Ten Simple and Unexpected Ways to Boost Happiness

What are some small ways to boost happiness in everyday life? originally appeared on Quorathe knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Raj Raghunathan, Professor of marketing and happiness expert at UT Austin, on Quora:

I once surveyed my students to make a list of three small things that make them feel happy after watching this video. Here’s the Top Ten list from that survey:

Note that not all of them will work equally well for you, so you need to figure out which ones work best:

1. Engage in vigorous physical activity.

The next time you need a mood-boost, try this out: go for a long run or play a game of basketball. Now, what counts as a long run for you may be a mere walk in the park for me (it’s more likely to be the reverse), but the point is that the activity needs to be vigorous enough get your heart pumping and your mind distracted from your negative ruminations. If you are like most people, you are unlikely to want to get off your butt if you are feeling down. But, as the Nike slogan says, “Just Do It!” Here’s a fact to get you going: you are guaranteed to feel better after a workout than you felt before it.

2. Hang out with friends.

When we feel down, we typically don’t want to interact with others. This is partly because we don’t want others to see our negative side, but it’s mostly because we don’t think that hanging out with others is really going to help us feel better. I’m not sure where this intuition comes from, but I can tell you that it is wrong: our mood reliably improves after we socialize, especially if the people with whom we socialize are happy and likeable. Similar to how it’s important to overcome the reluctance to exercise, it’s important to overcome the pessimism we feel about the effectiveness of socializing when feeling down.

If you are wondering where and with whom to socialize, just call one of the “favorites” on your smart phone and make a plan to meet. Tell them about what is troubling you to get you started–even a short chat with a close-friend can significantly improve your mood.

3. Consume a moderate amount of alcohol.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be encouraging people to drink, but what to do? It turns out that when we desperately need a happiness quick-fix, consuming a moderate amount of alcohol can be effective. The key here is to consume just enough to feel a little relaxed. The very process by which alcohol lowers inhibitions can also lower the tendency to worry. In other words, alcohol can temporarily take your mind off things that are causing you to feel negative and thus, can be useful in situations in which our mind is on a “negativity overdrive.” Needless to say, it is important to consume only a moderate amount of alcohol. If you are one of those who can’t stop after two, don’t try this at home or elsewhere!

4. Dress to kill.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, human beings are highly social creatures, which means that we worry a lot about what others think of us. When we believe that others view us positively, we feel good, and when we believe that they view us negatively, we feel bad. So, one way to make yourself feel good is to wear your best clothes and perfume (or cologne, as the case may be) and venture out to your local park or mall. We you look and smell good, or think that you do, you are likely to believe that others view you positively and this will make you feel good.

5. Revisit old (and positive) memories.

Reliving the “good old times” can be a surprisingly effective mood-booster. I say “surprising” because many of us, especially the young among us, rarely engage in reliving fond memories. Curiously, it seems that the more our life has become virtual, the less we are likely to revisit the past. My parents, for example, regularly spend time recalling pleasant past memories, and also routinely pore over the “family album” to relive past memories. Our existence in the virtual world, e.g., on social media websites, should, if anything, allow us to revisit our past even more effectively, given that many of our cherished memories and experiences are merely a “click away”.

A note of caution, however, if you are looking to the Internet to revisit the past: stay away from those who make you feel inferior. That is, stay away from people who are into the game of “keeping up with the joneses”–you know, the ones who frequently post pictures from their vacation in Spain, or engage in name-dropping. Findings show that such “friends” bring you down.

6. Watch a funny or touching video.

Some people prefer funny videos and others prefer heart-warming ones. Regardless, findings show is that even a short exposure to a positive video can significantly boost happiness. (There’s a reason why one of the most popular ways to manipulate mood in experiments is to have participants watch a video.) Here are links to two funny and two touching videos. (Note: the last one is relatively long, at about 15 minutes, but it is well worth it!)

Funny videos:

Dog playing piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…

The Duck Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…

Heart-warming videos:

Love Language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…

Validation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=…

7. Talk to an older relative.

It’s a bit of a pity that, in many “new” cultures (like the US), the elderly aren’t as respected as they are older cultures (like China or India). Think about it: as you grow older, you get physically weak and mentally less nimble. The one saving grace could have been that you gain in respect. Without it, growing old seems to have no positives. No wonder the US is so “youth crazy”!

As findings on hyperopia show, the elderly do deserve our respect because they have “been there, done that.” They thus have many valuable lessons to share. In particular, no one can put things in perspective like the elderly can. Talking to them will help you discern the important from the merely urgent and will also help you not sweat the small stuff.

8. Tick something off your “to do” list.

Have you ever written down something on your things to do list just so that you can have the pleasure of scratching it out? Well, turns out you are not alone. Findings show that people derive an “efficacy boost” by accomplishing goals and this can, in turn, make them feel good. If you don’t have a things to do list or can’t think of something to write on it to scratch off, don’t worry. Just do something simple and easy, like depositing a check or washing a cup, and you’ll be on your way to feeling good.

9. Do a small act of kindness.

Perhaps the most powerful determinant of how we feel is the story we tell ourselves about who we are. The more we believe that we are efficacious and successful, the better we feel–which is why tip #8 (ticking something off your list) works. Another story you can tell yourself is that a large-hearted, generous person. One way to convince yourself of this story is to act like a large-hearted and generous person. This doesn’t mean that you break your bank to serve someone; all you need to do is to perform a small act of kindness such as, rescuing a kitten from a tree, or giving left-over food to a homeless person. Even merely smiling or saying “good morning!” to someone can pick your mood up.

10. Venture into nature.

Most urbanites don’t recognize it, but human beings are biophiles, that is, we love being out in nature. I take my MBA students on a two day retreat each year to a place out in the boonies. We hike up a hill and swim in the river and do various other “nature-oriented” things. Before going on the trip, most of my students are skeptical that being out in nature is going to do anything good, but many come away making a pledge that they will get out more in nature in the future. (I’m not sure if they actually make good on their pledge, but the pledge is good enough for me.) Turns out you don’t need to go on a two day retreat to reap the benefits of being out in nature: even a short hike or a picnic in a park can help you feel good.

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