How to be Happy – Science-backed theories

Who doesn’t want to be happy? To be happy means we won’t complain about anything, and see every glass as half full instead of empty. But, are there science-backed ways to be happy? Here are some unexpected and counterintuitive ways to find happiness:

1. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful.

Learn a new skills – if you can push through a bit of stress in the short term, you can experience huge gains in happiness for the long term. A Journal of Happiness Studies research shows you’ll be happier on an hourly, daily, and long-term basis.

The key, according to the study, is to choose the right new skill to master, challenge to undertake, or opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. The greatest increases in happiness come from learning a skill you choose, rather than one you think you should or feel forced to learn.

2. Make friends with people who live near you.

It’s a no-brainer, but if you need proof, there was a three-generational research done on happiness (the Framington Heart Study) that tracked generations of residents of Framington in the US to discover the trends of happiness.

They found that the more happy people you add into your life, the greater positive effect it will have on you (duh), and that geographically close friends have the greatest effect on happiness.

The greatest impact on happiness are nearby mutual friends, followed by next-door neighbours. It sure brings to mind the quote, ‘love thy neighbour’.

3. Embrace opposing feelings at the same time: Cheerful + Downcast = Happy

Psychologist Jonathan Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering feels happiness can come from noticing and embracing a wide spectrum of emotions – both good and bad.

He performed a study on this so-called mixed emotional experience. The results: Feeling cheerful and dejected at the same time was a precursor to improved well-being in the following sessions. So, taking the good and the bad may negate the bad experience, which has beneficial long term effects on physical health, according to his follow-up study.

Another study by psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala of Boston University found that mindfulness helped participants overcome anxiety disorders through acceptance of their wide range of feelings and then working toward improvement.

So don’t ignore negative feelings – embrace them like yin and yang, and balance them with positivity.

4. Invest in good counselling.

We all know that when we’re unhappy we need to turn to someone. Better still if they’re trained to handle human psychology. A research by psychologist Chris Boyce found that regularly scheduled counseling sessions worked out to 32 times more effective than cash.

If you’re seeking happiness, never be afraid to wonder if you’re looking in the right places.

5. Say “no” to almost everything. Better yet, say “I don’t.”

Overworked and overburdened is a recipe for unhappiness, so you’ll need to learn to say “no”.

But say no the right way: say “I don’t.” Believe it or not, using the phrase “I don’t” is up to eight times more effective than saying “I can’t.” It’s more than doubly effective versus a simple no.

The Journal of Consumer Research ran a number of studies on this difference in terminology. One of the studies split participants into three groups:

  • Group 1 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should “just say no.” This group was the control group, because they were given no specific strategy.
  • Group 2 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “can’t” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today.”
  • Group 3 was told that anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, they should implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts.”

And the results:

  • Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had three out of 10 members stick with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had one out of 10 members stick with her goal for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible eight out of 10 members stick with their goals for the entire 10 days.

Warren Buffett had it right when he said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

6. Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.

Positive thinking is great, but taken the wrong way, it may give you something negative: expectation. Many of us are already familiar with the mantra, prepare for the worst.

This “negative visualisation” has its roots in Stoicism. In most situations, you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.

You feel more in control when you have a plan for various outcomes – it’s like a Boy Scout mantra, “Be Prepared”. According to neuroscience, the brain can continue to function as normal so long as we maintain the illusion of control (via training and visualisation).

7. Give up your favourite things: Just for a day or two, not forever.

In terms of self-control and willpower, it’s fair to say that many of us may find it hard to give up our addictions – like our smartphones, or Netflix, or gaming – and according to plenty of research, willpower wanes as the day goes on. But you can train willpower as you would a muscle.

The best way to challenge your willpower is to give up something for a while. According to Harvard professor Michael Norton: “Interrupting our consumption is free. It actually saves you money and gets you more happiness out of the money spent. It’s like the best of all worlds, but we’re completely unable to do it, because we always want to watch the thing or eat the thing right now. It’s not “give it up forever.” It’s “give it up for short periods of time”, and I promise you you’re going to love it even more when you come back to it.”

Think daily Netflix binging, gaming, etc. Find more happiness by practicing patience with the things you love. Because exerting self-control leads to more self-control over time.

We all know the saying, “Denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted.”

8. Celebrate strengths; recognise weaknesses.

How many times have you seen someone who’s got everything – the brains, the brawn, the happiness – and you want to hate them?

Of course, this negativity isn’t good if you want happiness. Instead, understand that you can be a lot more of who you already are – when you’re able to put your energy into developing your own natural talent, there’s extraordinary room for growth. This of it as “openture” (the opposite of “closure”), coined by psychologist Paul Pearsall, who says we should embrace imperfections and celebrate strengths.

Happiness isn’t about feeling a need to be someone you aren’t – research shows that wedging ourselves into places we don’t fit can lead to undesired results. An a study at the University of Waterloo, people with low self-esteem were asked to say to themselves, “I’m a lovable person,” and by the end, participants felt reaffirmed in their low self-esteem rather than empowered to change.

So, celebrate what you’re good at, and appreciate that we all bring unique characteristics to the table.