Everybody wants to be happy. Thus, the onslaught of lists enumerating various happy-making suggestions: Learn to let go! Live in the present! Don’t sweat the small stuff!
Which is all fine and good — there’s clearly nothing wrong with a positive outlook. But that list has been done to death … and aren’t those peppy platitudes slightly obvious anyway? Instead, we offer an alternative list of habits — more concrete and backed by science — employed by those who’ve successfully located the bliss button.
1. They go to parks
One study found that people who live in cities with more green space feel better than those surrounded by manmade materials. How much better? The happiness jump associated with green space is equal to about one-third the boost in well-being that people get from being married. In a similar vein, another study found that a five-minute dose of nature improves self-esteem; green areas with water were found to be the most beneficial.
2. They live in Scandinavian countries
Okay, so your place of residence may not be a habit so much as a circumstance, but this is interesting. According to the United Nations General Assembly’s second World Happiness Report, Denmark is the happiest country, followed by Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Canada. Note that all of these are generally northern countries, what’s the deal? See number 3.
3. They practice ‘hygge’
Huh? Pronounced HYU-gah, Danes make it through their long dark winters with a healthy dose of this to maintain their position as the happiest place in the world. With no real equivalent in the English language, hygge is a cultural concept that revolves around intimacy, gratitude and family; it’s a kind of emotional coziness. As described by one Dane, “It’s like a feeling, and it’s big at Christmastime. The candles, the food, being with your family.” But it lasts all year. (Read more: How ‘hygge’ can help you get through winter.)
4. They have satisfying jobs — and if not, they quit
It’s no surprise that workers who are happy with their work are happy with their lives. And in fact, a Gallup poll found that workers who were happily engaged and enthusiastic about work were happiest in life, with 71 percent of them describing themselves as “thriving.” And it’s probably not that surprising that only 42 percent of poll respondents who said they were disconnected from their work described themselves as thriving. What’s surprising is that 48 percent of those unemployed see themselves as thriving; that’s 6 percent more than those with jobs; for many, being unemployed is happier than having a crummy job.
5. They smell the flowers
No, this isn’t an homage to the “stop and smell the roses” cliché; it’s not about taking time for the delights in your life (although stopping and smelling the roses is a grand thing to do). It’s about floral scents and the effect they have on mood. Much research has been conducted on how floral scents can influence behaviors. In one set of experiments, researchers found that a floral-scented room led to increased happiness and friendliness. One researcher noted that the floral smell is an emotion manipulator and improves the mood. “The floral odors can make you happy; floral odors promote social interaction, social approach kinds of behaviors,” said Jeannette Haviland-Jones, of Rutgers University.
6. They get dirty
Commence making mud pies. Medical researchers in the U.K. found evidence that “friendly” bacteria found in soil may activate the immune system, boost the brain compound serotonin and help ward off depression.
7. They exercise
We know you didn’t want to hear that, but fret not. The good news is that middle-aged women don’t have to run marathons or go all-out for the emotional benefits of physical activity to kick in. And in fact, a study found that moderate intensity exercise — as opposed to intense exercise — caused more women to report later that they were in a better mood and to have greater feelings of energy, psychological well-being and “self-efficacy.”
8. They don’t try to be … happy?
Oops. Now that we’ve told you the secrets for happiness, we’re here to dash your dreams. A prominent study shows that making happiness a personal goal will actually stand in the way of your achieving it. The researchers found that women who valued happiness more reported being less happy and more depressed than women who didn’t place much importance on the goal.
“Wanting to be happy can make you less happy,” said study researcher Iris Mauss. “If you explicitly and purposely focus on happiness, that appears to have a self-defeating quality.”
So if you really want to be happy, try forgetting about it.