Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier

Last Updated Feb 10, 2011 10:54 AM EST

How can you be happier? Jennifer L. Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford University's School of Business, Melanie Rudd, a Stanford MBA student, and Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner, are here to help. Noting that inquiries into money and happiness have found surprisingly few correlations between the two, the trio instead set out to look at the way people spend their time and how that affects happiness. The researchers examined 60 academic studies, then tried to draw links between those findings to draw more general conclusions.

The results? Here are five guidelines they say anyone can use to increase their happiness.

1. Spend time with the "right people." Sounds simple. But who exactly are the right people? Unfortunately, they're generally not your office mates, who are the ones people tend to spend the most time with. The people that make you happiest will generally be friends, family, and romantic partners. That's why one the most powerful influencers of general happiness is whether or not someone has a "best friend" at work and whether or not they like their boss.
  • Avoid small talk. A related predictor of happiness is how much substantive discussion a person engages in, compared to small talk. Generally, small talk makes people unhappy, and often, work relationships involve a disproportionate amount of small talk. If you want to increase your happiness, it's far better to find one or two colleagues with whom you can have a real discussion than to engage in small talk around the water cooler.
2. Spend time on "socially connecting" activities, such as volunteering and spending time with friends.
  • Work doesn't count. Unless your job is particularly fulfilling and your colleagues are your best buds, work is not 'socially connecting' and is generally one of the more unhappy parts of the day. Commuting is also gets high marks for making people unhappy.
  • Volunteering has been proven to be a good way to increase happiness.
  • Memory is important, because it helps us take an event that happened in the past and extend its 'worth' into the future. One way to help choose experiences that will increase happiness is to consider how you might remember them in the future. What are your happiest memories? How might you create more similar memories?
3. Day dream, or, as the researchers say, enjoy the experience without spending the time. As counterintuitive as it may seem, research has shown that the part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure can be activated just by thinking about something pleasurable. And we often enjoy the anticipation of something pleasurable more than the actual experience that we think is going to be so great. The most common example is vacation planning, which some find more pleasurable than the vacation itself.

4. Expand your time. No, this does not mean you have to find a warp in the space-time continuum (although it might help). Focusing on the "here and now" slows down the perceived passage of time, allowing people to feel less rushed and hurried. How can we do that?
  • Breathe slowly. Just for a few minutes. As the authors write: "In one study, subjects who were instructed to take long and slow breaths (vs. short and quick ones) for 5 minutes not only felt there was more time available to get things done, but also perceived their day to be longer."
  • Volunteering makes it seem like you have more time. In general, spending time on someone else makes people feel like they have more spare time and that their future is more expansive.
  • Pay people to do the chores you hate. Activities that we choose to do generally make us happier than those that are obligatory. So if you can afford it, hire someone else to do some of the 'obligatory' tasks, such as cleaning the house. Then use the time you've 'bought' not to catch up on work, but to do something you genuinely enjoy.
5. Be aware that aging changes the way people experience happiness. Youths tend to equate happiness with excitement, but as people get older, happiness is associated with feeling peaceful. Young people get more happiness from spending time with interesting new acquaintances, while older people get more enjoyment from spending time with close friends and family.

Do these sound like guidelines you can follow in your own life? What activities make you happy? What else do you think should be on the list? I'm compiling readers' suggestions and posting the best ones here.

RELATED Photo courtesy flickr user dotbenjamin.

Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer and editor. You can follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul.
  • Kimberly Weisul On Twitter»

    >> View all articles

    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

Comments