Of course we all want to be happy, but sometimes—when work piles up, there's friction in your relationships, or good news is hard to find—this feeling can seem out of reach. According to Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, 50 percent of your happiness is pre-determined (some people are just bound to be happier than others) and about 10 to 20 percent is due to your life circumstances (age, marital status, income, education level, and simple luck of the draw). But the rest, she says, is up to you.
Here are five happiness-boosting habits that you can begin to incorporate into your routine today.
1. HANG OUT WITH HAPPY PEOPLE.
Happiness is contagious, says Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “One of the reasons is that happiness fosters activity, so more will happen with happy people around,” he says.
“Happiness also makes people behave nicer to each other, among other things, because happy people have a more open view and therefore tend to be more empathetic,” Veenhoven says. And while you don’t need to dump your less-than-positive friends, you might want to spend less time with them since sadness, too, is contagious.
2. GO OUTSIDE.
There’s light even on the cloudiest day, and being outside will lift your mood, Rubin says. A study from the University of Michigan found that walking through nature, particularly with a group, enhances your mental health and positivity, and lowers your depression and stress levels. And a different study by University of Glasgow researchers found that those who walked, ran, or biked in nature had a lower risk of poor mental health than those who exercised indoors.
If you’re stuck in the office, then simply looking at photos of the outdoors may help. A study in the Korean Journal of Radiology found that people who looked at pictures of urban landscapes had heightened activity in the sections of the brain associated with negative emotions, like anger and unpleasantness, compared to those who looked at images of natural scenery. So keep a picture of your favorite outdoor spot on your desk in case you need a mid-day pick-me-up.
For many people, dragging your butt to the gym doesn’t sound like something that will make you happy at all—but working up a sweat has been scientifically proven to do just that. A 2000 study by Duke University examined the effects of exercise on depression by breaking 156 patients (all diagnosed with depression) into three groups: one group tried treating their symptoms with medication for 16 weeks, another group exercised for 30 minutes three times a week for those 16 weeks; and the third used a combination of meds and activity. Six months after the study ended, those who continued with the exercise regimen were much less likely than the others to have their depression return—8 percent of the exercisers had their depression relapse, compared to 38 percent in the medication group and 31 percent in the combo group.
4. GET ENOUGH SLEEP.
After she had a new baby and was going through a painful breakup, Susie Pearl’s life started to spiral out of control. But the United Kingdom-based author of Instructions for Happiness and Success decided to start meditating. “It changed my life,” Pearl says.
At the beginning, meditation's silence is overwhelming, and your mind may become flooded with thoughts of how many other things you should be doing. “But even if you get to five or 10 minutes, it becomes enjoyable,” Pearl says. Simply find a comfortable spot where you won’t be bothered, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. Be present in the moment and try to let your worries go. Eventually, you’ll be able to meditate for up to 20 minutes, twice a day, Pearl says.
Not convinced? A study at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brains of people before and after they practiced mindfulness meditation for an average of 27 minutes daily for eight weeks. Researchers found increased gray matter in their hippocampus—the area of the brain that’s important for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.