How to be happier: research-backed tips to boost your happiness

What will you be doing right after you read this article?

Jordi Quoidbach

Beyond this simple question lies one of the most important decisions you make every day: how to invest your time.

The average person has only 600,000 hours to live on this planet. How can you better spend these hours to maximise your happiness

You may be thinking: The way to maximise happiness is to do happy things, such as spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies or watching your favourite TV shows on Netflix.

The average person has only 600,000 hours to live on this planet

But while these activities may boost your current happiness, over-indulging in short-term pleasure could hurt your future happiness. Working, cleaning your apartment, or waiting in line at the tax office may not be the most exciting activities but they are probably quite important for your well-being in the long run.

Finding the right balance is complicated. Research actually shows that we spend 25% of our time experiencing some type of conflict between doing something that makes us feels happy in the moment and doing something that will make us happy in the future.

So, how do people balance this trade-off in their daily lives and what can we learn from very happy people about how they invest their time every day?

We tracked the happiness of over 60,000 participants spanning all ages and professions in real time using a smartphone application. Altogether, we recorded over a million moments of happiness.

Happy mom
Photo: Jenn Evelyn-Ann/Unsplash

Our research shows some revealing patterns:

First, as you may have guessed, not all activities are created equal. Some are associated with a happiness boost while others come at a price:

  • Spending time outdoors, practising your favourite sport, enjoying a hobby, eating and drinking, socialising and watching TV make people feel better after the activity. 
  • Working, commuting, doing household chores, waiting and even napping make people feel less happy in the moment.

Activities associated with a happiness boost

  1. Sports
  2. Nature
  3. Leisure
  4. Culture
  5. Socialising
  6. Eating/drinking
  7. Playing
  8. Watching TV

Activities that make you less happy

  1. Waiting
  2. Napping
  3. Household chores

This pattern also holds true for relationships: Spending time with your family and friends boosts your happiness levels, while spending time with co-workers or engaging with strangers makes you less happy.

Relationships associated with a happiness boost

  1. Best friend
  2. Friend
  3. Partner
  4. Kids
  5. Acquaintances
  6. Parents

Relationships that make you less happy

  1. Co-workers
  2. Strangers

Some keys to happiness, according to research

The happiest participants spend a lot of time with their romantic partner and their friends. They spend time eating and drinking, practising their hobby, exercising, connecting with nature, and helping other people out. The least happy people spend a lot of time alone. They watch a lot of TV and surf social media and the internet for hours. They have a lot of downtime and frequently report being waiting or napping.

But, interestingly, the happiest participants are not just doing a lot of fun things compared to the least happy folks. They also spend more time doing activities that are not that positive in the moment, like working or doing chores.

The happiest participants are not just doing a lot of fun things

In fact, what distinguishes happy people from their less happy counterparts is not so much how much time they spend doing pleasant and unpleasant things, but what mood they are in when they choose to perform these activities:

  • When happy people feel down or are in a bad mood, they tend to engage in activities that make them feel better.
  • When happy people feel great, they tend to engage in more unpleasant activities that may pay off in the future, like working hard, waiting in line to renew their paperwork, doing chores or engaging in conversations with strangers.

Less happy people do exactly the opposite: 

  • When they feel down, they have a hard time cheering themselves up, so they often do activities that make them feel even worse.
  • When they feel good, they keep pursuing activities that make them feel even better, at the expense of other important tasks.

What can we learn from happy people?

Our findings suggest two practical tips that you can apply in your daily life to increase your happiness levels:

1. Schedule happy moments

Make time for fun and pleasant activities every day – it will boost your happiness levels. 

This may sound obvious, but research shows that when we feel pressured for time or are lagging behind on our work we tend to set fun moments aside and instead focus on what we need to get done.

Our findings suggest that one of the best ways to be productive is to first increase your happiness and then get the work done once you get that energy going.

2. Trade your current happiness

Let’s say you have to do a big pile of dishes or go to the tax office and wait for hours. The best moment to do these not-so-pleasant activities is not when you feel down, but actually when you feel very happy.

So the next time you are feeling happy, instead of overfeeding your happiness with more happy activities, try trading your current happiness for some future well-being. It will pay off and make you happier in the long run.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.