How To Feel Happier According To Science

How do we define happiness and can we actively make ourselves happy? The happiest people benefit from close social connections and resilience against life's complications, according to scientists and researchers on the subject, and there are clear steps we can take to improve our chances of happiness.

Happify, a website that looks both at the science of happiness and ways of applying it to life and career goals, said that although evolution has hard-wired us to be negative, we have the ability to change by adopting new thought patterns and "entertaining diversions" that can help us to accentuate the positive.

Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), set up a free course in 2014 on the science of happiness. The eight-week course, which covers the "science of connection, compassion, gratitude, mindfulness, and more" has enrolled 550,000 students since that time.

In an article for the GGSC, Simon-Thomas and a co-author wrote that instructors had checked in weekly and noticed feelings of positivity rising consistently amongst students who checked in on a regular basis.

Woman expressing happiness
Happiness can boost your health Getty

"The way that researchers usually define happiness is as a more broad characteristic of a person's life," Simon-Thomas, the science director at GGSC told Newsweek, adding that it is important to disentangle happiness in life from a positive emotion that might be temporary and fleeting. "It's generally feeling good and having a sense of purpose."

Who is happy?

Happy people generally have supportive social connections, are able to experience positive emotional states when circumstances are fitting, or are grateful when they recognize the goodness they have in their lives, Simon-Thomas said. Other traits of happy people include an aptitude for human kindness and playing a meaningful role in one's community.

"They tend to be resilient, able to recover from setbacks and difficulties and learn and grow from them as opposed to cycling into distress and despair," she said. Simon-Thomas sums up these characteristics under the acronym CPR: connection, positivity and resilience.

John M. Zelenski, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottowa, Canada, told Newsweek that while personality traits, influenced in part by genes, play an important role, in our ability to be happy, our experiences and choices are significant.

"Personality traits are intertwined with our day-to-day thoughts, emotions, and experiences," he said. "Having an optimistic outlook, high self-esteem, and living in accordance with one's values helps. Living in a stable, trusting/supportive, and wealthy society seems to contribute.

"Positive social relationships seem very important."

In addition, Zelenski said, there is convincing evidence that connecting with nature, both physically, and subjectively, an area that focused on in his research, boosts happiness.

Happiness and healthiness

Researchers invest considerable time in trying to understand the mental and physical, neural and relationship factors that contribute to someone's happiness in life, and there is little quantitative data relating to factors that make people more or less likely to be happy, or how the population as a whole can be classified on a happiness spectrum.

By contrast, there is greater understanding about the potential consequences of happiness for health and mortality, with happier people less prone to cardiovascular disease, according to a body of research, including a 2018 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The World Happiness Report 2022, an annual global survey, supported earlier findings by psychologists that the existence of positive emotions matters much more than the absence of negative ones when predicting either longevity or resistance to the common cold.

Practicing mindfulness, defined as the ability to be fully present, aware of our own action and avoiding becoming overwhelmed by outside events, can contribute to self-knowledge and insight while at the same time helping us see the way in which we judge other people in ways that could detract from our happiness, Simon-Thomas said. This in turn can help people to strengthen relationships, a sense of belonging and becoming a meaningful part of a community.

The GGSC offers a number of exercises and activities that people can incorporate into their lives to incorporate positivity, enabling them to figure out and savor the good that is available in our normal lives. The center's website also offers quizzes that allow participants to measure their levels of gratitude and social connectedness.

Facing our fears

While positivity is an important component of well-being, some scientists and influencers believe that facing our fears and exposing ourselves to experiences outside our comfort zones, give us a sense of power and control that can itself translate into happiness.

wim hof
Wim Hof at a NDR talk show in 2019 in Hamburg, Germany. Hof believes facing fears helps improve happiness. Getty Images

Dutch motivational speaker Wim Hof, who is known for his ability to tolerate extreme cold, explored this concept with his BBC series Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof, earlier this year, in which celebrities tested themselves with a range of experiences from jumping into a hole in an icy lake to abseiling down a sheer cliff.

Hof and other proponents of confronting fears argue that such experiences can stimulate neurochemical reactions that can actually lower stress levels, a vital part of increasing happiness.

Simon-Thomas agrees that changing the way we confront obstacles in life is a key part of resilience, one of the key building blocks to happiness.

"If you are thinking of difficulties as threats or sources of harm or pain, that will disrupt or take away your resources," she says. "Your ability to relate to that challenge is not as functional if you think of it as a threat versus taking a challenge mindset."