Do you want to be happier? That's a pretty silly question--who doesn't want more happiness? Fortunately, there are simple things we can all do to raise our happiness quotient that are actually supported by scientific research. And even though brain scans show that the happiest person on earth is Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard, you can do each of these things every day. No need to travel to a remote mountaintop, sit in meditation for hours, or even quit your day job.
UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, Psychology Today blogger and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, has studied many of the ways we can gently tweak our attitudes, outlooks, and behaviors to bring more happiness into our lives. Here are some of his top recommendations:
1. Think about things you're grateful for.
There's plenty of scientific evidence to support the notion that being grateful makes us happier. As Korb notes, it increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with our reward centers and also the pleasurable effects of taking drugs. In other words, feeling grateful gives you a natural high. Not only that, feelings of gratitude increase your serotonin levels, which is what antidepressants do. No wonder gratitude is such a mood booster. And, Korb says, even if you're feeling very down and can't come up with a single thing you're grateful for, the mere act of searching will give you some of these effects by leading you to focus on the good aspects of your life.
My simple approach to daily gratitude is to mentally list three things I'm grateful for before getting out of bed in the morning. That helps set me up for a better mood throughout the day. But anytime is a good time for gratitude.
2. Think about things you've done well.
Our brains are hard-wired to pay more attention to negative rather than positive information, and this applies at least as much to our evaluation of ourselves as it does to anything else. But focusing on the things we're proud of has many brain benefits. For one thing, pride is a powerful brain-stimulating emotion, and focusing on happy memories (assuming your accomplishments made you happy) is another way to release serotonin in your brain. And, Korb notes, "Several studies have shown that reflecting on your positive qualities is a type of self-affirmation that actually strengthens your abilities to change bad habits." So focusing on what you've done right might actually help you accomplish more good stuff in the future.
3. Make a decision or set an intention.
Making a decision, choosing a goal, or setting an intention all have a positive effect on the brain, decreasing stress and anxiety and increasing problem-solving ability, according to Korb. But--this will be difficult for some people (including me)--your brain will benefit most if you make a good-enough decision sooner, rather than wait for the most complete information in order to make the best possible decision.
Research suggests that the ability to make decisions quickly (and then make them right after the fact, if need be) is one of the ways entrepreneurs' brains differ from everyone else's. According to Korb, making a good-enough decision activates a part of the prefrontal cortex that makes you feel more in control. And choosing to do something you want to do will not only make you happier. Research shows that the mere act of having chosen will make you enjoy whatever you choose more. In other words, choose what you love and you'll love what you choose.