Wellbeing and Mental Health

4 surprising ways to find happiness, according to studies

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In an ageing world, social connections are crucial. Image: Unsplash/Melanie Stander

Michael Purton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • There are ‘hacks’ to happiness, a university study has found.
  • Having a sense of meaning is more important than pleasure, another study found.
  • Social connections that prevent loneliness are crucial for happiness in our ageing world, according to a World Economic Forum initiative.

We all want to be happy, but achieving happiness can feel far from straightforward.

Could science help us?

Yes, according to studies. One research programme found that there are seven ‘hacks’ to being happy, another discovered that purpose is more important than pleasure, while a third revealed that spending time among birdlife is the answer.

As the World Happiness Report 2024 reveals the countries with the happiest citizens, here are four facts about happiness which may surprise you.

Have you read?

1. Hack your way to happiness

There are seven “happiness hacks”, according to a study by the University of Bristol, in the UK.

The Science of Happiness programme questioned 228 psychology undergraduates who had taken a positive psychology course.

Immediately after taking the course, the students reported a 10-15% improvement in their wellbeing, while researchers found that, by continuing to practise the activities they had been taught, more than half the group maintained their positive outlook one to two years afterwards.

Dr Bruce Hood, senior author of the study, has identified seven “happiness hacks”. In case you want to try them out for yourself, they are:

  • Performing acts of kindness
  • Increasing social connections, including initiating conversations with people you don’t know
  • Savouring experiences
  • Deliberately drawing attention to the positive events and aspects of the day
  • Practising feeling grateful, and endeavouring to thank people
  • Being physically active
  • Exploring mindfulness and other meditation techniques.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

2. Purpose rather than pleasure is the key to happiness

When it comes to being happy, having a sense of meaning in life is more important than pleasure, according to a study by the ESCP Business School.

The research investigated how pleasure, meaning and spirituality affected life satisfaction levels in 2,615 people spread across six continents and representing different cultural contexts.

And they discovered that meaning is a stronger predictor of life satisfaction than pleasure and spirituality.

The study’s authors, writing in a World Economic Forum piece, said the findings could be valuable for bosses looking for new ways to enhance staff wellbeing. Managers “could benefit from widening their focus on pleasure-based benefits such as financial rewards, to include giving employees a sense of meaning, by volunteering their time, for example,” they said.

Screenshots of the Urban Mind app interface.
Participants used an app to register their levels of happiness when they were in nature and/or seeing birdlife. Image: Nature/Urban Mind

3. Just seeing or hearing birds can make you happier

Achieving happiness, or at least an improvement in your sense of well-being, doesn’t have to be complicated, it turns out.

Using an app, more than 1,200 people from around the world “were prompted at random intervals to record how they were feeling, including whether they were happy or stressed, whether they could see trees, and whether they could see or hear birds,” reports The Guardian.

And it turns out that everyday encounters with birdlife can be linked to “time-lasting improvements in mental well-being”. What’s more, say the study’s authors, “these improvements were evident not only in healthy people but also in those with a diagnosis of depression, the most common mental illness across the world”.

4. Good relationships make us happy – and live longer

Harvard University researchers have spent 85 years trying to scientifically prove what makes us happy. And they think they’ve found the answer – being sociable.

The study focused on 724 participants, from adolescence to old age. Regardless of material wealth, physical health or job status, what was striking over the course of the project was that people with strong, supportive relationships were found to be happier, healthier and live longer than those without.

The study also found that “social fitness” – the ability to build and maintain strong relationships – was more important to a long and happy life than genes, social class, or IQ.

“Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters,” said the project’s director, Dr Waldinger, “while isolation is a mood buster.”

Isolation is one of the challenges facing our ageing population. To that end, the Forum has developed six ‘longevity economy’ principles.

Principle five is to ‘Design systems and environments for social connection and purpose’. “Social connection is integral to healthy longevity,” says the report. “Socially isolated older adults have a higher risk of poor health and earlier death. Intentional design of systems and environments for social connection can mitigate these impacts,” it says.

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