> Spirituality > Personal Growth

5 Proven Ways to Increase Our Happiness

December 6, 2018 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Based on science and Jewish wisdom.

A growing body of research finds that we can choose to be happy. Here are five proven ways to boost your happiness quotient.

1. Head outdoors

Spending time in nature has been shown to give our moods a boost. One 2013 British study found that women who took their lunch outside to eat experienced a significant boost in wellbeing. Even spending a few minutes on a park bench resulted in the women feeling happier and more content. Spending time outdoors changes the way our bodies process stress. University of Utah researcher David Strayer explained, “We are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”

Even gazing through a window can boost our happiness. At work, sitting next to a window or other source of natural light can boost happiness and feelings of well-being. Hospitals have found that patients with a view outdoors have better health and shorter recovery times after surgery than patients without access to outdoor views.

2. Fake it till you make it

Jewish sages have long recognized that the way we act can profoundly alter the way we feel inside. Now, modern research is proving this long-held Jewish knowledge. When we act happy externally – even if we are “faking it” somewhat – our actions influence our inner feelings, making us feel happier inside.

One landmark study asked some participants to put a pencil between their lips without letting it touch their teeth. This forced them to make a frowning face as they held the pencil in place. A second group was instructed to hold a pencil between their teeth. This position forced people in the second group to smile. Both groups were then asked to rate a series of humorous cartoons. Even though they were looking at the same cartoons, a clear difference emerged: people who were smiling rated the cartoons as markedly more funny and enjoyable than those who were frowning. It seems the very act of forcing ourselves to grin makes us happier.

Another recent study asked participants to adopt a cheerful mode of walking. Putting on this gait – smiling, swinging arms and putting a bounce in their step – led people to actually feel happier.

3. Focus on gratitude

Two thousand years ago the Jewish sage Ben Zoma taught that everyone can feel wealthy and satisfied – simply by appreciating what they already have. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). It’s a sentiment that modern researchers have found, as well. Numerous recent studies have found that finding ways to feel thankful makes us happy.

Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami found that people who write down things they are grateful for regularly are more optimistic and feel better about their lives. They were also less likely to have to go to the doctor and reported exercising more.

Writing a letter of thanks also boosts our sense of well-being. That was the conclusion of Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania after he asked a group of 411 people to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who’d helped them and whom they’d never properly thanked before. Letter writers reported huge increases in happiness, with the effects lasting for about a month.

Getting into the habit of appreciating the many blessings in your life can transform the way you think. Start by taking a moment first thing in the morning to thank God you are alive, and try to keep that attitude going all day long. If you got a seat on the bus or a parking space on your way to work, take a moment to feel thankful. Reach out to others too to let them know you’re grateful. Write a letter spelling out exactly what you are thankful for and deliver it yourself. Once you start brainstorming all the things you have to be thankful for it can be hard to stop: your home, your friends, your lunch, the fact that your favorite song is playing on the radio. Thinking this way can substantially boost your well-being and bring you joy.

4. Turn off your phone

A number of recent studies show markedly higher happiness levels among people who spend less time online. One Wharton Business School study at the University of Pennsylvania found that even staying off Facebook for as little as one week boosts happiness and increases our sense of well-being.

As Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, author of The Fallible Mind, explains, “Screen-induced sadness can – and does – affect virtually everyone. Hanging out with friends, engaging in sports, or reading a physical book were once activities that filled free hours.” Today, in contrast, many teens and adults spend hours each day glued to their devices – and seem to be suffering ill effects.

A landmark 2018 study at the University of San Diego found that the happiest teens don’t seem to avoid social media and electronics entirely – they just use them extremely sparingly: usually for less than an hour a day. Beyond that, more hours interacting with devices instead of communicating with people face to face is associated with higher levels of unhappiness, with misery rising along with time spent online. Teens who spent more than five hours each day online were twice as likely to feel depressed as those who limit their screen time to an hour or less.

One place to start limiting screen time is Shabbat, when many Jews refrain from using electronics for 25 hours, from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. It can help to know that you’re not alone in going screen-free, and that Jews all over the world are giving up their phones and electronics for a day too. While it might seem radical to turn off our phones so completely, doing so can help us boost our happiness a great deal.

5. Do something for someone else

Recent studies have shown that being a giver tends to make us happier.

In one 2017 study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, researchers told a group of 50 people that they were going to be given about $100 in the coming weeks. Half of the group was asked to start planning how they would spend that money on themselves, and half was asked to start planning ways to spend it on someone else they knew.

Even before the money was distributed each group of people began to exhibit marked changes. The people who planned to spend their windfall on others behaved more generously in all sorts of ways, and also reported feeling happier than those who were planning to spend their $100 on themselves. Surprisingly, this difference in happiness levels lasted even after the experiment was over. It seems that planning to give to others alters the way we see ourselves: when we begin to think of ourselves as generous, we behave in ways that reinforce that self-image and continue to reap the rewards of feeling that we are giving, good people.

Even people who pledged relatively small amounts to others seemed to be happier. Lead author Philippe Tobler explained: “It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect – like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”

Replacing old habits with some of these strategies can help us maximize our joy and sense of well-being.


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