Science knows the secret to happiness — and it’s a lot more simple than you’d think.
That, at least, was the message of a recent New York article that summarized the scientific consensus on what makes humans happy. And, well: turns out that you could probably guess the answers. Beyond having your basic needs met, money, as your mom probably could have told you, does not buy happiness — though it can buy free time to do what you want, which does make you happier. Gratitude is good. Social connection is important. Doing things for others makes us feel better about ourselves.
This is all well and good for the long term. Sure, we all plan to incorporate more family time into our days, take up a hobby, and give back. But when you’re having a crappy day, it’s not enough to plan for the future — you want to know how can the research on happiness can make your day better now.
You’re in luck. Here are five ways you can turn your day around right now. That’s right: we mean right now.
We get it: you’re busy. So busy, in fact, that while it may be great to go to the spa, go for a run, or even take a twenty-minute snooze, you hardly have time to run to the bathroom. But there is still one thing you can do to bring some calming vibes into a busy day: breathe.
Harvard Medical School recommends a simple exercise to practice deep breathing. Sitting or lying down, simply practice breathing from — as any high school music teacher will tell you — the diaphragm. Allow your lower belly and chest to rise as you fill your lungs with air. If you’re breathing deeply, your stomach will expand outwards. You can practice this for a few minutes right now, closing your eyes and breathing deeply to feel more relaxed and refreshed.
C’mon — you definitely have time to breathe. You’re doing it anyway!
2) Do something nice
Nice guys do, in fact, finish last — because the mean guys die early. That’s right: research has found that caring for others actually helps people live longer. Acts of kindness can also improve our happiness in the short term, giving what’s called a “helper’s high.”
So if your day is less than stellar, take a few minutes to help number one by helping someone else. Your random act of kindness could be tiny, like stopping to chat with a neighbor, making sure to leave your spouse a full tank of gas, or even (yup, we said it) calling your mother (we know you miss her too).
3) Practice gratitude
If you’ve ever sat at a Thanksgiving table as you go around and say what you’re each grateful for out loud, you may have felt a bit, well, awkward. But we bet you also developed a serious case of the warm and fuzzies as you realized how much there really is to be grateful for in life.
Science backs this intuition up. Research has consistently found that practicing gratitude makes us happier and healthier. In one study, participants who wrote a sentence about what they were grateful for each day not only reported increased happiness than participants who wrote about their annoyances — they also exercised more and reported fewer visits to the doctor.
Turn your day around by taking a few minutes to list what you’re grateful for today. Whether it’s your health, your family, your dog, or the easy commute to work this morning, let it out. Even better? Write a thank-you or appreciation note to someone in your life, and send or deliver it in person today. While the purists would argue this should be handwritten, in a pinch we think a Facebook message works just fine.
4) Turn off your phone
You know the lingering exhaustion that lurks after yet another insomniac evening scrolling through feeds of your friends’ fabulous lives? Turns out that malaise isn’t just in your head: too much screen time really can make us depressed, according to recent research about teenagers’ smartphone use.
From the expectation of constant availability to stress about current events and self-comparison (FOMO is real), being plugged in can be exhausting. While the dream would be to unplug for the day — or heck, even the whole weekend — that may not be realistic, at least in daily life.
But we can choose to cultivate better phone habits overall. For example, we can turn our phones off to sleep, turn on “do not disturb” mode or keep them away from the bed. We can actually turn them off in the movies or at public events, and not just pretend to silence them. We can have a strict no-phones rule when having conversations or eating dinner with other people. And we can, for the love of all that is holy, quit bringing the phone with us into the bathroom. There are some things that just don’t have to go into your Snapchat story.
Want to boost your day now? Try leaving the phone behind and going for a simple walk around the block. Notice things: how do the trees look? Any nice smells coming from the bakery? At an even smaller scale, try not reaching for your phone when you have a minute of downtime, in an elevator or waiting in line, for example. Take that time, instead, to be present in your environment (and hey, why not try a moment of gratitude?). The real world, it turns out, is pretty interesting, too.
5) Go the eff to sleep
In the classic book Go the F**ck to Sleep, that particular command is directed at children. But it’s pretty good advice all around. Not getting enough sleep turns humans into cranky, miserable seamonsters. It’s not just your partner telling you this because they find it unbearable to be around you when you’re tired (guilty): science agrees, too.
Lack of sleep can lower your cognitive abilities, make you a terrible driver, lessen your immunity, have an all-around negative effect on your mental health, and to conclude, make you feel generally miserable. Getting enough sleep, on the other hand, improves your memory, sharpens your attention, improves your metabolism, and makes you feel a whole lot better about life.
These benefits count for naps, too. A daytime nap can help you relax, improve your mood, and improve your cognition.
So what are you waiting for? A crappy day is the perfect invitation to take a nap. Aim for twenty to thirty minutes around mid-afternoon for maximum benefits. And if if it’s already night and you’re doing work that really can wait until tomorrow, what are you waiting for? Hit the hay now, and we promise, tomorrow will be much better.
And hey, if you find time for a little “roll in the hay” before you hit it, so much the better for your happiness.
Happiness Starts Now
Happiness may seem like a big picture thing, but in reality, it’s all in the details. We all tell ourselves that we’ll be happy “when…” When we get that promotion. When we find the perfect partner. When we have a baby. When we buy a house.
The truth is, that “when” never comes. Even lottery winners, as it turns out, aren’t all that much happier than the rest of us average shmoes. So while turning today around may seem like small fish compared to a lifetime of happiness, in reality, making small changes now is the best way you can cultivate real joy.