, self-knowledge or even an appreciation of your good health, maybe?.
10. Find a focus or hobby
Whether it’s community gardening, volunteering, starting a book club, becoming politically active or attending art classes, meaningful activities/trying something new has been shown to boost people’s happiness and reduced stress at the same time. A study from the Annals of Behaviour Medicine revealed that people who took part in leisure activities became 34% less stressed and 18% less sad – and the happiness effect lasted for hours.