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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
6 Jan 2024


NextImg:8 Science-Backed Tips to Increase Your Happiness

We all have the power to be happier, regardless of our individual circumstances or the stage of life we’re in, starting now.

That’s the key takeaway from the growing body of research on the subject—one studied by ancient philosophers to today’s scientists. It starts with making small changes in behavior and mindset that, with practice and consistency, build up to powerful results over time. Here are eight science-backed ways anyone can boost his or her mood and promote long-term satisfaction.

1. Invest time and energy in your relationships.

The world’s longest-running study on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has followed the same group of 724 men—and now more than 1,300 of their descendants over three generations—for 85 years and counting, taking health measurements and asking detailed questions about their lives at regular intervals. According to its findings, the number one key to happiness is good relationships.

“If you’re going to make that one choice, that single decision that could best ensure your own health and happiness, science tells us that your choice should be to cultivate warm relationships,” write Dr. Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, the current director and associate director of the study, in their book “The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.”

The authors emphasize the importance of practicing “social fitness,” regularly assessing the health of our relationships and taking care of them over time. “Our social life is a living system. And it needs exercise,” they write.

Start by taking stock of your current close relationships: Think about how each relationship makes you feel, how often you connect, and the kinds of support they give you (or don’t). Identify which relationships you’d like to improve. Then get to work. Here are a few tips from “The Good Life” to help.

(ingwervanille/Moment/Getty Images)
(ingwervanille/Moment/Getty Images)

Make time: “Think for a moment about a relationship you have with a person you cherish but feel like you don’t see nearly enough,” the authors write. “Now think about how often you see that person. Every day? Once a month? Once a year?” Make the intentional effort to spend more time on important connections. See if you can dedicate certain days of the week or month to certain people, or change your daily schedule to fit in a coffee or walk with a loved one. It can start small: Take a moment to reach out with a text, email, or phone call to reconnect.

Be curious: Make it a point to engage your curiosity in your next conversation, whether you’re talking with an important person in your life or chatting up a complete stranger (the latter has been proven, by the way, to give us small boosts of well-being—as much as we may avoid it). Cultivating “real, deep curiosity about what others are experiencing” is a powerful tool for opening conversation, fostering connection, and deepening relationships, the authors say. “Genuine curiosity invites people to share more of themselves with us, and this in turn helps us understand them.” Ask questions, and really listen to the answers. Then—a crucial step—communicate your new understanding of them, giving the life-affirming, bond-strengthening gift of feeling seen.

Tell someone what they mean to you: The authors leave readers with a suggestion for a simple but powerful exercise: “Think about someone, just one person, who is important to you. … Think about what they mean to you, what they have done for you in your life. Where would you be without them? Who would you be? Now think about what you would thank them for if you thought you would never see them again. And at this moment—right now—turn to them. Call them. Tell them.”

Here’s an idea: Turn your front porch into a welcome mat

You might not think of a front porch as having the potential to be the most social place in your home. But back in the day, it was a place where people would sit and relax and enjoy the weather after a day at work, or simply sip morning coffee as the day began, inviting connection with neighbors walking by. Joanna Taft, who runs the Harrison Center for the Arts in Indianapolis, Indiana, and hosts regular gatherings on her own porch with food and drink, says it’s time to bring back that old-fashioned hospitality.

(Maskot/Getty Images)
(Maskot/Getty Images)

“We’ve all lost that neighborliness. People are inside with air conditioning, TV, laptops. We have privacy fences and attached garages. We need to connect with our neighbors,” she said. Several years ago, Ms. Taft started inviting people to hang out on her front porch. The trend soon took off in her neighborhood. In 2016, alongside a partnership with the Indianapolis 500, the Harrison Center launched a “Porch Party” movement that quickly spread through the state.

Want to host your own porch party? It doesn’t take much as far as decorating is concerned. “Make it hospitable,” said Ms. Taft. “Have attractive pillows and consider plants. Ferns make it like an outdoor room. Think of your porch as a living room where people can be connected.”

No porch? No problem. Use your driveway or front yard.

Ms. Taft brings out “conversation pieces” to get things rolling. She might take a bowl purchased from a local artist, fill it with local foods, and use one of her grandmother’s antique spoons for serving—these items create interest and invite questions. “Don’t have things that match. Go around your house for things that are interesting,” she suggested, “things that tell your family’s story and celebrate your neighborhood.”

Over the years, Ms. Taft has made friends with people who have a lot in common and others who have different perspectives, as her porch has become a little melting pot. It’s also become a networking tool for those looking for jobs, and for those singles who don’t want to go to bars, it has served as a matchmaker: Two single people met on her porch, had their first date on her porch, and eventually got engaged and married.

“The weekly rhythm of sitting on our front porch enriched our lives in ways we didn’t expect,” Ms. Taft said.

2. Don’t be afraid of hard things.

The strongest and largest trees are the ones that mature slowly and experience the most stressors—wind that allows them to sway, for instance. It’s a field of study called seismomorphogenesis, how movement affects plants, and it’s been used architecturally to reduce structural brittleness, said Gad Saad, psychologist and author of “The Saad Truth About Happiness: 8 Secrets for Leading the Good Life.”

Gad Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University in Canada. (Courtesy of Gad Saad)
Gad Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University in Canada. (Courtesy of Gad Saad)

Humans, he said, can learn to adapt and thrive by adopting anti-fragility and embracing failure. People can even choose to train themselves to experience hardship in order to maximize resilience.

“If everything in life is easy, that’s not the pathway to optimal flourishing. You actually need to be exposed to stressors to be maximally happy,” Mr. Saad said. “I don’t think you can live a fulfilling life if you always take the shortcuts that make things easier, more comfortable for you. Once in a while, you need to challenge yourself.”

3. Count your blessings and put them on paper.

Expressing gratitude is not just a feel-good practice; it’s a scientifically backed tool for improving one’s emotional state and overall quality of life. Two decades ago, a study conducted by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that people who wrote a few sentences each week recapping events they were grateful for were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, and even visited their physicians less often. Since then, numerous studies have linked gratitude to improved mental health, social relationships, and overall well-being.

In an essay for Greater Good Magazine, Mr. Emmons identified two components of gratitude: First, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Second, “we recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Even in the face of trauma or adversity, by shifting the focus from negative thoughts to positive ones, gratitude helps individuals accept and cope with their circumstances more effectively.

Start a daily practice, such as listing a few things you’re grateful for in a gratitude journal, or writing a gratitude letter to a specific person (whether or not you send it). Experts suggest being as specific as possible; including details about a single person or event is more effective than making a broad statement. Consider the past, present, and future: what you’re thankful for from the past, what you enjoy about the present moment, and what you’re hopeful for in the future. Imagine what your life would be like without certain people, savor surprises, and pay attention to the little things in life that bring you joy.

4. Meditate—even if it begins with just brushing your teeth.

Dr. Jingduan Yang. (Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)
Dr. Jingduan Yang. (Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)

The health benefits of meditation, including reducing stress, managing anxiety, and regulating mood, are well studied. To reap those benefits, “you don’t have to close your eyes and double-cross your legs,” said Dr. Jingduan Yang.

A board-certified psychiatrist, fifth-generation practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, and CEO of Northern Medical Center in New York’s Hudson Valley, Dr. Yang defines meditation as “a focused attention to the present. If you just can focus on what you’re doing, it’s a form of meditation—it doesn’t matter if it’s eating your food, or brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or writing an email or a book.” Whether you get there by focusing on “your breathing, your body temperature, your body sensation, or the environment, sounds, music—it is all a form of meditation.”

How it works comes down to our sense of control, he says. When we fixate on things we can’t control—the unchangeable past, the uncertain future—our minds are inundated with negative emotions—regret, resentment, sadness, fear—and our bodies enter a stress-induced “fight or flight mode.” The only thing we really can control? “The here and now, what we can do now,” Dr. Yang said. “Once we focus on something we have control over, our entire body relaxes: Our parasympathetic system begins to get activated, the body starts to relax, blood circulation improves, and the body begins to repair and detoxify itself. That’s why the power of now is real.”

Quiet and relax. (Oleg Breslavtsev/Moment/Getty Images)
Quiet and relax. (Oleg Breslavtsev/Moment/Getty Images)

Still, it’s also worth looking at the ancient roots of the many forms of modern meditation practiced today, such as the popular transcendental meditation or mindfulness-based meditation. “They originated from an ancient practice called ‘life cultivation,’” Dr. Yang said, which he calls “the essence of meditation.” Rather than a health-oriented practice, it was a spiritual one “designed for transcending, or for the refinement of the human soul and spirit.”

In the end, “one of the most powerful things you can do is to establish a belief system that generates happiness,” he said. “If you can establish a belief system that makes you look at the world and whatever happens around you and to you as an opportunity to refine your mind and your soul, then that will make you happy.”

5. Pet a dog (and it doesn’t have to be yours).

(Angel Luciano/Unsplash)
(Angel Luciano/Unsplash)

Those who agree that dogs are “man’s best friend” will be happy to hear that their furry companions are also science-backed agents of happiness. Studies have found that interacting with dogs can lead to a decrease in cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and an increase in oxytocin, a hormone linked to social bonding and positive feelings. Other studies have shown that animals can reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety, enhance social support, and improve overall mood.

As creatures that live in the moment, animals such as therapy dogs are particularly good teachers of mindfulness, a way to manage pain for those suffering from an illness, injury, or stress. “The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness,” explained Dr. Ann Berger of the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in an NIH newsletter. “All of those things are things that animals bring to the table.”

The best part? You don’t have to own a pet to benefit from interacting with it. So volunteer at a local animal shelter, dog-sit for your neighbor, or take a horseback riding lesson and watch your happiness levels begin to climb.

6. Build your resilience muscles.

(Liudmila Chernetska/iStock/ Getty Images Plus)
(Liudmila Chernetska/iStock/ Getty Images Plus)

While it’s impossible to avoid life’s challenges and the negative emotions they stir up, we can strengthen our ability to adapt to and bounce back from them—our resilience.

“The fundamental aspect of resilience is believing that while you can’t control everything that happens in your life, there are many things you can change and you can impact,” said Mary Alvord, cognitive behavioral therapist and author of “The Action Mindset.” “You’re not a helpless victim. Helplessness and hopelessness lead to depression, which is why it’s so critical that people not feel like they’re victims.”

Being proactive, having a support team, and practicing self-compassion are among the key factors Ms. Alvord identifies as driving resilience. “Rather than saying, ‘I can’t do anything; I’m helpless,’ we say, ‘I can try; I can take small steps. I’ve done some of this before; I can do it again. I can get support for this; I don’t have to do it all by myself.’”

It’s a quality that everyone can build—“that’s the gift of resilience,” Ms. Alvord said. Her nonprofit organization, Resilience Across Borders, works to bring resilience training into schools in the Washington, D.C., and Maryland areas. “We can all build muscles. You can do the same to build your emotional, behavioral, and resilience muscles.”

Mary Alvord. (Courtesy of Mary Alvord)
Mary Alvord. (Courtesy of Mary Alvord)

Here’s a workout to try: When faced with a challenge or difficulty, Ms. Alvord suggests making a three-pronged plan. Think of three things you can do to deal with the issue itself, with the social situation, and with your anxious thoughts. “When people are anxious and they form a plan, immediately the anxiety goes down,” Ms. Alvord said.

For example, take a teenager who wants to try out for a sport but is anxious about it. What can she do to help herself feel more in control?

To deal with the issue itself, she can watch some more of the sport to learn as much about it as possible before trying out.

To deal with the social situation, she can ask a friend to go with her to the try-outs, giving her a companion to cheer her on so that she does not feel alone or unsupported during the event.

To deal with her anxious thoughts, she can put them into perspective by mentally telling herself, “I can try my best, and what’s the worst thing that can happen? If I don’t make it, I’ll keep working on the skills.”

“Going through this process is important because it’s unsticking you; it’s propelling you forward,” Ms. Alvord said. “Having a plan helps you feel optimistic about the future because you believe you can have an impact on your environment and overcome obstacles.”

7. Fill your plate with mood-boosting foods.

Dr. Uma Naidoo. (Courtesy of Dr. Uma Naidoo)
Dr. Uma Naidoo. (Courtesy of Dr. Uma Naidoo)

What we eat directly impacts how we feel, thanks in part to the gut-brain connection: “the intimate, and interdependent, relationship between the gut and brain,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, chef, and author of “Calm Your Mood With Food” and “This Is Your Brain on Food.”

“These organs develop from the same cells in the embryo and stay connected throughout the lifespan via the vagus nerve, linking nerve endings in our gut to nerve endings in our brains,” she explained. The two organs are in constant communication.

With consistency over time, “eating patterns high in healthy, wholesome foods are correlated with positive mental health, while diets higher in processed, sugary foods are associated with symptoms of poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety.”

Dr. Naidoo shared her top recommendations for foods that improve our mood and mental health—and the most important ones to avoid.

Eat More

  • Leafy greens: Spinach, Swiss chard, dandelion greens, and other leafy greens are an amazing source of folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin B12, which play key roles in preventing and easing depression.
  • Berries: By way of their powerful antioxidants and phytonutrients, bright-colored berries can boost memory and promote healthy brain aging. Their high amount of fiber also shows our gut some love, supporting a healthy microbiome, reduced inflammation, and good moods.
  • Fatty fish (salmon, anchovies, sardines), nuts, and avocados: These foods are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital in preventing depressive symptoms and lowering anxiety.
  • Spices: Their antioxidant properties help the brain fight off harmful free radicals and therefore prevent oxidative stress, which can damage tissues. Saffron, turmeric, and oregano have an especially high antioxidant capacity and can be easily incorporated into your favorite foods. Always add a pinch of black pepper when using turmeric, which makes it much more bioavailable to your brain and body.

Leafy greens like cabbage are a critical part of a healthy diet that can boost our mood. (Monika Grabkowska/Unsplash)
Leafy greens like cabbage are a critical part of a healthy diet that can boost our mood. (Monika Grabkowska/Unsplash)

Swap Out

  • Added or refined sugars: High sugar intake can contribute to and worsen depressive symptoms, as well as increase the odds that depression can recur in someone’s life. Consuming processed foods like baked goods and soda floods the brain with too much glucose, which can lead to inflammation in the brain. Try instead: fresh blueberries or raspberries and extra dark natural chocolate.
  • Unhealthy fats: Foods made with saturated and trans fats such as margarine, shortening, and hydrogenated oils have been linked with depressive symptoms. These processed oils can elevate blood inflammatory markers and flip the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Instead, monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) should make up the majority of the fats in your diet. Try instead: extra-virgin olive oil, almonds, walnuts, and avocados.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol consumption is a common coping mechanism, but its slowing effects on the brain by depressing the central nervous system have great potential to lower mood and increase anxious symptoms. I always encourage a mindful approach. Try instead: still or sparkling water with a slice of orange or lemon.

Dr. Uma Naidoo’s Feel-Good Fuel

Morning brew: After I wake up and do my morning meditation, I have a cup of golden milk [turmeric milk] with fresh ginger before I start my day. It’s a tradition I’ve shared with my grandmother since childhood. It helps me ground myself, set my intentions for the day, and start off with the right mindset.

Afternoon pick-me-up: My favorite snack for the afternoon slump is a handful of roasted nuts, which I prepare in batches beforehand. I roast them with some avocado oil and use spices like turmeric with a pinch of pepper, paprika, powdered garlic, and Himalayan sea salt.

8. Gather around the table with the people you love.

Health and fitness expert Shawn Stevenson at the dinner table with his wife and children. (Shawn Stevenson Media)
Health and fitness expert Shawn Stevenson at the dinner table with his wife and children. (Shawn Stevenson Media)

It’s not just about what you eat—“It’s also about the who,” said Shawn Stevenson, creator of the Model Health Show podcast and author of “Eat Smarter.” “Who you eat with can have a huge impact on your health outcomes.”

He points to a Harvard study that tracked family eating behaviors, food choices, and health outcomes for years, which found that families that eat together on a consistent basis “consume significantly higher amounts of real, minimally processed foods—that by nature, were higher in essential nutrients that protect those family members from diseases.” Studies have also found that eating dinner with family can be a buffer against stress.

Mr. Stevenson prescribes at least three meals a week together with family and friends. And here’s the important part: Schedule it.

“Just like there are other things on your calendar that are less important than your family, make a solid plan to eat together sometimes. Take the step of actually putting it on your calendar: ‘dinner with family on Tuesday and Thursday,’ and ‘brunch on Saturday,’ or ‘Monday through Thursday, breakfast with family.’ It doesn’t matter which meals of the day they are; it just matters that you get family face time.”

He shared three recipes from his latest book, “Eat Smarter Family Cookbook: 100 Delicious Recipes to Transform Your Health, Happiness, and Connection.”

RECIPE: SLOW COOKER CHICKEN CURRY

RECIPE: GRATITUDE SALAD 

RECIPE: B'S HOT COCOA

(wundervisuals/E+/Getty Images)
(wundervisuals/E+/Getty Images)

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.