The ‘How to Be Happy’ article has become a staple of newspapers, magazines, books and, increasingly, of websites. We should ‘accept reality’, or ‘take a break’, or ‘be honest with ourselves’, or ‘surround ourselves with happy people’.
These things are unlikely to do us any harm but that doesn’t stop them reading like a list of platitudes – the kind that people are always doling out but never follow themselves.
We can all create our own lists of happiness enhancing activities and argue endlessly about which is better and for whom. While that’s fun for a bit, I always want to ask: which activities have evidence to back up their claims for increasing happiness?
Psychologists have only started investigating this question relatively recently, so there’s not a very long list and it is obviously far from exhaustive, but at least there’s some research to back them up. The activities psychologists have investigated are gratitude, helping others, and firstly, visualising your best possible self.
1. Visualising your best possible self
Visualising your best possible self may sound like an exercise in fantasy but, crucially, it does have to be realistic. Carrying out this exercise typically involves imagining your life in the future, but a future where everything that could go well, has gone well. You have reached those realistic goals that you have set for yourself.
The effectiveness of this activity was tested in a study by King (2001). Students were asked to write about their best possible future selves for 20 minutes over 4 consecutive days. This group was compared with one writing on a neutral topic, one writing about traumatic life events and another writing about both traumatic events and their best possible future selves.
The results showed that those who had only written about their best possible selves showed greater improvements in subjective well-being compared to all the other groups. The benefits of the exercise could even be measured fully five months later.
Since the results were so encouraging after only a four-day exercise, two other studies have investigated longer periods. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) and Dickerhoof et al. (2007) carried out studies over 4 and 8 weeks respectively. Both of these backed up the previous findings.
It’s not hard to speculate on why this exercise might be effective, it probably helps to:
- Create a sense of efficacy, meaning and purpose.
- Foster optimism.
- Set written goals and plan means of achieving them.
2. Helping others
Even if you haven’t come across the ‘best possible selves’ exercise, you’ll almost certainly have heard the idea that helping others is beneficial to the self. Helping out at a soup kitchen, volunteering on a helpline, visiting shut-ins – all are certainly virtuous activities. But isn’t helping others for no tangible personal benefit too much like self-sacrifice?
Actually, the research suggests there’s a very good selfish reason to help others – it really does seem to make us happier. In one study students were asked to perform five acts of kindness each week for six weeks (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). These were things like writing a thank-you note, giving blood or helping a friend with their work. Students were told either to perform one act each day or all five acts on one day.
Both experimental groups showed a better outcome than the control group whose well-being declined over the six-week period (perhaps exams were looming!). Those who performed their acts of kindness each day showed a small increase in well-being.
But the highest well-being was seen in those students who carried out all their acts of kindness on one single day on each of the six weeks of the study. Their well-being increased by an impressive 40%.
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade (2005) suggest the reason for the difference is that a single act of kindness each day doesn’t make an appreciable difference to the everyday routine, especially as these were only small acts.
I’ve already covered the third activity that has shown promise in increasing happiness: practicing gratitude. A study conducted by Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that sitting down weekly to write about five things we are grateful for increased happiness levels by 25%. If you’re short of ways of practicing gratefulness, this list of ways to be grateful culled from Dr Emmons’ book will be useful.
You might also be interested in my review of Dr Robert Emmons’ book ‘thanks!’ which details his experiments and expands on practicing gratitude.
Reasons to be cheerful
I’m sure these are only a tiny subset of the ways we can increase our happiness. At the moment, though, these are some of the ones that have the research to back them up.
In many ways these findings are encouraging. None of these activities involves spending vast amounts of money (or any money really!), none take up that much time and they are all within almost everyone’s reach.
The real challenge they present is in making changes to our daily routines, our standard ways of thinking and behaving. Compared to what we often perceive as a long and winding road to happiness, this trip looks like a doddle, if only we’d open our eyes and look.
» Read more evidence on the power of gratitude.
Dickerhoof, R., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2007). How and why do intentional activities work to boost well-being?: An experimental longitudinal investigation of regularly practicing optimism and gratitude. Manuscript under review.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389
King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73-82.
Tkach, C. (2005). Unlocking the treasury of human kindness: Enduring improvements in mood, happiness, and self-evaluations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Riverside.