Five Short Exercises for Boosting Happiness

Happiness is one of the most elusive yet universally sought-after goals in humanity. Clearly, much of what makes us happy, or facilitates our capacity to pursue happiness on our own terms, is dependent upon a range of circumstances beyond our individual control — brain chemistry; access to healthcare, food, and other basic needs; socioeconomic stability; strong social and familial bonds; and so on. Hence why so many of the happiest countries are those that meet all or most of this criteria.

But many of us fortunate to live in conditions that are relatively conducive to happiness, nonetheless still struggle to experience it in any substantive or sustainable way. Part of this is a matter of framing — happiness means different things and takes different forms for different people — but setting aside that semantical and philosophical discussion, there exist habits, activities, and values that we can commit to that may help us to feel a general sense of mental and physical well-being.

Here are five daily activities that can go a long way towards mitigating anxiety, stress, and despair. They were formulated by “happiness researcher” Shawn Achor in an interview with The Washington Post. Founder and head of Goodthink, an organization devoted to researching and propagating happiness, and author of “The Happiness Advantage“, he is a leading figure in the positive psychology movement, a branch within psychology that focuses on cognitive and behavioral solutions to promoting mental wellness.

Now, I admit to having a fair amount of skepticism for at least some of the claims advanced by positive psychologists; my encounters with lay proponents suggests a shocking lack of empathy and basic common sense, encapsulated by the common refrain that just thinking positively would, in some vague and often spiritual way, lead to positive results — small comfort to those living in impoverished, war-torn countries or who are ravaged by advanced terminal cancer.

Granted, cursory research of the field suggests that my quarrel is more with these lay individuals who are misapplying or misconstruing the science, rather than with the academic and scientific field itself. By all accounts, positive psychology is simply a way to complement medicinal and therapeutic solutions to psychosocial problems with cognitive ones. And insofar as it seems grounded in sincere research and scientific framing, it does not seem so out of depth. Perhaps someone can enlighten my ignorance on the subject.

Anywhere, leaving my baggage at the door, I can see how the following tips can be pretty effective, both intuitively and by experience.

1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.

It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.

2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.

I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.

3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.

This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.

4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.

5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.

People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.

Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.

Achor also adds the importance of getting restful sleep, which squares with mounting research showing that good sleep helps with everything from boosting happiness and concentration, to reducing the likelihood of obesity and heart disease.

I also like his concept of “social investment”, described thusly:

I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.

What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.

Indeed, the social component of happiness and well-being seems especially weighty. Just as various international indices have found community-oriented societies to generally be the happiest (even if they were not the wealthiest or most stable), so too do individuals with active and health social lives react better to adversity (again, generally speaking).

We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.

The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.

I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.

Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of most of these methods. I am always at my happiest when I am helping people, being mindful of my fortunes in life, or engaging in physical activity. It can be difficult to keep such things in mind, let alone find the initiative to execute them (especially exercise and good sleep), but that is why it is important to consciously cultivate these activities until they become habitual — a part of everyday life that creates a virtuous cycle of happiness and active engagement with the world and one’s self.

To be sure, these exercises are emphatically not a substitute for therapy or medication, nor do they make up for the daunting external conditions — such as lack of employment opportunities, oppressive labor or political environments, etc. — that make cognitive adaptation just half the battle. But given how simple they are to try, and how intrinsically valuable things like physical activity and gratitude are regardless, these exercises seem worth a shot at least.

What are your thoughts?


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