Research shows that external factors have the power to make us happier in the moment, but that cultivating a deep sense of happiness is a much different project. “It’s a very personal thing,” says Sheenie Ambardar, MD, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who specializes in happiness. “It’s something internal, it’s some kind of peace or contentedness, some kind of psychological well-being that you have inside of you, so it’s not related to any of those external things.”
Dr. Ambardar says that many of her clients find themselves struggling against external ideas about what should make them happy. “There are so many conceptions out there that you have to have XYZ by a certain age, you have to have everything in place,” she says. “That’s such an insidious, oppressive idea.”
So how do we go about cultivating true happiness? Here’s what recent research says.
Get more sleep
This one should be a no-brainer by now, but getting enough sleep is so important for our overall well-being, on so many levels, that three American scientists won the Nobel Prize for work on the biology of sleep. And a British study that came out in 2017 found that Brits who get enough sleep are significantly happier than those who don’t. The vast majority of us need somewhere between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.
If that isn’t enough to send you on a mission for a white noise machine and new sheets, more than a decade ago, Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported that chronic lack of sleep can weaken the immune system, make maintaining a healthy weight more difficult, contribute to high blood pressure, and interfere with learning and memory. Hard to believe that something free has so many amazing benefits—or that we’re not all getting enough of it every night.
I used to take an early morning bootcamp a few times a week, and often I would arrive incredibly stressed, convinced that I should be at my desk instead of in the park. By the time the workout was over, I always felt completely relaxed and ready to take on the world. Exercise, like sleep, is a quick ticket to happiness, with even more immediate effects on mood. A recent study by the Black Dog Institute in Australia found that even just one to two hours a week of exercise, defined as an activity that raises the heart rate and gets you warm and slightly out of breath—no burpees required here—has a whole host of physical and mental benefits.
Spend time outdoors
This may make you tweak your exercise routine to do double duty. While that candlelit spin experience is sure to boost your endorphins, a lower intensity jog or even a brisk walk outside gets you closer to something that researchers are finding makes humans very happy: nature. In her book The Nature Fix, Florence Williams shows how spending time outdoors makes us happier and healthier. She delves into a number of studies, including the work of Frances Kuo, PhD, who found a link between trees and green space and lower levels of crime and aggression in public housing. How about a hike this weekend?
Here’s where things get a little trickier. Getting enough sleep, exercising, and spending time outdoors are all pretty much guaranteed to quickly improve your mood. They’re also simple to plan and execute. But what about your internal monologue and your overall satisfaction with your life and what it all means?
A growing body of research is differentiating between two different types of happiness: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic well-being is instant-gratification stuff like getting a present, collecting a record number of likes on your latest Instagram masterpiece, or going out on Friday night. Eudaimonic well-being stems from an overall sense of building a meaningful life. The two can dovetail—maybe you’re headed out on Friday night with an old and dear friend, for instance. The relationship is eudaimonic, while the activity itself may be hedonic.
We all find meaning in different places: work, relationships, family, and volunteering. This kind of happiness can also be described as a sense of purpose—and cultivating these elements in your life can take years and a good amount of self-knowledge.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest running longitudinal study on happiness, and its main takeaways all have to do with relationships. The qualities that showed up time and time again in the happiest lives? Spending time with others regularly; long-term relationships; investing in the future by having children or establishing strong mentor-like bonds with younger people; and having social support systems. (There’s that eudaimonic well-being again!) Maybe call that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with and look into some volunteer opportunities at your local elementary school or senior center?
Listen to yourself
This one is a little nebulous, and may require some self-examination and soul searching to figure out, as Dr. Ambardar notes. She regularly works with clients to help them find clarity in terms of what they actually want to do with their lives versus external pressures telling them what they “should” be doing. She also advocates for self-compassion. “Many patients who come to see me are very hard on themselves,” she says.
A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when we repress emotions that we don’t perceive as correct—say, ambivalence over motherhood, or being angry when we think we should be happy—we end up less happy than if we would simply express our inconvenient emotions.
Cultivating respect for your inner voice, whether it’s a fleeting weird emotion that you need to just sit with, or a change in career paths to something more meaningful to you, is a lot harder than going to bed earlier. But it may be the ultimate key to deep happiness.
Originally published November 9, 2017; updated July 14, 2018.
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