It’s the UN’s International Day of Happiness today – so be happy, or you’re breaking international law.
As it turns out, the normal metrics for progress around the world – economic, social, technological, health, nutrition, and so on – tend not to feature happiness as a key measure. In response, the UN, along with the non-profit movement Action for Happiness, set a happiness awareness initiative up a few years back.
A resolution, ratified in 2011, invites the nations of the world to do all they can to “capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness.” The resolution was signed by all 193 member states – as if any of them would have been grumpy enough to vote such an optimistic and harmless resolution down.
So, every year on March 20, the UN releases a new happiness report, which details the happiest and saddest nations, and tries to explain what makes a happy citizen. This year is no exception, and as tends to be the case, Scandinavia is fairly pleased with its lot in life.
While this is a welcome way to highlight a sorely underappreciated aspect of mental health, it tends to focus on the collective – what makes nations happier, and how is this linked to progress? In honor of this day, we at IFLScience thought we’d bring it down to the individual level and see what science has to suggest about how to make people grin more.
1 – Play a videogame
From retro delights to modern masterpieces, videogames are still treated by plenty of tabloids and “news” networks as the scourge of humanity. Actually, there’s a wealth of evidence that playing them makes you no less empathetic while also improving memory, reasoning, and mathematical skills. They also bust stress, boost your mood and, even when the world is ending, your frame of mind becomes surprisingly positive.
2 – Watch a kitten on the Internet wear a tiny sombrero
The tsunami of happiness we get from watching cute critters do their thing is well-documented. The emotions involved watching, say, a baby panda or two struggle to move around are normally so extreme that many have the counterintuitive urge to squash the cute culprits immediately after seeing them – an unusual, angry desire that is amplified when the animals in question aren’t physically present.
This phenomenon, known as “cute aggression,” is thought to be our brain’s way of stopping us getting overloaded by the avalanche of seemingly unstoppable happiness. It’s a regulation mechanism for being too happy too quickly, basically – which suggests that cat gifs really are the quickest possible way to get a happiness high.
3 – Eat some chocolate
We know what you’re thinking – no shit, Sherlock, it’s delicious – but it’s worth highlighting this link. Although the physical health benefits of eating chocolate are mostly ambiguous and far from certain, there is some circumstantial evidence that the sweet treat, in small quantities, does boost your mood – partly because of its unique flavor profile, and partly because it slightly lowers your blood pressure.
4 – Get frisky with your partner
This may either sound like not much nocturnal mischief at all to some or simply too much to others. Nevertheless, according to a surprisingly comprehensive study looking at the happiness of those in romantic relationships, sex once a week is all you need to get a long-lasting positive mood boost from it – one that lasts around 24 hours, according to another piece of curious research.
Sex is actually such a good happiness deliverer that weekly friskiness beats out a $50,000 pay rise when it comes to boosting a person’s mood – although few would likely protest at receiving both.
5 – Watch nature documentaries
The BBC recently debuted its unbelievably good natural world documentary series, Planet Earth II, and they wanted to know how happy it actually made people. Teaming up with the University of California, Berkeley, they found that people from all demographics and from all over the world gain a long-lasting happiness boost from watching bears scratch their backs on trees and baby iguanas outrun malicious snakes.
Interestingly, people between the ages of 16 and 24 experienced the most significant reduction in stress, nervousness, the feeling of being overburdened, and fatigued, with a huge uptick in contentment, joy, awe and curiosity.
6 – Listen to some music
Another obvious one, but one that can’t be understated – listening to music we enjoy releases a huge amount of dopamine, the same hormone that dominates our brain’s reward system. Those chills you get when that crescendo in that song you love blasts into your earholes? That’s technically known as “musical frisson,” and that’s a sign that dopamine is flooding your brain.
7 – Sleep more
With such an exhilarating amount of fun that’s out there to be had, it’s frankly insulting that we’ve evolved to need around 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Inconveniently, without enough of it, we essentially act severely drunk, in that our mental capacity is severely hampered.
A lack of sleep puts a lot of pressure on our physical health – particularly our immune system – but there are plenty of studies showing that it’s needed to maintain our mental health too. So snooze well, dear readers.
8 – Try and appreciate a bit of dark humor
Bleak jokes and morally ambiguous senses of humor are often linked to people who are melancholic or downbeat. However, a new study revealed that people that can maneuver through the clever linguistics of such rib-ticklers tend to score lower for incidences of aggression and negative moods. They also tended to have higher IQs, so this source of stress reduction may not apply to everyone.
9 – Get revenge on someone that wronged you
A rather bizarre study involving virtual voodoo dolls and personality clashes revealed that vengeance is a good way to boost our mood, at least when it comes to social rejection. As it so happens, the negative frame of mind that societal expulsion engenders in people is effectively balanced out by a bit of revenge in one form or another.
Science isn’t saying that revenge is inherently good, though – but there are neurological reasons why it feels so good.
10 – Be kind to others
When you’re not plotting against your enemies (or friends – hey, we’re not judging), engaging in a bit of altruism is also a dead-cert mood elevator. Humans are social animals, and making sure that other members of our species get a helping hand from time to time is guaranteed to make ourselves feel better too.
The effect of indiscriminate kindness (assisting a stranger) however, isn’t as massive as some have purported it to be – less than a point on a 1-10 scale, one review paper recently concluded. However, as one of the researchers concluded at the time, “performing acts of kindness will not change your life, but might help nudge it in the right direction.”
Teamwork on a species-wide scale will probably bring a smile to your face. Blazej Lyjak/Shutterstock
Ultimately, happiness is also a very personal thing. The best advice, then, is to make of list of things that already make you happy, add a few things to it that you think will make you happy, and go out and cross them off, one by one. Be bold, though – life is far too short to stick to conventions!