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3 surprising, science-backed ways to be happy

(Photo: Flickr/dawnashley)

The perfect job and a hot significant other are nice, but they won’t keep you smiling in the long run.

This is from researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, who’s been studying the “aspects of human experience that relate to happiness” for the entirety of her career. Currently she’s the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and she’s sharing what she’s learned about all-around joyfulness at UC BerkeleyX The Science of Happiness, a free online course offered through edX, an online destination for free get-smart classes with world-class professors. (If happiness isn’t your thing, you can take Food for Health or The Body Matters, instead.)

In the class, Dr. Simon-Thomas and her co-instructor Dacher Keltner, PhD, use scientific research to offer behavioral changes that result in a happier, more meaningful life.

happiness“People think that happiness comes from attaining some desired set of environmental circumstances: the perfect job, spouse, family, luxury, status, etc.,” Dr. Simon-Thomas says. “Research, though, has proven that inner resources, authentic social connection, kindness, and cooperation are much more influential to a sense of joy.”

So the good news is that happiness isn’t hinging on a Céline bag or a corner office—but what do you have to do to feel more joyful?

Here are three research-tested tips on how to beat the blues in a more permanent way.

1. Be social (and present). Being part of a social community (even if it’s a small one!) allows for deep interactions with other people, which is a huge happiness booster, according to Dr. Simon-Thomas. And no, it doesn’t count if you’re Instagramming throughout dinner with your friends. “Several studies have shown that people are happiest when they’re completely engaged and socializing,” she says.

2. Be generous. It’s always exciting to get a gift, but the real pleasure comes from giving. In fact, research has shown that people who spent money on others found more happiness than those who spent the same amount on themselves. “Investing in the pleasure of others matters, and is often left out of our predictions about our own happiness,” Dr. Simon-Thomas says.

3. Be amazed. One area of research she’s particularly excited about is how being truly amazed can create happiness. “It turns out that experiences of awe are not only pleasurable, but they prompt people to connect with each other, be more generous, and cooperate,” she says. May we suggest some more stargazing? Or staring at Ryan Gosling’s abs, if that’s what works for you? —Lisa Elaine Held

For more information or to register for The Science of Happiness, visit

(Right photo: Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Dr. Dacher Keltner, co-instructors for The Science of Happiness, via Greater Good Science Center)