Scientifically verified ways to improve happiness and solve problems?
June 15, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

From the article in this post: "...there actually is some pretty good research on how to become happier and how to overcome personal difficulties that can be done relatively simply but which the self-help industry ignores." Well, I'm game. What simple, scientifically validated ways exist to become happier and overcome difficulties?

Here's the example from the linked article:

"For example, my friend and colleague, Jamie Pennebaker, has developed a writing exercise that is typically done three or four nights in a row, where you write about a problem for about 15 minutes each time. Doing so has remarkable long-term benefits on people’s health and well-being."
posted by jsturgill to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 217 users marked this as a favorite
Commute less.
posted by auto-correct at 9:06 AM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

This article from Less Wrong seems pretty much exactly like what you are looking for.
posted by cjemmott at 9:11 AM on June 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Exercise more (and ignore that the link is from Fox News).
posted by bolognius maximus at 9:13 AM on June 15, 2011

Writing to Heal is the Pennebaker technique.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't have any specific examples to add, but I am currently reading a book called Stumbling On Happiness by Daniel Gilbert that pretty much covers this exact topic, so you may find that interesting.
posted by maybeandroid at 9:17 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The intro in the article you are citing is by Dan Gilbert, so Wilson is almost definitely talking about his work. As maybeandroid says, his book is quite excellent and worth a read. He also has a couple good TED Talks. See here and here.

Also see work by Sonja Lyubomirsky, who wrote The How of Happiness. See also a previous comment of mine about some of her tips and strategies.

Also, some of the best thinking on happiness is done by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in economics. Check out his TED Talk as well, its fascinating.
posted by AceRock at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need this book - 59 Seconds by Prof. Richard Wiseman.
posted by edd at 9:51 AM on June 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Would you accept non-scientifically validated but empirically tested evidence? Immediately following our evening prayer* before dinner, my spouse and I state one thing that we are thankful about. The effect has been wholly positive. Expressing gratitude for something, regardless of wether it is big or small; unique or mundane, really opens the conversation up to reflect other good things in your life. And this beats the hell out of the ridiculous one-upmanship that I have been guilty of in the past when my spouse express how much their day has stunk, which I then attempt trump with my own tales of negativity.

I have run across reports that claim keeping a gratitude journal does wonders for one's attitude. I can't recall where to find this research. But what I've described above essentially follows that line of thinking: enumerate the many ways and things that make your life happier and express them regularly.

*An agnostic here, so the prayer is more of a ritualized meditation. It's helpful for setting the stage for the improvised nightly gratitude.
posted by quadog at 1:30 PM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hold a pencil between your teeth. (Then use your slimy pencil do your writing exercise or make notes about how to solve your problem.)
posted by Corvid at 2:36 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

That fabulous article from Less Wrong posted above pointed out "mindfulness" amongst other things. What I like about this book about mindfulness is its references to several scientific articles at the back.
posted by yoHighness at 3:32 PM on June 15, 2011

Downward social comparison.
Pet ownership.
Giving to charity.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:34 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Forgot one - satisficing.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:35 PM on June 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is also a whack of evidence that spending time in natural(ish) settings has a positive effect on happiness. Time in a park. Out in your garden....etc....

A very gradual weight training program has fantastic health benefits but also provides a significant self-esteem boost because you will see your progress (it is very hard to fail at weight training) and have a sense of accomplishment as well the enhancement that comes from being stronger. Ditto with running (though it is more difficult than weight training and there is pretty high incidence of injury). Try using Couch 2 5K to get started.

One way to accidentally on purpose achieve some of these goals is to get a dog. They force you to exercise more, you can walk them in the park, and they provide non-judgmental companionship. The con is that you have to pick up their crap though....
posted by srboisvert at 4:46 AM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've enjoyed reading The Happiness Project and have learned quite a bit from it. It's the story of one woman's year-long research into various scientific and philosophical approaches to happiness, and her efforts to live by them.
posted by Work to Live at 7:27 AM on June 16, 2011

Reposting my previous comment:

From social psychologist and author of "The How of Happiness" Sonja Lyubomirsky's blog:
You do not need to attempt the entire list of happiness activities, but should choose to focus only on the 1 to 4 strategies that “fit” you best – the ones that seem most natural and enjoyable to you

Counting Your Blessings

One way to practice this strategy is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down the 3 to 5 things for which you are currently thankful – from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). Do this once a week, say, on Sunday night. Keep the strategy fresh by varying your entries and how you express them as much as possible. And if there’s a particular person who has been kind or influential in your life, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Write them a letter now, or, if possible, visit and thank them in person.

Practicing Acts of Kindness

These should be both random (let the dad with the crying baby go ahead of you at the check-out counter) and systematic (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor). Being kind to others, whether friends or strangers, triggers a cascade of positive effects – it makes you feel compassionate and capable, gives you a greater sense of connection with others and earns you smiles, approval and reciprocated kindness. These are all happiness boosters.

Nurturing Optimism

This strategy involves such practices as looking at the bright side, finding the silver lining in a negative event, noticing what’s right (rather than what’s wrong), feeling good about one’s future and the future of the world, or simply feeling that you can get through the day. One way to practice this strategy is to sit in a quiet place and take 20 to 30 minutes to think about and write down what you expect your life to be 10 years from now. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Then, write about what you imagined.

Learning to Forgive

Let go of anger, resentment, and feelings of vengeance by writing – but, not sending – a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you. The inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge, while forgiving allows you to move on.

Increasing “Flow” Experiences

When you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called “flow,” a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. So, become fully engaged at work, at home, and at play. Try to increase the number of flow experiences in your life, whether it’s completing a project at the office, playing with your children, or enjoying a hobby. Seek work and leisure activities that engage your skills and expertise.

Investing in Relationships

One of the biggest factors in happiness appears to be strong personal relationships. Indeed, having the support of someone who deeply cares about you is one of the best remedies for unhappiness. Thus, this strategy involves putting effort into healing, cultivating, and enjoying your relationships with family and friends. Act with love, be as kind to the people close to you as you are to strangers, affirm them, share with them, and play together.

Avoiding Overthinking

Remember the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? There’s a time to think about the bad stuff in your life, but dwelling on your problems excessively is unhealthy. Very happy people have the capacity – even during trying times like a parent’s chronic illness – to absorb themselves in an engaging activity, stay busy, and have fun. To practice this strategy, pick a distracting, attention-grabbing activity that has compelled you in the past and do it when you notice yourself dwelling.

Savoring Life’s Joys

Pay close attention and take delight in momentary pleasures, wonders, and magical moments. Focus on the sweetness of a ripe mango, the aroma of a bakery, or the warmth of the sun when you step out from the shade. Some psychologists suggest taking “mental photographs” of pleasurable moments to review in less happy times

Taking Care of Your Soul

Studies show that religious and spiritual people are happier and healthier than others, though researchers don’t yet know why. Perhaps the social support of belonging to a close-knit religious group is valuable, as is the sense of meaning and purpose that comes from believing in something greater than yourself. If you are so inclined, join a church, temple, or mosque; read a spiritually-themed book; or volunteer for a faith-based charity.

Committing to Your Goals

People who strive for something significant, whether it’s learning a new craft or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person and you will find a project. However, being dedicated to any pursuit won’t make you happy if you’re just doing it for superficial reasons such as making money, boosting your ego, or succumbing to peer pressure.

Using Your Body: Exercise, Meditation, Smiling, and Rest

Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, stretching, meditating, smiling and laughing can all enhance your mood in the short term and promote energy and strong mental health. Practiced regularly, they can help make your daily life more satisfying and increase long-term happiness.

Conclusion for today: The secrets to happiness are simple to learn, but not simple to carry out. However, with determined effort and commitment, anyone can learn practices and habits that will help them achieve higher levels of happiness and – even more important – to maintain those levels. You shouldn’t just “pursue” happiness – you should “construct” or “create” it yourself.

posted by AceRock at 3:00 PM on June 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sometimes it does help to get problems on the table and confront them. I think living healthy and staying active is the answer to longevity.
posted by tailgatorz at 7:39 PM on June 16, 2011

Hopefully this doesn't come off wrong but, stay the hell out of debt. I'm not sure if there's a simpler way to be happy and overcome difficulties then knowing you don't owe anyone anything and are living beneath your means.

I'm not sure if this is scientifically validated but does it have to be?
posted by jeremias at 1:38 PM on June 17, 2011

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