It’s an age-old quest: the pursuit of happiness. Philosophers, writers and religious figures throughout the ages have devoted countless hours to examining what makes a happy life. But in today’s modern age, science holds some answers. A vast and growing body of research indicates that certain behaviors lead to greater mental, emotional and social well-being — creating that elusive feeling of happiness that so many of us are chasing.
The good news? You don’t need extreme wealth or a perfect life to be happy — and you have a lot of power in shaping your own personal state of happiness. These are nine science-backed strategies for a happier life.
1. Nurture your social relationships.
Human beings are social creatures — and there are dozens of studies that show that people with rich social connections are happier, live longer and even face fewer health problems than those who don’t. One long-running research project, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has tracked the lives of hundreds of men since 1938 and, later, thousands of their children to understand their lives and how they have developed. Dr. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the program, delivered an acclaimed TED Talk in 2015 detailing what they learned.
“What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives?” Waldinger says in his talk. “Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
“It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected,” he adds. Even medical doctors are increasingly recognizing the powerful healing power of relationships and are prescribing social connection to their patients.
And it’s not about the mere existence of social relationships, Waldinger says, but the quality of those relationships that has the biggest impact on mental and physical health.
So nurture the relationships you have with your family and friends. Spend time with the people you love, and take care to resolve conflict before it takes a negative toll.
2. Have faith.
Participating in a religious or spiritual tradition can have a powerful impact on your emotional and physical health. Multiple studies have found that religious faith significantly contributes to overall happiness and well-being.
A 2018 study published in the journal Social, Psychological and Personal Science found that, in an analysis of over 1,500 American obituaries, those who reported a religious affiliation lived longer than their nonreligious counterparts. Their findings linked religiosity to a four-year boost in lifespan.
“Religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life,” lead researcher Laura Wallace explained in a news release. “We found that volunteerism and involvement in social organizations only accounted for a little less than one year of the longevity boost that religious affiliation provided. There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain.”
People who actively participate in religious congregations also tend to experience greater happiness and higher civic engagement as compared to those who are either unaffiliated or are inactive within religious groups, per a Pew Research Center analysis of more than two dozen nations.
3. Practice spreading kindness.
They say joy is contagious — and one way to catch it yourself is by sharing kindness and goodwill with others. Researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis studied nearly 5,000 people over a 20-year period and found that people’s happiness depends on the happiness of those around them. But it’s not enough to simply associate with other happy people, they discovered. Instead, happiness actually results from the spread of happiness.
That’s why offering kindness and goodwill to others is the perfect way to begin improving our own happiness. In fact, research shows that practicing kindness actually lights up the pleasure and reward centers in your brain by boosting both serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that create feelings of satisfaction and well-being. Another study found that those who decided to give a gift rather than receive one actually showed a significant drop in stress indicators, including heart rate, blood pressure and arterial pressure. And a workplace study concluded that while coworkers who were kind to one another both benefited, those who received kindness became happier in the long run.
Acts of kindness can be simple as holding the door open for someone, offering words of encouragement to a friend who is struggling or donating to your favorite charity. But the science is clear — being kind and generous benefits the giver as much, if not more than, the receiver.
4. Express gratitude.
Numerous studies have explored the connection between gratitude and happiness — and they consistently reveal a correlation between the two. One 2003 study published by researchers at the University of Miami and the University of California, Davis found that participants who practiced gratitude daily through journaling reported higher levels of happiness and decreased symptoms of depression. Additional research indicates that people who are grateful even experience better physical health outcomes.
So call up a friend to thank them for their help on a project, or simply take some time at the end of the day to write down the things you’re thankful for in a gratitude journal. The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to the positive aspects of your life — which leads to a positive feedback loop in which happiness and gratitude feed into each other.
5. Log off social media.
In a digital world dominated by social media, it can be tough to log off and step away from the screen. But doing so can boost your happiness and well-being — and there’s new research to prove it.
Last year, researchers at the University of Bath found that study participants who took a one-week social media break saw improved well-being, reduced depression and anxiety symptoms.
“Many of our participants reported positive effects from being off social media with improved mood and less anxiety overall,” lead researcher Jeff Lambert said in a news release. That suggests that even just a small break can have an impact, he noted. “Of course, social media is a part of life … But if you are spending hours each week scrolling and you feel it is negatively impacting you, it could be worth cutting down on your usage to see if it helps.”
So delete Instagram, Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter) and the countless other social media apps off your phone — even if it’s just for a week. Your mood will thank you.
6. Spend time on an engaging hobby.
Not sure what to do now that you’ve quit social media and have some extra time on your hands? Consider finding a hobby that can mentally transport you to another place — or what Russian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state.” That’s when someone is so totally engrossed in a task that they don’t notice time passing, they stop thinking about the practicalities of the task and don’t care about how others will judge the outcome of engaging in that hobby.
That hobby could be anything from collecting antique dolls to tending to a garden to painting landscapes. The key is to find something that fulfills you and takes your mind off the other stressors of life.
7. Get some exercise.
We’ve heard it before — exercise produces endorphins that make us feel good. But you don’t need to complete a triathlon or spend hours in the gym each day to benefit from the mood-boosting effects of getting your sweat on.
In fact, research suggests that even a little exercise every week can make you significantly happier and benefit your well-being. A 2018 review of 23 previous studies in the Journal of Happiness Studies determined that even just 10 minutes of physical activity or one day of exercise per week can result in improved mood.
So go for a walk around the neighborhood or play a pickup game of basketball — but try to make it a habit every week.
8. Breathe in some nature.
If you can get that exercise in the great outdoors, you’ll compound the happiness effects. Research shows that spending time in nature leads to increased happiness, reduced stress levels, improved mental health and greater overall well-being.
A study published in the Nature Scientific Reports indicated that spending time in nature positively impacted overall happiness rates. A nationally representative survey of nearly 20,000 Americans showed that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature was linked to higher happiness and well-being.
Incorporating nature into daily life doesn’t necessarily require elaborate outings or even a lot of time. Even small doses of nature, such as a walk in the park during your lunch break, tending to a garden, or simply gazing at a scenic view, can have significant positive effects on happiness and well-being.
9. Get some quality shut-eye.
We’ve all been there: A bad night’s sleep can lead to a miserable day, and no amount of coffee can make up for it. But many of us are chronically sleep deprived, and it’s taking a toll on our mental and physical health. Research shows there’s a direct correlation between sleep quality and overall happiness.
So start prioritizing your rest. Yes, you need to get enough sleep — most adults need around seven hours a night — but quality counts, too. According to the Sleep Foundation, quality sleep means you can fall asleep within 30 minutes of getting in bed, you wake no more than once per night, you can sleep again within 20 minutes of a disruption to your night, and you feel fully restored and energized in the morning.
If that’s not the case for you, start working on your sleep hygiene. Try going to bed at the same time every night, stop using blue-light emitting devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, make sure your bedroom temperature is cool, and invest in some blackout curtains. They say exercise and reducing stress can help, too — in other words, start with the other eight items on this list, and you’re likely to have a better night’s rest as well.