Proven things to do to make yourself happier

Woman smiling

Blanche Clark

Posted May 10, 2022

Scientific studies have shown that you can boost your happiness, with strategies such as staying physically active, expressing gratitude, and valuing your relationships.

The desire for happiness is universal, and over the past decade psychologists, social researchers and even economists have sought to measure and understand this often-elusive emotion.

The World Happiness Report, using data from 150 countries and the Gallup World Poll, shows Australians are a remarkably happy bunch, ranking in the top 12 countries in the world, based in part on freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy and social support.

If you want to know the happiest place on earth, it’s Finland, which scientists and academics attribute to the country’s strong welfare system and social cohesiveness.

On an individual level, a longitudinal Harvard study in America has found that close relationships - more than money, fame or social class - are what keep people happy throughout their lives. 

Research also shows that another way to stay happy is to connect with other like-minded people through a club or organisation, such as a community group, sports club or lifestyle club.

What we have learnt from the pandemic

Professor Brendan Kelly, author of The Science of Happiness, says the COVID pandemic and more than two years of restrictions have taken their toll on people’s happiness, but the fundamentals of wellbeing haven’t changed.

“COVID has changed many things, but it has brought out the importance of relationships, the value of work and the benefits of physical activity for mental wellbeing,” he says.

“Take work for example. Many people first discovered they could work from home, but then realised the reason they went into work was not the work itself, but to chat around the water cooler, connect with colleagues and hold meetings where they could make eye contact and communicate with each other in subtle ways.”

Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness

You need enough money to meet your basic needs but striving to earn more and more money will eventually have diminishing returns. That’s because relationships, wellbeing and gratitude all play a role in happiness.

The challenges of genetics and ageing

Kelly, who is a Professor of Psychiatry at Trinty College Dublin, says there is a big genetic component to happiness.

“Research shows that up to 50 per cent of difference in happiness between people is attributable to genetic factors,” he says.

Then there are various stages of life, with the mid-40s being the unhappiest period, when work and financial pressures often reach their peak, along with the realisation that some dreams will never be fulfilled.

“But people do get happier as they get older, and the reason is that they don’t care so much about their careers, money and similar things – and, with that, happiness comes.”

Woman and man at work meeting

Connecting with colleagues in face-to-face meetings is a way to boost your happiness. Photo: Getty


Six scientifically proven ways to find happiness

Seek balance and moderation

Kelly says moderation is the most tried and trusted principle of happiness. Rather than extreme diets or extreme exercise regimens, it’s small, consistent accomplishments that reward us with health and happiness.

“There are two fundamental ideas about happiness. There is pleasure or hedonism and having as much pleasure as you can fit into the day. But there is also contentment, and the knowledge that you are in good health, paying bills, and building a steady life,” Kelly says. “Moderation is about moving a little bit away from ‘pleasure in the moment’ and towards valuing stability and contentment.”

Express love and compassion for yourself and others

Kelly says the idea of love has been hijacked by romantic love. “We should remember that there are different kinds of love that we don’t value as much as we should: love of your friends, your family, your job, your country, and your self-compassion,” he says.

“We work ourselves incredibly hard. We set ourselves impossible standards and over-schedule, but not everything has to be a spectacular success. You might fail and you need to be able to forgive yourself. Love of what you do, your work, becoming skilled, that is a love that can be self-sustaining and solid.”

Women on treadmill in gym

RACV Club helps you stay active and make connections, which can boost happiness. Photo: Lucas Allen


Deepen your self-acceptance

There is an oft-quoted phrase, known as the serenity prayer, that goes to the heart of self-acceptance. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

“This means being a little bit selective and accepting certain aspects of ourselves,” Kelly says. For example, someone might be miserable about signs of ageing, which they can’t control such as balding, whereas they should focus on remaining physically healthy, which they can control.

Practise acts of gratitude

Kelly says gratitude starts with being grateful for being alive. “There is evidence that acts of gratitude are even more important than feeling gratitude. Some people find writing a gratitude diary is helpful, so that can be a good strategy.

"An even better one is giving someone something. With a gift, you’re not just connecting; you’re giving the excitement of the day. You’re reaching out. The benefit of this is much greater for the giver than the receiver.”


Group of friends at university

Our friendships and community contribute to our happiness and wellbeing. Photo: Getty


Don’t compare yourself to others

“A great deal of human unhappiness comes from comparing ourselves with other people,” Kelly says. Even if you are conscious of how ridiculous it is to compare yourself to a Hollywood star or a Nobel laureate, it can still have an emotional impact.

Kelly suggests less time on social media following celebrities and making mobile devices less readily accessible, especially after 8pm.

Believe in something that matters to you

Meaning matters and some people find it through such structures as religion, politics, community groups or lifestyle clubs like the RACV Club, which has a professional mentoring program and member interest groups that connect people.

“As humans, we are hungry for meaning. We love to feel that we are part of something bigger, and we’re happier when we’re part of something bigger,” Kelly says.

“We used to think that religion made people happy because it connected them with community, and it does this to a certain extent, but research now shows that believing in something is a key factor too - and that belief is important for happiness.”


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