We’re constantly bombarded with messages about what makes for a good life. Advertisers tell us it comes from owning and consuming their products. The media associate it with wealth, beauty or fame. And politicians claim that nothing matters more than growing the economy. But do any of these things really bring lasting happiness?
For thousands of years, people have looked to philosophy, religion and grandmotherly wisdom for answers to such questions. But in recent decades this ancient wisdom has been tested by scientific research.
Scientists have found that although our genes and circumstances matter, a huge proportion of the variations in happiness between us come from our choices and activities. So although we may not be able to change our inherited characteristics or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we still have the power to change how happy we are – by the way we approach our lives.
Action for Happiness has identified 10 keys to happier living, based on an extensive review of the latest research about what really helps people flourish. These are not “10 commandments”, because each of us is unique and what works for one of us may not for someone else. They are simply 10 areas that tend to make a big difference to people’s happiness – and crucially they are all areas that are within our control.
1. Do things for others
Caring about others is fundamental to our happiness. Helping other people is not only good for them; it’s good for us too. It makes us happier and can help to improve our health. Giving also creates stronger connections between people and helps to build a happier society for everyone. It’s not all about money – we can also give our time, ideas and energy. So if you want to feel good, do good.
- Do three extra acts of kindness today. Offer to help, give away your change, pay a compliment, or make someone smile.
- Reach out to help someone who’s struggling. Give them a call or offer your support. Let them know you care.
2. Connect with people
Our relationships with other people are the most important thing for our happiness. People with strong relationships are happier, healthier and live longer. Our close relationships with family and friends provide love, meaning, support and increase our feelings of self-worth. Our broader social networks bring a sense of belonging. So it’s vital that we take action to strengthen our relationships and make new connections.
- Make more time for the people who matter. Chat with a loved one or friend, call your parents or play with the kids.
- Make three extra connections today. Stop to chat in the shop, wave at a neighbour, learn the name of someone new.
3. Take care of your body
Our body and mind are connected. Being active makes us happier as well as healthier. It instantly improves our mood and can even lift us out of depression. We don’t all have to run marathons – there are simple things we can do to be more active each day. We can also boost our wellbeing by spending time outdoors, eating healthily, unplugging from technology and getting enough sleep.
- Be more active today. Get off the bus a stop early, take the stairs, turn off the TV, go for a walk – anything that gets you moving.
- Eat nutritious food, drink more water, catch up on sleep. Notice which healthy actions lift your mood and do more of them.
4. Notice the world around you
Have you ever felt there must be more to life? Good news – there is. And it’s right here in front of us. We just need to stop and take notice. Learning to be more mindful and aware does wonders for our wellbeing, whether it’s on our walk to work, in the way we eat or in our relationships. It helps us get in tune with our feelings and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
- Give yourself a bit of head space. At least once a day, stop and take five minutes to just breathe and be in the moment.
- Notice and appreciate good things around you every day, big or small. Trees, birdsong, the smell of coffee, laughter perhaps?
5. Keep learning
Learning affects our wellbeing in lots of positive ways. It exposes us to new ideas and helps us stay curious and engaged. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and helps boost our self-confidence and resilience. There are many ways to learn new things throughout our lives, not just through formal qualifications. We can share a skill with friends, join a club, learn to sing, play a new sport and so much more.
- Do something for the first time today. Sample sushi, try a new route, read a different newspaper or visit a local place of interest.
- Learn a new skill, however small. A first aid technique or a new feature on your phone, perhaps. Cook a new meal or use a new word.
6. Have goals to look forward to
Feeling good about the future is really important for our happiness. We all need goals to motivate us and these have to be challenging enough to excite us, but also achievable. If we try to attempt the impossible, this creates unnecessary stress. Choosing meaningful but realistic goals gives our lives direction and brings a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when we achieve them.
- Take the first step. Think of a goal you’re aiming for and do one thing to get started. Make a call, fill in that form, tell others.
- Share your dreams. Tell three people about an aspiration that is really important to you this year and listen to theirs too.
7. Find ways to bounce back
All of us have times of stress, loss, failure or trauma in our lives. How we respond to these events has a big impact on our wellbeing. We often cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react to what happens. In practice it’s not always easy, but one of the most exciting findings from recent research is that resilience, like many other life skills, can be learned.
- Ask for help today. Confide in a friend, talk to an expert, reach out to a colleague, ask a neighbour to lend a hand.
- When something is troubling you, do something you really enjoy. Shift your mood and bring a new perspective on the problem.
8. Take a positive approach
Positive emotions – like joy, gratitude, contentment, inspiration and pride – don’t just feel good when we experience them. They also help us perform better, broaden our perception, increase our resilience and improve our physical health. So although we need to be realistic about life’s ups and downs, it helps to focus on the good aspects of any situation – the glass half full rather than the glass half empty.
- Do something that you know will make you feel good. Listen to music, watch something funny, get outside or call an old friend.
- Try to smile and say something positive or constructive every time you walk into a room. Notice the reaction you get.
9. Be comfortable with who you are
Nobody’s perfect. But so often we compare a negative view of ourselves with an unrealistic view of other people. Dwelling on our flaws – what we’re not rather than what we’ve got – makes it much harder to be happy. Learning to accept ourselves, warts and all, and being kinder to ourselves when things go wrong increases our enjoyment of life, our resilience and our wellbeing. It also helps us accept others as they are.
- Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what they think your real strengths are. Try to make more use of these.
- Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.
10. Be part of something bigger
People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression. But where do we find meaning and purpose? It might come from doing a job that makes a difference, our religious or spiritual beliefs, or our family. The answers vary for each of us but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves.
- Feel part of something bigger. Spend time with children, visit an inspiring location, gaze at the stars or join a club.
- Be more charitable. Give others your time, offer to help neighbours or friends, consider giving blood or volunteering.