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11 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed By Science

Looking for some low-lift ways to make yourself happier? Here's some of the best research that we've found on personal happiness.

Apr 4, 2024 11 min readSelf-Improvement
Photo of Kirsti Lang
Kirsti Lang

Content Writer @ Buffer

Happiness is something we think about a lot at Buffer.

It's been a cornerstone of our culture from the beginning (just take a look at this slide deck about it from way back in 2013). Though our values have evolved since then, you'll still see echoes of how important happiness is for us to cultivate in our most up-to-date version.

No surprise then that I thought it would be interesting to dig into the research on how to become a happier person. Spoiler: there's a lot of it! After combing through as much as I could, here are 11 of the simplest things that make you happy, according to science.

1. Exercise (even 10 minutes is enough)

You've likely heard of endorphins, the pain and stress-relieving hormones released when you exercise. But the release of these feel-good chemicals is not the only dramatic effect that exercise can have on your body.

Getting moving also triggers the release of more happiness hormones, serotonin and dopamine. On top of that, exercise increases your heart rate, which in turn pumps more oxygen to your brain. A well-oxygenated brain is as great as it sounds — many studies have found that this can help manage anxiety and depression, too.

In Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, he cites a fascinating study on this. (The book is a great read, by the way — I'll be referring back to it a lot in this article!).

In the study, three groups of patients treated their depression with either medication, exercise, or a combination of the two. The results of this study surprised me. Although all three groups experienced similar improvements in their happiness levels to begin with, the follow-up assessments proved to be radically different:

"The groups were then tested six months later to assess their relapse rate," Achor writes. "Of those who had taken the medication alone, 38 percent had slipped back into depression. Those in the combination group were doing only slightly better, with a 31 percent relapse rate. The biggest shock, though, came from the exercise group: Their relapse rate was only 9 percent."

Exercise can help you to relax, increase your brain power, and improve your body image. A study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who exercised felt better about their bodies, even when they saw no physical changes.

The best part? This doesn’t mean you need to commit to a miles-long run or strenuous HIIT class every day to have a happy life — just 10 minutes of movement a day has been proven to be enough to boost happiness levels, according to The Journal of Happiness Studies.

2. Sleep more — you’ll feel like you’ve won the lottery

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sleep deprivation dramatically impairs memory and concentration, disrupts your metabolism, and increases levels of stress hormones.

Beyond the severe physical consequences of getting enough sleep (“People who chronically fail to get enough sleep may actually be cutting their lives short,” the APA says), you don’t need me to tell you that a bad night’s sleep can seriously impact your mood.

A study published in the journal Sleep, which analyzed the sleep patterns of 30,594 people over the age of 16 in the U.K. across a period of 4 years, found that insufficient or poor sleep worsened emotional states.

With the widely used General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a survey that helps determine health-related quality of life, they made some interesting comparisons with participants who got more and better sleep:

“Changes on the GHQ are comparable with those seen in mental health professionals completing an eight-week program of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy designed to improve psychological well-being,” researchers write.

“They are also comparable with the average improvement in well-being shown by U.K. lottery winners two years after a medium-sized lottery win.” Read: Getting more sleep will boost your mood as much as winning the lottery.

Sleep is another topic we’ve looked into before: here's how much sleep we really need to be productive.

3. Move closer to work (or work from home)

Our commute to the office can have a powerful impact on our happiness. The fact that we tend to do this twice a day, five days a week, makes it unsurprising that its effect would build up over time and make us less and less happy.

Several studies have found that happiness and commute time are inversely proportional. As this paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health put it: “The longer the commute, the lower the satisfaction with work and life; the length of commuting can also cause damage to health, affecting physical health and causing inactivity.”

Little wonder then that a commute that is a matter of seconds — i.e. the distance between your bedroom/kitchen/bathroom and your desk — is a huge factor in happiness and well-being.

A 2023 study by Tracking Happiness found that remote workers are 20% happier than their in-office counterparts. In our most recent State of Remote Work report, 91 percent of respondents had had a positive experience of working remotely, while 98 percent said they would like to work remotely, at least some of the time, for the rest of their careers.

4. Spend time with friends and family

Social time is highly valuable when it comes to improving our happiness, even for introverts. Several studies have found that time spent with friends and family makes a big difference to how happy we feel, generally.

I love the way Harvard happiness expert Daniel Gilbert explains it: “We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends, and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”

Psychiatrist George Vaillant is the director of a 72-year study of the lives of 268 men, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. In an interview in 2008, he was asked about what he'd learned from the men. Vaillant’s response: "That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

He shared insights of the study with The Atlantic's Joshua Wolf Shenk on how the men’s social connections made a difference to their overall happiness: “The men’s relationships at age 47, he found, predicted late-life adjustment better than any other variable, except defenses," Wolf Shenk writes. "Good sibling relationships seem especially powerful: 93 percent of the men who were thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger."

5. Get outside somewhere green-ish

Great news for those of us who spend most of our days at our desks: you don't need to spend hours in the sunshine to reap the benefits of good old-fashioned fresh air.

Spending time outdoors in a green space for just 20 minutes was enough to boost well-being, according to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

“Some people may go to the park and just enjoy nature," study co-author Hon Yuen told TIME. "It’s not that they have to be rigorous in terms of exercise. You relax and reduce stress, and then you feel more happy.”

If the idea of finding a space green enough to be considered 'nature' feels a bit far off, fear not — the study had participants visit urban parks in Birmingham, U.K., not Yosemite.

A study from the University of Sussex also found that being outdoors might contribute towards a happier life: “Being outdoors, near the sea, on a warm, sunny weekend afternoon is the perfect spot for most. In fact, participants were found to be substantially happier outdoors in all-natural environments than they were in urban environments.”

Interestingly, temperature can play a role, too. The American Meteorological Society published research that found current temperature has a bigger effect on our happiness than variables like wind speed and humidity, or even the average temperature over the course of a day.

It also found that happiness is maximized at 13.9°C (57°F), so keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading outside for your 20 minutes of fresh air.

6. Help others to help yourself

There are plenty of studies that show volunteering, random acts of kindness, or just giving someone else a compliment can boost your mood.

In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that helping others can improve our own lives:

"We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested."

If we go back to Shawn Achor’s book, he says this about helping others: "When researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities — such as concerts and group dinners out — brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches. Spending money on other people, called 'prosocial spending', also boosts happiness."

Giving time, rather than money, is an option too: volunteering could be particularly beneficial. In a paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers examined data from nearly 70,000 subjects in the U.K. They found that people who had volunteered in the past year were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better.

They also discovered that volunteering more frequently meant greater benefits. Those who volunteered at least once a month reported better mental health than those who helped out irregularly or not at all.

7. Practice smiling — it can alleviate pain

Fun fact: The simple act of smiling causes the brain to release those feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin.

Smiling itself can make us feel better, but it’s more effective when we back it up with positive thoughts, according to this study published in the Academy of Management Journal:

“Customer-service workers who fake smiles throughout the day worsen their mood and withdraw from work, affecting productivity. But workers who smile as a result of cultivating positive thoughts — such as a tropical vacation or a child’s recital — improve their mood and withdraw less.”

One of our previous posts goes into even more detail about the science of smiling.

8. Plan a trip — you don’t even need to take it

As opposed to actually taking a holiday, planning a vacation or just a break from work can improve our happiness.

A study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life showed that the highest spike in happiness came during the planning stage of a vacation as employees enjoyed a sense of anticipation, which boosted happiness for eight weeks. After the vacation, happiness quickly dropped back to baseline levels for most people.

If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar — even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.

9. Meditate — rewire your brain for happiness

Meditation is often touted as an important habit for improving focus, clarity, and attention span, as well as helping to keep you calm.

It turns out it’s also useful for improving your happiness. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation.

After the course, they scanned participants' brains again — and found that the parts of their brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.

According to Shawn Achor, meditation can make you happier long-term:

“Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”

If sitting down to meditate feels a bit intimidating, the simple act of taking a few deep breaths can work wonders. A study in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, (titled ‘How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life’), found that deep breathing can reduce stress and increase emotional control.

Focusing on the breath is also a useful grounding practice in meditation and a great place to start.

We’ve explored the topic of meditation and it’s effects on the brain in-depth before. It’s definitely mind-blowing what this can do to us.

10. Practice gratitude to increase both happiness and life satisfaction

This is a seemingly simple strategy, but I’ve personally found it to make a huge difference to my outlook.

There are lots of ways to practice gratitude, from keeping a journal of things you’re grateful for, sharing three good things that happen each day with a friend or your partner, and going out of your way to show gratitude when others help you.

In an experiment where some participants took note of things they were grateful for each day, their moods were improved just from this simple practice.

Participants "exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the three studies, relative to the comparison groups," the authors of the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology write.

"The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits."

The Journal of Happiness Studies published a paper that used letters of gratitude to test how being grateful can affect our levels of happiness. Participants included 219 men and women who wrote three letters of gratitude over a three-week period.

"Results indicated that writing letters of gratitude increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction while decreasing depressive symptoms."

Gratitude is still one of Buffer’s core values and something Bufferoos try to practice in their day-to-day work. A simple way we express gratitude to our coworkers every day is through our ‘#culture-gratitude’ channel in Slack, where we share when someone goes above and beyond in their work (which is pretty often).

Here’s a recent message from Maria, our Chief Product Officer, about Content Writer Tami:

11. Tailor this list to suit you

In an article for Psychology Today, Paula Davis J.D., M.A.P.P (who has a Master’s degree in positive psychology) writes that when it comes to happiness-boosting activities, one size does not fit all.

“You tailor your workout to your specific fitness goals — happy people do the same thing with their emotional goals,” she says. “Some strategies that are known to promote happiness are just too corny for me, but the ones that work best allow me to practice acts of kindness, express gratitude, and become fully engaged.”

Quick last fact: Getting older will make you happier

A bonus point you didn't ask for: it’s interesting to note that as we get older, particularly past middle age, we tend to grow happier naturally. There’s still some debate over why this happens, but scientists have got a few ideas.

According to this article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers write:

"Older people shown pictures of faces or situations tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more and the negative ones less. Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down.

"Still other work finds that older adults learn to let go of loss and disappointment over unachieved goals, and hew their goals toward greater wellbeing."

So if you thought being old would make you miserable, rest assured that it’s likely you’ll develop a more positive outlook than you probably have now.

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