The pursuit of happiness is likely as old as the human race. We read those reports that rate the happiest places on earth, wondering, "What's their secret?"
Scientists have been working on defining and measuring happiness for years. They've learned a lot about what influences individual happiness — and, spoiler alert, it's not necessarily wealth.
One large study that evaluated the emotional well-being of more than 450,000 people found that their happiness increased along with their annual income, but only until they reached $75,000. Once they met their basic needs, higher incomes didn't mean greater happiness.
Want to increase your happiness? Research has shown that these four practices can help you feel more joy and happiness in your daily life.
1. Be nicer to others
Researchers call this "practicing loving kindness." What it boils down to is being kind to people you interact with in the course of your day. Help someone with a heavy load. Run an errand for your sick neighbor. Give a co-worker a boost with a thoughtful compliment.
When you show sincere kindness toward others, it activates a portion of your brain that helps you feel pleasure. Research has also shown that your generosity of spirit might even be contagious, so you may spread happiness to others as you go.
2. Start meditating
Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) encourages you to sit quietly while you think warm, loving thoughts. People who practice LKM for an hour a week report that they feel more contentment and joy.
Likewise, mindful meditation — which helps you increase your awareness of the present moment and become more accepting of yourself — has been shown to enlarge the part of the brain that regulates emotions. That can help you maintain happy feelings even when faced with life's inevitable obstacles.
We all know that exercise contributes to overall health, but researchers have found it can also make you happier. In one study, older adults who started exercising regularly reported that, after eight weeks, they felt significantly happier.
Another study found that when inactive people increased their physical activity, their happiness improved too. While more study is needed to identify what type of exercise works best, you can start by walking, running, swimming or whatever helps improve your mood.
4. Develop a more positive mindset
When researchers worked with highly stressed health care workers to improve their outlook, they found that after 12 weeks the workers reported they were happier and more satisfied with their lives.
Part of the intervention included work on gratitude and forgiveness. For instance, you can keep a gratitude journal, jotting down specific things you're grateful for. Instead of rushing to hurt or anger when someone behaves thoughtlessly toward you, choose forgiveness. As you practice these traits, you may find your happiness level increasing too.
Ready to focus on improving your happiness? There may be an even bigger payoff for you. Research has shown that when people focused more on kindness and other good works, they not only felt happier but also developed a stronger ability to fight off disease. Now that's a win-win.