How People Actually Get Happier

Psychologists have identified a number of life strategies that help people get happier. These strategies have proved to be effective in controlled studies. But how do people really use them in everyday life?

That’s the question posed by a crack team of happiness investigators led by Acacia Parks, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Hiram College in Ohio. In a new study in the journal Emotion, Dr. Parks and her colleagues found some interesting answers.

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First, the researchers identified 14 happiness strategies with solid evidence to back them up. Then they asked 114 online volunteers to take a survey about which strategies they used to make themselves happier. Here’s how the strategies stacked up, from most popular to least:

  1. Doing acts of kindness for others
  2. Pursuing personally meaningful goals
  3. Expressing gratitude
  4. Being optimistic
  5. Doing physical exercise or sports
  6. Nurturing social relationships
  7. Savoring life’s joys
  8. Acting like a happy person
  9. Doing activities “in the moment”
  10. Forgiving others
  11. Practicing religion or spirituality
  12. Using strategies to manage stress
  13. Avoiding overthinking
  14. Practicing meditation

More than three-quarters of the volunteers said they made themselves happier by doing acts of kindness for others, the most popular strategy. But even meditation, the least popular strategy, was used by one in five of these online happiness seekers.

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Getting Happy in the Real World

On average, volunteers said they were currently using eight of the strategies. In contrast, experimental studies focus on one thing at a time. That’s intentional, because it allows researchers to tease out the specific effects of a particular action. But it’s also artificial, which is why it’s just as important to look at what people actually do when left to their own devices in the real world.

Here are some insights into how people make the most of happiness strategies in everyday life:

  • Practice frequently. Volunteers invested serious time in the pursuit of happiness. They reported doing their most meaningful activity at least several times a week, on average. And they typically spent at least 40 minutes on it each time.
  • Continue long-term. The uptick in happiness that came from starting a new strategy sometimes wore off over time. But even when that happened, it usually didn’t occur for several months.
  • Mix it up. The same research team also studied users of a phone app featuring eight happiness activities. People who practiced a greater variety of activities got a bigger mood boost.

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