Close relationships (with spouses, family, friends, community members) are the biggest factor keeping people happy throughout their lives, researchers discovered. People with strong relationships are happier, and physically and mentally healthier, than those who are less well-connected. (The researchers are still studying the connection between relationships and physical health -- there's evidence that good relationships result in lower levels of stress hormones, and less chronic inflammation.)
Other ingredients for a long and happy life include not smoking or abusing alcohol, exercising regularly and finding work-life balance, the Harvard study found. "Rather than just being your grandmother's good advice, there's real science behind this," Waldinger says. "You can quantify the number of years you'll live longer, if you do these things."
Find ways to perform small, random acts of kindness during your day. These acts can be incredibly simple, from complimenting a stranger at the grocery store on his or her shirt to making your spouse coffee before work to engaging a co-worker you don't usually talk with in a friendly Zoom chat.
Deliberately performing random acts of kindness can make you feel happier and those acts you do for others has a longer-term effect on your own happiness.
This works because these acts tap into your natural prosocial behavior, or the basic human impulse to help others, Simon-Thomas says. When you invest your own resources in the welfare of others, it activates your brain's reward system -- you feel good that you made the other person feel good.
Writing down three things you're grateful for at the end of each day, and why they happened, leads to long term increases in happiness and decreases in depressive symptoms, according to a 2005 study from Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
It doesn't matter how large or small each thing is -- just write them down, in a notebook or your Notes app or wherever.
The point is to train your mind to orient itself to the parts of your life that are good, instead of directing your attention to things that are stressful or irritating.
You may have already tried all those mindfulness apps. But exercises like meditation that teach your brain to focus on the present instead of the past or future can increase feelings of self-acceptance.
"The idea is to be present -- don't judge your emotions, but recognize them," says Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia.
(Another caveat: If you have PTSD, proceed with caution or check with your doctor first, as mindfulness exercises may be triggering, experts say, because they can unearth trauma.)
Particularly in the West, people have adopted a propensity for self-criticism as a cultural value, and tend to self-punish when dealing with setbacks and failures, she says. But excessive self-criticism gets in the way of achieving your goals.
There are three parts to practicing self-compassion, and they draw on some of the other exercises on this list: Be present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or looking anxiously to the future.
Understand that setbacks are part of being human, and all people experience them. Cultivate a warm, supportive inner voice rather than a hostile, self-critical one.
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