Several years ago, a car rammed the back of my friend, Murray, while he was riding his bike. He was a competitive bike racer. But one driver’s mistake made him a partial quadriplegic.
Murray’s physical therapy was long, painful and frustrating. But he amazed his therapists. With an aluminum cane and an iron will, he can now shuffle around his home and go for short walks. I wouldn’t blame Murray if he spent most days moping. But he doesn’t. He laughs as often as ever and his eyes retain their twinkle.
Murray is one of my heroes. He taught me that people’s moods can be elastic.
In the book Social Intelligence , Daniel Goleman referenced a study on recent paraplegics. He says their happiness plummeted after losing the use of their legs. But about ten months later, their spirits had almost fully bounced back.
Some of us are born with positive dispositions. Murray is one of those guys. Others are more like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend, Eeyore. They see the world as a half-empty glass. That’s largely genetic. But studies show we can all increase our levels of happiness with a few simple tips.
And it’s important that we try. Harvard University professor, Shawn Achor,
referenced more than 200 scientific studies on more than 275,000 people. In his book, The Happiness Advantage , he says, “Happiness leads to success in nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and, in particular, our jobs, careers, and businesses.”
Happy people also live longer.
Happiness might increase longevity because it strengthens our immune system. At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers injected 334 healthy volunteers with a common cold virus. A week later, the people who had reported feeling happier before the injection had fewer cold symptoms.
If a longitudinal study on Catholic nuns is any indication, those happy people might live longer too. Researchers studied the journals of 180 nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. For decades, the nuns had been asked to report their thoughts in daily journals. Researchers learned that the nuns who appeared happier when they were in their early 20s lived an average of ten years longer than the nuns who appeared to be less happy.
In other words, happiness is paramount to healthy, successful lives—and we can increase our levels of happiness with six simple tips.
For starters, we could meditate a few minutes a day. Oxford University Press published, “Meditation and Positive Psychology,” by Shauna L. Shapiro, Hooria Jazaieri, and Sarah de Sousa. They referenced two studies where researchers measured activation in participants’ prefrontal cortexes. This is the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy. The studies split participants into two groups. One practiced short, daily meditation. The second group didn’t. The group that meditated reported feeling happier and , based on MRI readings , they increased activation in the part of the brain that boosts happiness. One of my favorite, free guided meditation websites is fragrantheart.com.
In 2014, my wife began to feel disillusioned at work. She still loved her job. But a few things at work hampered her mood. That was when we decided to take some time off. Several months before we stopped working, we took a poster-sized paper and wrote down things we wanted to do, friends we wanted to visit and countries we wanted to see, along with the dates. Then we hung it on the wall so we could see it every day.
This juiced her mood–not just that day, but in the many months that followed. Happiness experts say anticipation works.
In 2006, The American Physiological Society published research by Lee S. Berk of Loma Linda University. Researchers asked participants to name their favorite funny video. The researchers extracted blood to determine physiological base levels for each participant. Then they told half of the participants that they could watch that video in an experiment. They found that the participants who anticipated viewing a video they enjoyed boosted their endorphins by 27 percent and HGH (Human Growth Hormone) by 87 percent.
Perhaps, if you’re planning a vacation or a special event, make that reminder visible, much like the poster my wife and I hung on the wall. The anticipation could impact your mood.
Commit To Acts of Kindness
I’ve traveled to more than 60 different countries. In some countries, people appear to be stern. In other countries, people smile and laugh a lot. Based on my subjective observation, Filipinos appear to be some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. The Philippines is a poor country. But I think Filipinos are far more generous with their friendship, hospitality and their money than most North Americans. If you have spent time with Filipinos, I think you’ll agree.
In fact, their generosity might be the root of their happiness. In 2005, Stephen G. Post published, “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good” in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. He references several studies that connect kindness to happiness. When we donate our time, resources or money to help other people, it boosts our happiness.
Research shows that exercise also boosts our moods. Researchers at Duke University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences studied three groups of depressed patients. They assigned each group a different form of treatment. One group took antidepressants. The second group exercised for 45 minutes, three times a week. The third group took antidepressants and they exercised.
After four months, all three groups reported feeling happier. But six months later, 38 percent of those who took the medication alone had relapsed. Thirty-one percent of those who took anti-depressants and exercised also relapsed. But just 9 percent of the group that only exercised experienced relapse.
Spend Money Doing Things, Not Having Things
If you’ve wondered how to best spend money to boost happiness, University of British Columbia professor Elizabeth Dunn and Harvard professor Michael Norton have written an excellent guide. In their book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending , they say you won’t boost your level of happiness buying a new car, the latest iPhone or a flashy piece of jewelry. They referenced several studies revealing that buying things for ourselves won’t boost our happiness, beyond that of a short-term sugar-like fix. But when we spend money on experiences , it boost happiness and long-term life satisfaction.
Watch Less Television and Listen To Less News
Many people believe our world is getting worse. We think more people are dying as a result of natural disasters; we have more crime, more murders, more war-related deaths and more poverty. But none of that is true. The world isn’t perfect, and we still need to make big gains–especially when it comes to our environment. But by almost every other measure, the world has never been better. However, try convincing someone who watches too much television or listens to too much news. If a news headline can bleed, it will lead. Increasingly, news reporters comb for negative news. That’s why we get bombarded by it, more now than ever.
In The Happiness Advantage , Shawn Achor says the less negative news we watch, the happier we tend to be. This doesn’t mean, however, that by paying less attention to mainstream news we become blind to the world. Instead, the opposite is true. As Achor says, “Psychologists have found that people who watch less TV are actually more accurate judges of life’s risks and rewards than those who subject themselves to the tales of crime, tragedy, and death that appear…on the news.” News media often dampens people’s moods. As I’ve written here, it can also contribute to widespread ignorance about the world.
People used to think that happiness was hardwired–that we had no way of increasing our day-to-day moods. Neuroscience, however, now says that isn’t true. With a few simple tips, we can improve our happiness, which improves every important aspect of our lives and helps us live longer. That’s why these six simple tips are worth embracing.
Further Related Reading
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas