You Can Control Your Own Happiness

The field of happiness research has empirical evidence that certain everyday practices contribute to increased well-being 

Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” This aphorism was not proven in Aurelius’ lifetime, but the growing field of happiness research has finally synched up with his thoughts. It is possible to create happiness in your life, not just by thinking, but by engaging in certain activities that have been scientifically proven to boost mood and make you happier. But why do we need to be happy?  

Why is happiness so important? 

Happiness includes the temporary euphoria we experience – like when something good happens – as well as a longer-term sense of well-being and purpose in life. As ephemeral as it seems, happiness can be explained and quantified.  

Happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” But happiness isn’t just an emotion. It is a factor that affects so many aspects of life, from work to relationships, and even our physiology. Happy people don’t just feel better emotionally, they also live longer, fight diseases better, and experience less stress.  

Happiness researchers have illustrated the connection between living a happy life and longevity. One study followed a group of elderly people for either 10 or 30 years to track their health and well-being. Over the course of that time, they were given a survey each year to measure their level of happiness and optimism. The results revealed that the subjects who lived the longest reported the highest levels of positive emotion. 

Happiness is also associated with healthy aging. Another study, published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that not only do optimistic people live longer, but they also live healthier. The subjects in this study were healthy, elderly women at the start of the study, and had their health (defined by the absence of chronic diseases and depression) and level of optimism measured for 5 years. After controlling for socioeconomics and other demographic-related factors, the happiest women in the study had a 24% greater likelihood of remaining healthy than those who were the least happy. 

The results of these studies may be explained by saying that happier people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, which, in turn, makes them live longer, healthier lives. But even if there is no causation, there’s certainly a correlation between happiness and positive health outcomes. Now it’s time to look at what we can actually do to make ourselves happier.  

How do we make ourselves happy? 

In 2018, Yale psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos taught a class called The Science of Well-Being, which became the most popular undergraduate class that year. Dr. Santos is an expert in human cognition, and her course provides science-backed strategies for increasing happiness and well-being. Santos combs through the research to provide some useful strategies for making yourself happier. 

  • Help others: Kindness makes you happier, and being happier makes you kinder, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Research. Using a validated subjective happiness scale, Japanese researchers found that happier people reported even higher levels of satisfaction after performing kind acts towards other people. In this study, the feeling of kindness was also linked to respondents’ subjective happiness.  
  • Be thankful: There is evidence that counting your blessings may make you happier. Over a period of 10 weeks, researchers found that students given gratitude exercises maintained higher levels of happiness than those given neutral, non-gratitude exercises. 
  • Take care of yourself: Adequate sleep and some form of physical exercise are critical to maintaining a positive outlook. Numerous clinical studies have proven that regular exercise alleviates the symptoms of depression and anxiety at a level consistent with psychotropic medications. One study revealed that 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week is as effective as Zoloft at decreasing depression. 
  • Play to your strengths: When you are good at something, using those skills at work or at home leads to long-term happiness. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania conducted research on positive psychology. He had subjects identify their top strengths of character, and to use them every day for a short period of time. After six months, these subjects showed higher levels of happiness and lower incidence of depression than when they began the study, though the highest levels of happiness occurred for people who used their strengths for the longest period.  

Though there is no objective measurement for happiness or contentment, there is an entire body of scientific inquiry dedicated to deciphering the code for a lifelong positive mood. While the data aren’t entirely conclusive, this research establishes a link between personal happiness and activities that we can all begin right now.