Can humans really increase their happiness like they would their muscle size? And if so, how easy would it be for the regular person to learn to be happier? Can anyone do it? And does chocolate actually help?
These are the questions that have been plaguing me throughout this year’s darker days, which – let’s be honest – have not been scarce. The Covid-crisis has made it plain to some of us that we rely on many external factors to feel good; shopping, travelling, going for a night out. Getting a little Botox and some highlights (no? just me?) And when these hedonistic factors we rely on go missing, we often don’t feel as happy.
I always advocate that happiness is not a fixed measure, but a moving part. It can increase and decrease, grow and shrivel, and it can change its flavour and consistency. Seeing happiness as a living, breathing element is the first and most important step to achieve it. Because as soon as we start accepting that there are many valid and varied ways to be happy, and that we can increase them all, we can take matters into our own hands.
But are there more long-lasting and more powerful ways to increase the way we experience happiness and joy?
1. Give to others
Being generous is a great personal quality to have, but what does science say about how it can increase your happiness? As it turns out, the simple act of giving to others – whether it’s time, money, skills or support – can really help with those feel-good feels. Generous acts activate the TPJ region of the brain, which contains the striatum, a part of the brain responsible for reward and wellbeing.
Sounds a little counterproductive though, right? How is depriving yourself of time or money in favour of others going to make you feel good? Scientist postulate that one of the reasons why we loving giving is that we can predict the recipient’s happiness. We can forecast that our action will have positive effects for them, and that makes us happy.
If you’re thinking that giving is a learned skill, and that humans are fundamentally selfish – only ever generous to get something in return, or because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do – think again! In a study done on tiny humans and their attitudes to giving and receiving, psychologists from the University of British Columbia found that tiny humans love to give. When presented with the chance to share their gold fish with other tiny humans, or keep them to themselves, children who tended to share reported being happier than those who didn’t.
Give with intention
However, there’s a catch. It matters how you give, not just that you give. In a 2012 paper published on the New York Times, PHD and Associate Professor Elizabeth Dunn found that knowing where your gift was going, and what use it had, was much more beneficial to your happiness than just randomly giving. As well, giving in hopes of receiving something in return… not as beneficial to our happiness than giving just because.
Giving also fosters feelings of compassion, which PHD and Professor of Psychology David De Steno describes as ‘the emotion we feel when we want to give care to others’. In short, it’s knowing someone else has a need, and that we can help fulfil that need.
So – if you’re feeling blue and your daily dose of Grumpy Cat hasn’t worked, go do good unto others. Science guarantees it will increase your happiness… STAT!
2. Reframe your job
Put your hand up if you’ve ever just HATED your job. I mean despised the whole thing, wanted to see everyone and everything burn down. Would sooner shoot yourself in the knee than have to see your boss, your office, or wear your uniform.
Unless you have recently won the lotto, chances are you have to work. And depending on what you do, you will have to work some 8-12 hours a day, for some 45-50 years. So, you know… if you don’t like your work, chances are your happiness might be affected.
A recent survey on job satisfaction in the UK has shown that close to half of the UK population wanted to find a new job in 2020. Which begs the question: are we all just collectively unlucky on the job front, or do we just need to learn to love what we do, and do what we love?
Could you make your job more… you?
It’s this last thought that’s at the basis of Professor Amy Wrzesniewski‘s job crafting theory. What she suggests is something I bet many of you have inadvertently done (I know I have!); and that is: slightly change your job so that it’s better suited to you.
This goes both for the actual job itself, and your approach to it. By bringing your natural skills to a task you tend to enjoy the task more, and be better at it. For example, if you are a language teacher who is musically inclined, you can teach language with songs; or if you are a data-driven mental health coach like myself, you can bring research to your counselling ) By changing your approach to it – for example, by seeing yourself as the ultimate creator of organisation and sanification, as opposed to just a cleaner, you can give meaning to a task others might find boring or meaningless.
And because we spend a third of our adult life working (sigh!) a lot of our self worth, and ultimately happiness is linked to our career. So reframe your job, or how you do it; don’t think of yourself as a mere McDonald’s burger flipper, but as the saviour of the Sunday morning hangover. Don’t think of yourself as just a truck driver: reframe that to the delivery god of Asos goods. And bring your own skills and personality to your work. If you’re a keen baker but are stuck in finance, set up a Wednesday bake off, and feed everyone!
3. Seek other humans
I can sense introverts recoiling at the idea that other people might make them happy, but hear me out.
A plethora of studies from all over the world hails social connections as just as important, if not more important, than diet and exercise for our overall well-being.
OK, but why?
Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Utah has an idea: when we are connected and feel responsible for other people, we increase our sense of purpose and meaning. This, in turn, helps us take better care of ourselves.
Are friends and strangers the same?
But does this apply to our friends and loved ones, or is any interaction with any other human meaningful too? As it turns out, any contact to a fellow human is a valid contact. This survey on emergency room visits found that often, the patients that would come in for a check-up lived alone, and used their ER visits as a chance for a chat. When the researcher began calling the patients to check in on them, they went to the ER less and reported better overall health.
This other cool study on connecting with strangers on trains and buses found that people who have little chats here and there with fellow commuters reported feeling happier at the end of their journey than those who hadn’t. The kicker? Participants collectively thought they would feel happier being silent, and minding their own business.
In conclusion, whether you connect with a friend, family member, or perfect stranger on a bus, making human connections helps your overall wellbeing, and can significantly help you increase your happiness!