Are you a glass-half-full Pollyanna or glass-half-empty Grinch? It’s easy to fall into the latter camp after the year we’ve had. But the good news is that whatever our natural disposition, we can all take steps to boost our own happiness, according to the latest scientific research.
“While genetics, upbringing and circumstances play a role in happiness levels, they don’t completely set them in stone,” says Vanessa King from Action for Happiness, a charity that draws on scientific research to promote happiness in society, and author of 10 Keys for Happier Living. “We can all learn skills to help us become happier,” Vanessa adds. “Research shows that once our basic needs are met, the most significant improvements to our mood are made through our everyday habits and mindsets.”
There’s no fast track to fulfilment but, with intention and practise, making lots of little changes can build to have a big impact. Here are some great ways to get started.
Bank your ‘kindness’ memories
Giving something to others – whether your time, skill or attention – can have a profound effect on mental wellbeing. Studies have found that doing good deeds promotes changes in the brain that not only make you feel happier in the moment but also create a ‘kindness bank’ of memories that you can draw on long after the event. In this respect, volunteering is “twice blessed”, says Professor Richard Layard, author of Can we be Happier? Evidence and Ethics. “It’s good for those who give and who receive.”
Pass on the helper’s high
“When you ask someone for help, you’re not only giving them the opportunity to get that helper’s high, but it also sends a message that you value what they can offer,” says Vanessa. It can be as simple as asking to borrow a ladder or for advice on pruning your roses. When people are helped, they’re also more likely to help others, and this then builds a web of support: “Research shows that where people feel supported, communities have higher wellbeing scores and can be more resilient.” Vanessa adds.
Silence your inner critic
It’s very easy to focus on what you’ve done wrong or things you can’t do, but over time this chips away at your self-confidence. “We are often so much harder on ourselves when we make mistakes than we would be if a friend had done the same thing,” Vanessa says. “Be as compassionate to yourself as you are to others.” Shift your focus to what you can do. A UK study found that people who felt they were using their strengths in tasks reported more positive emotions and greater self-esteem.
Be nice to the neighbours
Being part of a friendly community makes you feel like you belong – and this is important for your own happiness and those around you. “Our busy lives today mean that many places have lost a sense of community, but Covid-19 has reminded us of its value,” Vanessa says. “Human beings evolved to live in social groups, so feeling lonely is a biological signal that you need to connect. Saying hello or smiling at your neighbours makes a social connection that can boost happiness for you both.”
Work the ‘awe’ factor
We all know that aerobic exercise releases feelgood endorphins in the body – but carry out that exercise in a beautiful natural landscape and you’ll boost happiness levels even more. “A growing body of evidence shows that spending time in natural spaces can have a positive effect on mental wellbeing. A recent study shows we can amplify that effect by looking for moments of ‘awe’, such as a huge, old oak tree or the crashing waves of a spring tide,” Vanessa says. “Nature is really good at showing how it is bigger and older than us, and that’s very effective at putting things in perspective. It’s literally and psychologically a breath of fresh air.”
Set a new ‘own goal’
Naturally, feeling good about the future is key to feeling happy, so it’s important to have something to work towards. Just be careful to set goals based on what you want to achieve, rather than as a result of comparing yourself with others. “We live in a competitive culture that encourages people to aim above all at personal success: good grades, a good job, a good income. Success is compared with other people. But, if I succeed, someone else has to fail, so there will be no increase in overall happiness,” Professor Layard says. Instead, a goal to create happiness around us – at work, at home and in the community – makes life more enjoyable for everyone. Goals don’t have to be big either; in fact, studies show setting and achieving small goals builds self-confidence.
Let it go with cocoa
Find a quiet spot and place a bar of dark chocolate in front of you. Take time to look at it, smell it, listen to the noise as you take off the wrapper. Then break off a small piece and put it in your mouth. Don’t chew it; instead feel the texture, experience the taste. There are many who would argue that chocolate makes you happy anyway, but this ritual is a mindfulness practice – paying attention to the present moment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be eating chocolate, but a growing body of research suggests that practising mindfulness may help increase levels of positive emotions and regular practise can improve life satisfaction.
Tap into new talents
Learn to bake… or sew, or paint or play an instrument – you’re never too old to learn! “As a species, we’ve had to explore, create and innovate in order to adapt and thrive,” Vanessa says. “We are hardwired to experience pleasure when we have ideas, make new discoveries and are creative.” Learning a new skill puts us in a “growth mindset”, Vanessa continues, where we believe we can get better at things, so are more positive about overcoming any challenges.
Get the gratitude attitude
“The human brain developed to be alert to danger and risk, so our instincts naturally focus on what can go wrong,” Vanessa says. “But we can retrain ourselves to notice the good things.” Take time each day to notice and acknowledge what’s good in your life. “You could start a gratitude journal, where you write down three good things before bed every night – studies show it may help improve your sleep,” Vanessa says. “Or take turns over dinner for each member of the family to say what’s made them feel good that day. We often think of being there for someone when they are struggling, but sharing good news has been shown to have an even greater positive impact on a relationship. And, of course, saying thank you to a person is a particularly powerful way of boosting their happiness and your own.”
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