Money, fame, love, sports, chocolate—what gets you excited? For centuries, we’ve been trying to figure out what makes us happy. Psychologists, economists, theologians, and others have come at this from different angles. Can we choose to be happy? If so, how?
Is happiness genetic?
Ever wondered how much control you have over your happiness? Studying identical twins raised in different environments helped researchers figure out that 48 percent—nearly half of our happiness—may be attributed to our genes.
Your happiness, your health
What about the other 52 percent? And how much does happiness matter? People who rate happier on psychological tests experience a range of health benefits, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These can include:
- Better response to flu vaccines
- Less severe colds
- Reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
- Better health maintenance
What is happiness, anyway?
Happiness is hard to define because it’s so personal. It reflects values, character, genes, and other factors. Happiness isn’t the same as quality of life: You can have everything you need and more, yet still feel sad. Finding out what makes you happy, and seeking it out, can have profound effects on your present and future.
“We can’t change the circumstances of our lives easily, but we can change the variables—and become happier people,” says Dr. Mark Berber, a psychiatrist using positive psychology techniques in Ontario, in a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail.
“The key to happiness is creating a healthy environment that makes it possible—you need to take care of your body and mind before you can feel really good in the long term.”
—Megan S., second-year graduate student, McGill University, Quebec
8 ways to happify your life
Remember when “YOLO” was everywhere? It was the modern version of carpe diem (“seize the day”): You only live once. Research has repeatedly shown the importance of savouring the ordinary moments. Valuing everyday experience offsets the diminishing returns of maximum-excitement activities, according to psychologists. Here are some tips for making this work:
Connect with friends and family.
We mean in person, rather than living from one social media “like” to the next. “Family and friends are very important to me, so spending time with them, no matter the cause, always brightens my day,” says Kayla O., a fourth-year undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Explore your own province or territory.
Experience the familiar in an unfamiliar way. You’re bound to find local gems. “Go out with your friends and make a game of searching something out (like the best pizza place) or talk with locals you don’t normally talk with,” says Carissa Y., a first-year undergraduate at Colby College in Maine.
Spend more time with your parents.
The pace of Saturday night may be slower, but they’ll love it. You may get funny stories about their youth, a free meal, and laundry service. If you’re not sure what to talk about, help them sort books, reorganize the garage, or do a jigsaw puzzle. The conversation will happen. If you’re too far away to take a weekend trip home, pencil them in for a phone call or FaceTime date.
Take care of your body.
“There’s now fairly clear evidence that eating seven portions of fruits and vegetables a day will help your happiness and mental health,” says Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics (and a behavioural scientist) at the University of Warwick in the UK. Quick tip: To keep your mood up, make sure you don’t get too hungry. (Only 39 percent of Student Health 101 survey respondents across Canada correctly identified not getting hungry as a source of happiness.)
Stay in the moment.
People reported higher levels of happiness during activities where their minds wandered less, according to a 2009 study conducted by Harvard University psychologists. “If you can enjoy yourself in the moment, instead of just focusing on outcomes, that’s a good thing,” says Dr. Jamie Gruman, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Guelph in Ontario and cofounder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.
They say we can’t buy happiness—is that true? A large body of research attempts to answer this question. Here’s what we know (so far).
The $75,000 benchmark
Maybe you plan to look for a job after you graduate. It’s important to remember that your future salary won’t necessarily make you happier.
- The lower our income falls beneath $75,000 a year, the unhappier we feel, according to a 2010 Nobel Prize-winning study by Princeton University researchers.
- But earning more than $75,000 doesn’t increase happiness.
- Wait! Let’s define happiness. Our “changeable, day-to-day mood” isn’t affected by an income above $75,000. But the “deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going” continues to rise with earnings above $75,000. “High incomes don’t bring happiness, but they do bring you a life you think is better,” wrote researchers Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman.
- Downsides to a lower income? It doesn’t automatically cause sadness, but it makes us feel worse about the problems we already face.
Anything else going on?
It’s not as simple as a number, says Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, a research project that combines personal accounts, scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture. The relationship between wealth and happiness depends on a person’s circumstances and personality, including:
- Our personal preferences: For example, these determine how we use the money we have. Cozy evenings at home or global travel?
- Our values: Some purchases make us happier than others do. Spending our money on meaningful experiences, including helping others, makes us happier than buying items we expect to enjoy, like a car or big-screen TV. (“Giving to others” is an acknowledged source of happiness for 50 percent of respondents across Canada in a Student Health 101 survey.)
- Comparisons: It’s all relative. Feeling like we’re worse off now than in the past, or struggling more than the people around us, makes us unhappy.
Does having the most friends or followers really translate to much? Seeking outward recognition and affirmation via social media is making us unhappy, studies suggest. “It can be mentally and even physically draining to focus so much on this validation,” says Rebekah S., a sixth-year undergraduate at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Frequent social media use can result in a separation between the social media “you,” who posts only the best moments of each day and builds a crafted public persona, and the real you, with all your mundane, less glamorous moments. As you compare your real life to the social media personas of others, your self-esteem can take a hit. Again, this reminds us how much of our happiness tends to be based on how we perceive others.
Over a two-week period, higher Facebook use was connected to lower life satisfaction levels among study participants, according to a 2013 study published in PLOS ONE.
To break free:
- Remember that Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat aren’t real life. Just as you filter pictures and carefully select what you post, your friends are doing the same.
- Avoid comparing yourself to others. Your news feed is not a race. Instead of envying your friend’s amazing vacation pics, have faith in your own goals, pace, and priorities.
- Unplug for a set period each day. Those “likes,” “loves,” and photo tags aren’t going anywhere.
Physically active people are more enthusiastic and excited than sedentary people are—research proves it.
College and university students are happier on days when they’re physically active, according to a 2011 study. Students recorded their quality of sleep, physical activity levels, and emotional states. On days of higher physical activity, students reported more frequent pleasant feelings.
Exercise isn’t just a short-term mood booster. It can have lasting happiness benefits. People who remained active over a two- and four-year period were less likely to report unhappiness than their inactive peers, according to a 2012 study on data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey.
“Things that make me happy include taking time to do [active] things, like hiking, as well as things that help centre me, like yoga.”
—Laurel W., first-year graduate student, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia
Physical activity also protects against depression caused by stress. Exercise reduces kynurenine acid, a substance that’s harmful to the brain and known to collect in the blood during stress, reported researchers in Sweden in 2014.
Having a case of the Mondays? Contrary to common belief—and the Sunday night blahs—work makes us happier, according to research.
Job satisfaction can affect emotional well-being, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Better Life Index. But good news: Canadians have high job satisfaction rates, according to a survey conducted by Monster.ca and GfK, a market research company.
- Nearly two out of three Canadians said they “love” their job or “like it a lot.”
- One out of four Canadians said they enjoyed their job so much that they would do it without payment.
What’s love got to do with it? A lot. Strong, satisfying relationships are the key to happiness, according to the Harvard Grant Study conducted over 75 years. Since then, numerous additional studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with friends, family, and their community experience fewer health problems, are happier, and live longer than those who are more socially disconnected.
The quality of your relationships is key. For college and university students—away from family and childhood friends, and grappling with internships, academic pressures, and extracurriculars—a call home or a late-night chat with an old friend can go a long way. Spending time with friends increases happiness, said 88 percent of students across Canada who responded to our survey.
“What we have found in our research is that college students were more satisfied and experienced greater well-being if they had made progress in getting to know themselves better, in building meaningful relationships, and in contributing to their community,” says Dr. Edward Deci, Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York who studies human motivation.
Happify your social life:
- Volunteer for a cause you believe in. It might help you to connect with people who share your energy and values. Check out all the options at Volunteer Canada.
- Join a running group or casual sports league, like Ultimate Frisbee.
- Stay in touch with loved ones. Answer phone calls and texts, respond to emails, and notice what’s going on in other people’s lives.
- Be inclusive. Invite shy or socially awkward people to join you. For emotional and developmental reasons, it’s harder for some than it is for others.
Do fame and recognition make us happy? With social media and reality television giving us 24/7 access into the lives of others, one must wonder, is it all worth it?
“Becoming wealthier, more widely recognized, and more attractive doesn’t add to students’ satisfaction and well-being,” says Dr. Deci. The goals of recent graduates predicted their happiness levels, his research found. Those who sought and attained “intrinsic” goals, such as a deep, lasting relationship, were happier than those who sought more “extrinsic” goals, such as fame or recognition.
Ever reassured yourself that “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? There’s some truth to this.
A little adversity goes a long way. Some forms of stress are good by helping us grow and providing us with an opportunity to overcome a challenge, says Dr. Matthew Hill, a researcher from the University of Calgary in Alberta.
In human studies, mild doses of negative experiences seemed to build resilience, with moderately stressful events increasing our ability to bounce back from unpleasant emotions. This mild stress helps us strengthen our happiness muscles for defense against future emotional beatdowns, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Major adversity, including traumatic experiences, has the opposite effect. It makes us more vulnerable.
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Edmund M., fourth-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
“With all the assignments, exams, and procrastination of schoolwork, there’s little time for me to stop and smell the roses (or even find roses to smell). This is where Happier comes in. With a simple click and scroll, I have access to stories of success around the world, photos of gorgeous sunsets, and best of all, puppy pictures. At first, I thought that such wholesome and fluffy content was a bit lame, but when I tried it out, it really took my mind off crying over my next midterm or FOMO after having browsed other social media sites. As a student, I don’t really have the time to go sightseeing or adopt a puppy (though I’d love to!), so seeing other people’s furry friends is the next best thing to help me be happier during my study breaks. If you don’t have an iPhone, the Android equivalent of the app is linked below too.”
Need a little positivity in your day-to-day life? I do sometimes, especially when my prayers about my grades don’t work or I see an obnoxious comment on Twitter.
Browsing cute stories and beautiful pictures for a couple of minutes makes me feel like my life is on point. Though, after a while, I get the creepy feeling that the community is obsessed with making you smile. I guess that’s not really a bad thing.
I got a nice break from reality for five minutes each time I used the app. There was less of the real-life angst, stress, and obsessing over people that sometimes comes with using other types of social media…though there weren’t any filters.
Edward L. Deci, Professor of Psychology, University of Rochester, New York.
Dr. Jamie Gruman, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Guelph in Ontario and co-founder of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association
Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics, University of Warwick, UK.
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