Research shows external factors have the power to make us happier in the moment, but cultivating a deep sense of happiness is a much different project that spans far beyond any promotion or number of likes. "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 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 something by a certain age, you have to have everything in place," she says. "That's such an insidious, oppressive idea." Instead, there are some science-backed ways to find true happiness—and they're not nearly as complicated as you think.
So how do we go about cultivating true happiness? Here's what the research says.
1. 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 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 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. It's hard to believe 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 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 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, has a whole host of physical and mental benefits. No burpees required.
3. 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 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?
4. Find meaning
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.
5. Maintain relationships
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 a friend you've been meaning to catch up with and look into some volunteer opportunities, like spending time at a nursing home.
6. 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 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.
7. Spend money on experiences not things
Whenever you go shopping, whether it's in person or simply hitting the "place your order" button on Amazon, it's not uncommon to feel an instant thrill and get excited about your new purchase. It happens to all of us. Unfortunately, that happiness doesn't last. Past research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found the only way spending money is going to make you happy is if it's on life-benefiting experiences—not more material objects that are only going to add clutter to your life.
When you save up for a trip rather than spending your entire paycheck on new workout clothes (hey, it's hard not to!), you'll be able to go on an adventure that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Ones that are so meaningful and profound you won't even feel the need to share all of them on your Instagram Stories. As great as your 7/8 leggings may be, they definitely can't do that.
8. Unplug often
Technology undoubtedly makes your life easier. You can buy your latte with a flash of your phone and tell Alexa to order your groceries. But with as many perks as it adds to your life, happiness isn't always one of them. According to the World Happiness Report, activities related to smartphones and digital media, including the endless scrolling on your social media platforms, have been linked time and time again to decreased happiness. In fact, those who unplug often are typically happier overall. So, post your cute dog pics to Instagram, then take a break from the screen for the rest of the night and play with your pup without social media.
9. Grab a good book
Speaking of unplugging, one of the best ways to do so is to grab a good book. In an online survey of 4,164 adults, researchers found regular readers not only had less feelings of stress and depression, but also felt happier about themselves and their lives overall. The best part is you only need 30 minutes a week to see improvements in your happiness levels, and there are so many options to choose from, whether you want to pick up one of the buzziest wellness reads of the year, hit up your local library, or download some free classics online.
Originally published November 9, 2017; updated March 20, 2019.
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