Are you finding it harder to be happy? If so, you're not alone.
A recent Gallup poll shows that only 38% of Americans report feeling satisfied with their lives – that’s a drop from 48% before the pandemic. As we face the ongoing impact of the pandemic and political unrest, the pursuit of happiness seems increasingly challenging.
So, what can you do to feel happier?
We ran a longitudinal study with 361 participants, to find out which simple daily habits can help you feel more happiness. We chose to test a mix of popular techniques that have at least some existing scientific evidence, and that are also simple and quick to perform. Then we put them to the test!
The techniques we chose were:
Mindfulness: 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.
Gratitude: remembering something you are grateful for in your life in detail for a few moments.
Anticipation: pondering an upcoming event that gives you a sense of excitement or joy, and taking some time to savor that feeling.
Breathing: taking two deep breaths, filling up the belly and chest, and focusing on the sensations of the breath and feelings of relaxation
How the study worked: We asked each of the 281 participants to do just one of the above techniques many times a day. To help facilitate this, we asked them to pick an object in their environment (e.g., a mirror) and use that as a trigger to remember to do the technique.
We also ran a control group with an additional 80 people in it, who performed the ‘Just Count Technique’. This technique involved simply counting how many times they saw the trigger object in their environment, rather than performing a happiness-boosting technique.
We found that two techniques outperformed the control group significantly: the gratitude technique and the mindfulness technique. Participants who practiced these techniques reported greater happiness than the control group over the 3 days of the study. The anticipation and breathing techniques, on the other hand, didn't do statistically significantly better than the control.
Here are the results. The bars are 95% confidence intervals, and the values at the top are p-values (showing how likely it is that we would see the observed difference if there were no true difference between the technique and the control).
As you can see, the gratitude and the mindfulness techniques were close in effect size and outperformed the others. They boosted people’s happiness by an average of 2.6 and 2.1 points respectively (when people scored their happiness out of 18). This is a relatively modest effect, but on the other hand, the effort required to each technique is also quite low.
Low effort/time commitment + modest happiness boost = potentially worthwhile!
Want to test these techniques for yourself? Our "Build Happiness Habits" tool will walk you through a step-by-step process to choose your happiness technique, pick a "trigger activity" and perform the technique you've chosen.
The tool also allows you to set email reminders to practice your technique and increase the odds of building a habit that lasts.
If you're interested in the details of this research, or want to download the cleaned, anonymized data we analyzed, you can see the full study by clicking here.
Please note: this tool is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are struggling with mental health issues or believe that you may need professional assistance, please seek help from a qualified healthcare provider.
We hope these simple and research-backed techniques can help you have more happy moments in your day-to-day life. As Annie Dillard beautifully reminds us:
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."
The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard