What makes you happy? For most of us, that question might immediately elicit a host of enticing ideas: taking a cat nap in the sun, perhaps, savoring some decadent chocolate, going on vacation, or winning money at the slot machines. But for some of us, these paths toward happiness may be frustratingly out of reach, at least on any regular basis. Considering many people’s jam-packed schedules, not to mention the ongoing financial difficulties so many are currently experiencing, we may not have time for a nap, much less enough money to take off work and go on vacation. Does this mean happiness is simply out of reach?
Absolutely not. If you take a closer look at the above supposed sources of happiness, you’ll notice that all of them are activities that are inherently selfish, lazy, or both — and science disagrees that this is the route toward true, deep, inner contentment. You may be surprised to learn that, rather than activities that serve your own, immediate needs or pleasure, ones that are more selfless in nature — that benefit others outside of yourself — are the activities that will bring you the biggest and longest-lasting boosts in happiness.
Of course, the science on happiness is a constantly shifting and developing arena, as research into what makes humans happy, and why, goes ever deeper. Still, researchers are homing in on what makes people feel wonderful — and, surprise, surprise, it isn’t slurping down Mai Tais on a palm-shaded beach. Rather, it is connecting meaningfully with other people (or animals) and giving of ourselves to serve their needs. While things like a great trip to Vegas or a hilarious movie will certainly boost our spirits in the moment, other, more outward-focused experiences will provide us with a deeper and more sustained sense of contentment. Read on to find out six surprising things that promise to make you lastingly happy.
1. Do volunteer work. Donating your time, energy and skills to a person, cause or organization in need has obvious benefits for the recipient, but did you know there are marked benefits for you as well? Scientific studies have found that people tend to feel happier when giving their money away than when spending it on themselves, and people who do volunteer work actually live longer than those whose daily efforts are devoted solely toward their own, personal pursuits. The benefits even extend to your closest relationships: People who do volunteer work have been found to have happier and longer-lasting marriages.
2. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Much research has been done into the power of positive thinking, which relates closely to gratitude. Researchers have found that people tend to feel happier and more optimistic when they take the time, whether weekly or daily, to write down several things for which they feel grateful. It has also been found that going out of one’s way to thank others, either verbally or in writing, also creates a lasting boost in happiness. So, next time your birthday rolls around, don’t look at penning those thank-you notes as a tedious task — view it instead as a great way to reconnect with your sense of thanks and appreciation for your many blessings in life, including wonderful friends and family who love and care about you.
3. Get a pet. Studies have shown that stroking an animal’s fur can lower a person’s blood pressure, but it turns out that having a dog, cat or other animal friend can also boost your self-esteem along with your sense of how meaningful your life is. After all, a loving pet that scratches at your door or paws at your face, wanting to go outside, is a pretty good — and insistent — reason to get up every morning. And caring for that pet by loving it, feeding it and otherwise tending to its needs imbues your own life with a deep sense of meaning. Furthermore, animals have a way of loving their human companions that is truly unconditional — which is just the kind of love we all crave.
4. Get intimate with your sweetie. The stereotype is that men crave sex more than women, but both men and women experience a lasting boost in happiness directly related to their sense of sexual satisfaction. It’s no surprise that lovemaking makes people feel good in the moment, but you may not realize that sexual intimacy can also help soothe anxiety. Even just hugging or holding hands delivers a boost in endorphins like oxytocin, known as the “feel-good” hormone, that can last for hours. And, of course, physical intimacy makes us feel emotionally closer with our partners — and a satisfying, intimate connection with a lover can be true bliss.
5. Get your heart and muscles pumping. Even mild exercises like taking a walk can make you feel good, especially if you walk outdoors and take in a little sun, which raises your serotonin levels. But regular exercise has been found to alleviate depression and anxiety and create a lasting sense of wellbeing. Most doctors recommend thirty minutes a day, five days a week, but if a quick ten-minute walk around the block each morning is all you can manage, make it happen — you’re sure to feel the benefits in your mood, and your heart will thank you. Plus, a brisk walk is a wonderful activity to enjoy with your sweetheart, a neighbor or your dog. You can boost your happiness, your health and your sense of community all at once. What could be better?
6. Get out to enjoy art, music and other cultural events. A direct link has been found between lasting happiness and taking in cultural events such as ballet, art exhibits, museum installations and the like. Most cities even offer free events, so attending a concert or the ballet doesn’t have to break the bank; check your local listings to find free or low-cost events that are open to the public. Then go, enjoy, and feel your heart expanding as your mind opens to the beauty of art and performance.
If you consider the above six activities, you may notice that almost all of them focus on community, connection and selflessness. These, then, must be the secret to lasting happiness — not looking more beautiful, being more popular or making more money, as so many television commercials and magazine ads might have us believe. In the end, it’s all about finding our place in the world by going out into it and making meaningful bonds with our fellow beings. So the next time you’re feeling blue, go ahead and indulge in a chocolate bar, watch a silly movie or fantasize about taking a Caribbean cruise — if that’s what makes you feel good in the moment. But don’t forget that the surer, truer path toward lasting fulfillment may depend less on momentary pleasures and more on a shift in perspective toward something much more appreciative, open-minded and open-hearted.