Happiness is one of those aspects of the human experience that is hard to define and yet most of us are in search of it. Even our founding fathers included “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right for all.
In addition to making us feel good, studies have found that happiness actually improves other aspects of our lives. It appears that happiness and good health go hand in hand. In 2012, Laura Kubzansky, Ph.D., M.P.H., and other researchers at Harvard School of Public Health reviewed more than 200 studies and found a connection between positive psychological attributes, like happiness, optimism and life satisfaction, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to being good for our hearts, research suggests that happiness makes our immune systems stronger and our lives longer.
The tricky thing is most of us are bad at predicting what will make us happy. It was long believed that most people are hardwired to be either naturally happy or not, regardless of life events. This view has changed in recent years as more becomes known about the science of happiness.
Your level of happiness is indeed partly determined by your genes, just as they play a part in your general health. Researchers estimate that as much as 40-50% of a person’s capacity for happiness may be genetically predetermined. And although that means that some lucky people may start off with a greater propensity for happiness, it’s no guarantee they’ll lead a charmed life. Only 10 percent of our happiness is determined by our life situations or circumstances, which is much lower than what most of us assume. And as much as 40 percent is up for grabs and is within our control.
We now know there are specific techniques we can apply to change our brains and promote greater happiness and health. In other words, happiness is now viewed as a skill that can be learned. And the more we practice these mental exercises, the better our well-being. Even the gloomiest of us can to be happier, if we work to acquire a few new tricks. Here are seven specific science-based activities for cultivating happiness and improving health:
1. Express gratitude
Take note of what’s good in your life. Studies show that people who spend a few minutes each night writing down what went well each day show a significant increase in happiness.
2. Practice kindness
Do something nice for someone else, whether it's someone you know or a stranger. It can be spur-of-the-moment or planned. You can do the good deed anonymously or help the beneficiary directly.
3. Invest in relationships
Make time to connect with family and friends. Those who have strong social connections rank in the highest levels of happiness. Appreciate the people who are already near and dear to you and don’t forget to welcome new friendships into your life.
4. Share your skills
Volunteering, even in small ways, in your community can provide a valuable social interaction, increase your sense of purpose—and yes—make you happier. Giving to others releases endorphins, activating the parts of our brains that are associated with pleasure.
5. Engage in pleasurable activities
Spend more time doing what you love. Engaging in activities that are in line with your values and interests can improve your sense of well-being.
6. Get into "flow"
Flow, also known as the “zone,” is a mental state characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Engage in activities that captivate you so entirely that you lose yourself in the moment and forget about your stress.
7. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the ancient practice of focusing non-judgmental awareness on the present moment. It is increasingly recognized in today’s scientific community as an effective way to reduce stress, enjoy the present moment and improve psychological well-being.
So, take a moment and reflect on your happiness skills. What are you already doing and is there anything else that you could do to promote your own happiness and good health?
Dr. Gretchen Diem is a Health Psychologist with Women's HeartCare, a lifestyle program designed to prevent and treat heart disease and improve overall health and wellbeing.