The new science of happiness: Simple, research-backed ways to boost your wellbeing
We could all use a bit of extra joy in our lives.
If you ask anyone on this planet what they want from life, I am sure the vast majority of people would say that they wanted to be happy. However, happiness is a feeling that can be difficult to put into words. We know we want to feel it, but we don’t always find it easy to get specific about what that means. But even though happiness looks different to every single one of us, it does have several common themes.
So, what are they and can science help us to hack happiness?
It may seem obvious that smiling, the outward expression of happiness, makes us feel happy but what does the science say? The definitive answer came in in 2019 when researchers from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville decided to look back at 138 studies carried out around the world involving more than 11,000 volunteers and covering a period of 50 years.
They concluded that our facial expressions do indeed impact our mood and our emotions: frowning makes us feel sadder, scowling makes us feel angrier and smiling makes us happier. As the researchers pointed out this doesn’t mean we can literally smile our way to happiness, but it is evidence that our minds and bodies are intimately linked when we experience emotions.
What about money? Everyone knows the well-trodden phrase that money can’t buy you happiness, but the research says it depends what you spend your money on.
Several studies have found that buying experiences rather than material things can make us feel happier. One study carried out by psychologists at San Francisco State University asked volunteers to reflect on how their recent purchases had made them feel.
The responses not only showed that experiences brought the volunteers greater happiness than material possessions, but also that the positive effect was independent of the amount spent or the spenders’ income. The researchers also found that experiences continued to boost happiness in the longer term. This is perhaps because we can look back on past experiences and recall the happiness we felt at the time.
Freedom of choice also has a huge impact on our happiness. When we feel we get to determine our future we not only feel happier but we perform better at work and act more positively. One study carried out involving Chinese teenagers found that maintaining a strong belief in free will and having the ability to make independent choices was linked to greater feelings of happiness. The researchers even suggest that strengthening the belief in free will via therapy sessions could help people to more actively pursue happiness.
Our relationship to nature and proximity and access to natural green spaces also play a key role in keeping our spirits up. A recent study carried out at The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology found that the more access to green space city dwellers had, the more they reported being content and happy.
The researchers made the discovery by using satellite data from cities in 60 different countries to calculate the amount of accessible green space available and then cross-referenced it with each country’s happiness index. They found that the positive relationship between green space and happiness was seen regardless of a country’s economic situation. There could be many reasons for this - our innate appreciation for the beauty of natural spaces, the fact that green spaces encourage physical and social interaction or the effect of nature on our physical health such as lowering blood pressure and stress levels.
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But while we have a good idea about the activities and habits that can increase our feelings of happiness, science also warns us to be mindful of how we go about pursuing it. A study carried out at Rutgers Business School found that when we pursue happiness as something to ‘achieve’ or that we need to ‘do things’ to feel happy it can leave us feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And this can undermine and impact our feelings of happiness.
So, while the science says that bringing more happiness into our lives is possible if we follow a few simple steps, we’d do well to remember that happiness should not be viewed as something to achieve, but rather something to be enjoyed.
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Radha is an NHS doctor, broadcaster and wellbeing campaigner. She is the medical expert on BBC Radio 1’s Life Hacks. Her first book is Know Your Own Power (£14.99, Yellow Kite).
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