Updated: Aug 25
Are there simple, quick, and easy-to-learn habits that you can incorporate into your life to make yourself meaningfully happier? The ClearerThinking.org team recently explored this question by means of a longitudinal study with 361 participants. Our research led to the creation of Building Happiness Habits, a tool for improving daily mood with minimal effort. (If you've come here from the tool itself, welcome!)
In this post, we’ll go over the details of our study, what we found out, and, most importantly, how you can apply these techniques in your own life!
What we did We explored four different techniques that we thought could boost happiness. Each technique was intended to be quick and easy to apply multiple times per day:
Mindful technique: briefly paying full attention to the present moment by focusing on sights, sounds, smells, and sensations as they happen, and guiding your mind gently back to these sensory perceptions when it wanders. (70 participants assigned.)
Gratitude technique: remembering something you are grateful for in your life in detail for a few moments. (65 participants assigned.)
Anticipation technique: pondering an upcoming event that gives you a sense of excitement or joy, and taking some time to savor that feeling. (71 participants assigned.)
Breathing technique: taking two deep breaths, filling up the belly and chest, and focusing on the sensations of the breath and feelings of relaxation. (75 participants assigned.)
These four different techniques have a few things in common:
They can be learned quickly — there’s no need for long, difficult training in order to be able to perform them.
They’re simple to apply — there’s just one main thing to do, not a bunch of steps.
They don’t take much time — it would only take a few minutes per day for someone to practice these techniques.
There’s some reason to think they’ll work — both scientific evidence and common-sense reasoning suggest that these four techniques could actually raise people’s happiness levels.
In short: these four techniques are all simple potential ways to boost happiness which can easily be integrated into people’s lives! But how well do they actually work?
To answer this question, we recruited people to take part in a three-day research study. The goal was to create simple “happiness habits” that people could automatically do without putting too much thought or effort into remembering to do them, and without being disruptive. To achieve this, we asked the participants to link a happiness habit to an already-existing environmental trigger in their life which occurs often, but not too often. The triggers we suggested were:
Starting to walk
Starting to sit down
Passing through a doorway
Seeing yourself in a mirror
Taking the first bite of food
Finishing checking social media
Taking the first sip of any drink
After each participant chose one trigger, we randomized them to one of the four happiness habits, or a fifth, control habit:
Just count technique: keeping count of the number of times the trigger occurred each day. (80 participants assigned.)
Of course, we didn’t tell participants that this was the control technique! In order to try to mask its true identity, we gave a fake (but somewhat plausible) explanation of why this technique might possibly boost happiness. We included detailed explanations for the four happiness habits we tested as well.
Using the just count technique as a control had a specific benefit. It’s possible that some people could find remembering what to do after encountering the trigger as stressful. Or, perhaps counting the triggers could take someone’s mind off their worries, which in turn would boost happiness. Using the just count technique as a control would make sure that these effects were filtered out, so that any differences in happiness we saw at the end of the study were due to the particular happiness habit that was assigned.
Having a control group also helped to account for people’s happiness reverting to the mean over time. It’s possible that people chose to sign up for the happiness study because they were feeling particularly down at the time. If this were the case, they would have gotten better on their own over time just because they were feeling below their baseline when they signed up. If we didn’t have a control group, we wouldn’t have been able to account for this.
A control group can also help eliminate reporting bias (people saying they are happier because they think that’s what we want to hear) and selective noticing (reporting improvements just because they’re thinking about happiness more, since that’s the topic of the study), since these biases would be similar across all groups.
After randomizing the participants to control or a happiness habit, we then introduced them to a guided training program (which you can revisit here) that made sure they understood their assigned technique, and drilled them in using the technique each time they encountered the trigger, through both written exercises and by having them practice in their imagination. Our goals was to make the association between the trigger and doing the technique automatic. We wanted the participants to engage in the habit with as little effort as possible the moment the trigger occurred.
To help reinforce the association between the habit and the trigger, participants received reminder e-mails for three days. They also were sent a happiness survey which asked them to rate six aspects of their mood for each day on a seven-point scale ranging from -3 (where they completely didn’t experience that aspect) to +3 (where they experienced that aspect of mood a lot):
How badly they felt
How down, depressed or hopeless they felt
How good they felt
How anxious or worried they were
How happy they were
How unhappy they were
These six aspects were combined into a single overall happiness score for each day. We also asked a lot of other questions during and at the end of the study. Some of these questions were qualitative (e.g., "What could you do to use the technique more effectively?") and some were quantitative (e.g., "How many times did you encounter the trigger?", "How much happier do you think using the technique made you?"). The aim of asking the qualitative questions was to get some insight into the participants' struggles as well as successes with the technique. The quantitative questions helped us look into some factors that we thought may help explain why the techniques worked or didn't work.
What we found out
Our main finding was that two of the four techniques appeared to boost total happiness reliably (as measured by the six questions mentioned above ) over the control condition. These seemingly effective interventions are the mindful technique and the gratitude technique.
You can see the effects on total happiness of all the interventions in the figure. The bars are 95% confidence intervals, and the values at the top are p-values.
Some interesting details:
These two techniques boosted happiness to a roughly equal extent, although the gratitude technique may have boosted happiness by a tad more.
The gratitude technique seemed to achieve its results by boosting positive emotions a little more than the mindful technique; they performed equally when it came to mitigating negative emotions.
The mindfulness technique boosted users' overall average happiness score by 2.1 points, while the gratitude technique boosted it by 2.6 points out of a total possible happiness score of 18.
Another way to think of these effect sizes: if the total happiness boost were to affect just one of the three positive items that made up the happiness score, while leaving the other two unchanged, it would boost a participant’s response for that score from “neither disagree nor agree” to “agree”. Alternatively, the same magnitude of change would move one of the three negative items from “disagree” to “neither disagree nor agree”.
This may seem like a modest effect, which it is! However, these interventions don’t require much effort, so it’s a pretty easy way to boost happiness a bit. Low effort + small happiness boost = potentially worthwhile!
In reality, the effects of these interventions were spread across more than one of the six mood measures we used, and this example is just to give some perspective on the magnitude of the effect.
Interestingly, when participants rated how happy they thought the techniques made them, all four happiness habits outperformed the control “just count” technique, suggesting that there’s a little bit of a discrepancy between participants' evaluation of the overall effectiveness of the technique and the feelings we measured that went into our happiness score.
People were on the whole fairly successful at linking their happiness habit to their trigger. People reported that they engaged in their habit around 70-80% of the time they encountered the trigger.
The study also revealed a couple of surprising results:
We didn’t see a strong dose-response effect; the amount of times people did the happiness habit wasn’t correlated with the size of the effect.
We expected the breathing technique to have an effect on measures of anxiety, since deep breathing is a common anti-stress technique. Strangely, its effect on anxiety was statistically indistinguishable from the control's. We did, however, notice some improvements when it came to feelings of depression and unhappiness in people using this technique, even though it didn't seem especially effective overall.
How you can put this to use in your own life
If you’d like to bring some more happiness into your own life, here’s a step-by-step guide for putting together your own happiness habit:
Step 1: Decide which habit you’d like to try out of the two we found to work best (gratitude or mindfulness). While the gratitude technique perhaps worked slightly better on average to boost happiness than the mindful technique, that doesn’t mean it will be the more effective technique for you! Feel free to try one for a few days, and switch if it doesn’t work.
Step 2: Choose a trigger in your environment. You can choose a trigger from the list we gave above, or try your own! It’s important to tie your happiness habit to a trigger that occurs often, but not too often. In the experiments we ran, people did the technique around 20 times per day on average. So you may want to aim for something you encounter around this many times to start. If the trigger occurs too often or too rarely, feel free to adjust. If it happens too rarely, you’ll barely be able to use the technique. But if it occurs too often, it may be hard to form a happiness habit since you may have trouble doing the technique reliably.
Step 3: Imagine yourself encountering the trigger and mentally rehearse the happiness habit you've chosen a few times each morning for the first few days. Practicing doing the habit a few times each morning when you first start out will help you remember to do the habit when you encounter your trigger.
Step 4: Perform your happiness habit every single time you encounter the trigger! It’s important to be consistent, at least for the first couple of days, since consistency will build the habit!
Step 5: Feel free to switch things up as time goes on! Our study only ran for three days, so we don’t know how long these habits may be useful. If things start to feel stale, or some part of the process doesn’t work for you, try switching things up! It’s important to give your habit some time to settle in, though, so try not to change things for the first few days in order to give the habit a fair shake.
Some things to watch out for
We gathered feedback from participants and noticed a few patterns concerning some difficulties and challenges they faced when trying to implement a happiness habit. Here are some tidbits we gleaned from the participants’ feedback that may help you troubleshoot your happiness habit:
Make sure the trigger you choose is clear and salient. If it’s too vague, you won’t know when it’s occurring, and if it’s too subtle, you won’t notice it. So, instead of choosing a trigger like “when I use social media,” it should be more specific: “as soon as I close my Facebook session”.
If you feel annoyed when you encounter the trigger, it’s likely that you chose one that’s too frequent (or that requires disrupting what you’re doing), and it may be useful to change your trigger.
Busy times and new environments can get in the way of noticing the trigger. Try to choose a trigger that doesn’t occur often when you need to concentrate ( “when I change tools while performing brain surgery” isn’t a great trigger!). And if you’re planning on going on a trip or your life is undergoing a major change, you may want to hold off on starting a happiness habit until things have started to normalize.
People who already practiced mindfulness or gratitude found adding the corresponding happiness habit to their routine didn’t add much, so it may be best to choose a technique you’re not already using.
People who said that they were pretty happy already reported they didn’t notice as much of an effect. So, this approach may give the biggest bang for the buck if you haven’t been feel all that happy.
Finally, some people who reported that they were dealing with major negative life events or were struggling with a mental health issue stated that these techniques didn’t have much of an impact. So, while these techniques may boost happiness a bit, they may not be too useful in coping with larger, more acute challenges. This makes sense since the techniques are really designed to add bonus happiness to your life, not to solve underlying problems.
The take-home, and more info
By now, you should be all set to go out and try forming a happiness habit for yourself. With very little effort, you can potentially become a bit happier! We hope these new habits serve you well. We’re also in the process of putting together a tool on ClearerThinking.org to help you instill the mindful and gratitude habits. Be on the lookout for it!
More generally, if you're feeling unhappy in your life or have been suffering from depression or low moods, we recommend trying out the UpLift app, which is made by our sister organization.
If you want to try or improve mindfulness techniques, you also might be interested on checking our review of Sam Harris's meditation app (Waking Up).