Sadly, you can’t be happy all the time. But there’s certainly a lot to be said for trying to be a bit happier in general.
Happiness, current research suggests, can do everything from reducing stress to supporting your immune system - alongside lowering your blood pressure, mitigating the effects of chronic pain, and even protecting against your risk of stroke.
And while you might not want to be the sort of person who’s bubbly and bouncing while everyone else is down, there are a few key ways to nudge your happiness levels from acceptable to above-average.
Here’s how you can give yourself the best chance of feeling more happy, more often
Obviously you’re grumpy if you only get four hours of shut-eye, but chronically getting just a little bit less kip than you need could be affecting your mood without you even noticing, according to cognitive science.
Why? Negative stimuli are typically processed by your amygdala, part of your brain’s core emotional system, while positive or neutral memories are processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation seems to hit the hippocampus harder than the amygdala, which might make it harder to recall happy moments. In one experiment, sleep-deprived subjects struggled to remember words from a list that had positive connotations (like ‘sunshine’) while finding it easier to remember negative ones (like ‘cancer’).
2. Exercise (little and often)
It’s pretty well established that exercise makes you feel good (all those endorphins!), but for the best results, it makes sense to do it as often as possible.
In a systematic review of studies, Michigan University researchers found that everything from yoga to walking had beneficial effects on mood, but frequency helped: people who did some sort of physical activity most days were about 30 percent more likely to consider themselves happy than people who did not meet the guidelines.
You don’t have to thrash yourself in the gym every day: 10 minutes of following a yoga video or a quick walk will still brighten up your day. Also...
3. Get outdoors
There’s nothing wrong with the gym, but if you can, take your exercise outdoors. A Meta-study of more than 1,000 subjects found that working out amid greenery improved self-esteem and mood. 'Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood,' concluded the researchers. '[but] the presence of water generated greater effects.' So go for a run or cycle alongside a river if you can. Even better? Read our guide to wild swimming and give that a go! There's no way you won't feel good about yourself afterwards. We'd even go so far as to put money on it!
4. Meditate (mindfully)
You knew this was coming - and yes, there’s plenty of evidence that taking time to meditate can improve your mood on a day-to-day basis. I
t’s slightly unclear whether the effects are due to meditation itself or a knock-on from its other benefits (stress reduction and better sleep, for instance), but studies suggest that styles of meditation prioritising self-kindness and mindfulness show some of the clearest benefits.
One simple way to start: set an ‘if-then’ trigger for mindfulness during your day. For instance, if you put the kettle on, then take three deep breaths and notice the way your ribcage expands and contracts.
5. Up your veg intake
It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll only reap the benefits of increased broccoli consumption in a decade or so, but studies seem clear: eating more fruit and veg could make you happier in the here and now.
In a 2016 study, increased fruit and vegetable intake was predictive of increased happiness and well-being, with the increase in life-satisfaction points for a jump in consumption equal in size to the psychological gain of moving from unemployment to employment.
Aim to eat at least one portion at every meal - yes, including breakfast - and switch your afternoon pick-me-up to an apple or banana with a teaspoon of nut butter.
6. Smile (like you mean it)
Yes, infuriatingly, the ‘cheer up, it might never happen brigade are sort of right: smiling can make us feel better. But there’s a caveat: it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to at least one study.
The short version: customer-service workers who fake smile throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, but those who manage to stay positive throughout the day improve their mood. If you need a nudge, think about something that makes you happy, like your friends or upcoming plans you’re hyped for.
7. Help others (when you can)
Let’s be honest: we’ve all been having a bit of a tough time lately. But there are selfish reasons to behave altruistically: a study from the Journal of Happiness found that, 'participants assigned to recall a purchase made for someone else reported feeling significantly happier immediately after this recollection; most importantly, the happier participants felt, the more likely they were to choose to spend a windfall on someone else in the near future.'
Next time you’re thinking about buying yourself a new jumper or a bottle of rum to cheer yourself up, consider getting something nice for someone else instead. Even better, read this...