The Pursuit of Happiness

17 simple habits that will change your life.

    Photo: Grace Chon

Run Like Hal

Ultrarunner Hal Koerner has a formula for fitness and life that keeps him winning and smiling. So follow his lead —just don't try to keep up.

The tendency to be happy or not is an inherited trait, but the good news is that this is less than half the story. According to a 2012 study of identical and fraternal twins conducted by a team of scientists from top universities around the world, only about a third of our happiness level is determined by genes. The rest is up to us.

Looking for drivers of well-being, the researchers zeroed in on a gene that aids in the transport of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In the biochemistry of mood, serotonin plays a role much like the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, bringing brightness and cheer, and regulates stress levels, sleep, and pain, among other things. The study found that those who’d inherited longer variations of -the gene had a slight increase in overall happiness, but surveys of the twins suggested that genes get only a minority vote when it comes to mood.

Other research indicates that how happy you are can influence the ways your genes are expressed. In a 2013 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of North Carolina reported that happiness levels have powerful effects on genes and our health. But there was a catch: the specific kind of happiness mattered a lot. The unselfishly happy, whose feelings of well-being involved a deep sense of purpose in life, had a strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

Happy hedonists, meanwhile, wrapped up in materialistic pleasures, had weaker immune systems, resulting in inflammation that can lead to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. “Even pleasures that seem virtuous, like looking at a sunset, can be hedonic, because they involve one’s own emotional gratification,” explains UCLA professor of medicine Steven Cole, the senior author of the study. “The real distinction is whether your happiness is tied into purpose and meaning outside yourself.”

Bottom line: like so many things, how happy you are comes down to how you choose to live your life. We’ve rounded up the latest beta on how to show your DNA who’s boss.

Hal Koerner   Photo: Peggy Sirota

1. Rise with the Sun

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Exercising consistently is the best thing you can do for your brain

Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Less than that and we’re crankier, dumber, sicker, and even fatter. But that’s no excuse to sleep in. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine notes that more time awake in daylight increases your levels of vitamin D, which the body synthesizes when skin is exposed to the sun. The vitamin, according to Boston University medical researchers, gooses genes that play a role in resistance to autoimmune and infectious diseases, as well as cancer. Think you’re wired to sleep late? Think again. Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston looked at variations in a gene responsible for circadian rhythms and found differences in natural wake times of only an hour tops.

2. Get Dirty

Dirt may be the new Prozac. Working in soil raises your spirits, in part because you pick up cheerful germs while digging. University of Colorado researcher Christopher Lowry injected mice with dirt-dwelling Mycobacterium vaccae and found increased serotonin in the critters’ prefrontal cortex. Getting your own dose is as easy as taking a walk in the wilderness or planting something. You don’t need to wait until spring: even in the dead of winter you can sprout basil seeds in a pot on your sunniest windowsill.

3. Make Every Day Saturday

You don’t need science to tell you that you’re happier on the weekends, but a 2010 University of Rochester study of 74 adults explains why that’s so. It’s not just time away from a desk; it’s the freedom to make choices. “Our findings highlight just how important free time is to an individual’s well-being,” wrote psychologist Richard Ryan, the study’s author. Ryan and his colleagues also found that you can get even more out of your time off if you spend it with people you care about and get outside, which “adds to vitality.” Bonus: you can get doses of that weekend buzz on weekdays, too. Here’s how:

  • Start a regular run or bike ride with coworkers. You’ll build relationships while releasing endorphins.
  • One night every week, schedule at least two hours away from home, but don’t plan anything. The spontaneity and freedom will give you a TGIF buzz.
  • Pitch a tent in a nearby patch of woods. Just get up in time to take a shower at home before work.
Act like it's the weekend.   Photo: JF Creatives/Gallery Stock

4. Crank the Tunes

That emotional rush you feel when you listen to your favorite songs? It’s chemical. In 2011, neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues at Montreal’s McGill University conducted a study demonstrating that hearing music causes the brain to pump out dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and anticipated reward. Music lovers in the study chose what to play—everything from classical to Led Zeppelin to techno—then the researchers used a combination of technologies to scan their brains while they kicked back and listened. The dopamine surge was greatest just before and during favorite parts of a song.

5. Drink Up

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Dehydration makes you cranky. A 2012 study by a consortium of researchers that included the U.S. Army showed that even a mild case of it made healthy young people gloomy and pessimistic. When subjects fully hydrated, then exercised or took diuretics to lose, on average, 1.4 percent of their body weight, their moods slid, possibly because certain neurons can detect dehydration and may alert parts of the brain that manage mood. How much do we need to drink to stay happy? One rule of thumb is to halve your weight and drink that many fluid ounces daily—i.e., a 180-pound man would drink 90 ounces, or about 11 glasses. Of course, the need to rehydrate soars when you exercise. One reliable gauge: your pee should be clear or pale yellow, more pinot grigio than Gatorade.

Drop in.   Photo: Anne Menke

6. Hit the Beach

It’s not just the oiled bods. Research has found that people with depression, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s all lack vitamin D, which your body produces when your skin is exposed to direct sunlight. And recent British studies have confirmed that views of the ocean and other blue spaces make us happier than other landscapes. Some researchers think the reason could be evolutionary, that our biggest step was learning to catch fish, which added omega-3 fatty acids to our diet. (Omega-3’s have been known to lower rates of depression.) Others, like Wallace J. Nichols, a scientist and author of BlueMind, a forthcoming book about how water improves our health and mood, point to the feelings of awe and wonder we have when we gaze at oceans, lakes, or rivers. “It spurs the brain to release a mix of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins,” Nichols says. “It gives us a sense of oneness with the universe.” You know, like Ommm.

Drop in.   Photo: Anne Menke

7. Play More

Because having fun means you’ll keep at activities that are good for you. After surveying college students, researchers at Southeastern Louisiana University found that enjoying an activity—whether playing on a soccer team, training for a triathlon, or taking long hikes—is the best method for staying motivated and sticking to a routine. “Pure enjoyment,” wrote Marcus Kilpatrick, the study’s lead author, “is a strong predictor of future behavior.”

8. Go Screenless

How bad are your screens for mood and productivity? Let us count the ways. A 2013 study published by the Public Library of Science showed that more use of Facebook meant less sense of well-being and more feelings of envy. Responses to National Geographic’s True Happiness Test survey in 2011 suggested that the happiest people were those who watched less than an hour of television a day. And in 2009, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, asked a team at the Boston Consulting Group to unplug—no e-mail, texting, or client calls—one night a week. Five weeks in, the consultants were functioning better as a team and did more work in less time. Four years hence, the weekly disconnect remains company policy.

Live by Bike

Never mind the health and environmental benefits—it's good for the soul

9. Give Your Time

Multiple studies have shown that volunteering increases well-being while also lowering cholesterol and reducing mortality rates among volunteers. “It’s like going to a chiropractor for your soul,” says Brad Ludden, founder of First Descents, which offers outdoor adventures to kids and young adults diagnosed with cancer. “It realigns everything, and your problems don’t seem as large anymore.” The best volunteer experiences are those that connect to your passions, says Suzanne Richards, author of a 2013 study at the University of Exeter Medical School that found that volunteers live longer, are less depressed, and have enhanced feelings of well-being. “The important thing is that people feel they are getting something out of it,” Richards says.

10. Train with a Team

In 2009, researchers at Oxford University discovered that exercising in a group makes you train harder and leaves you with a higher level of endorphins than when you exercise alone. Another study, in 2010, by the University of Ballarat in Australia, found that those who played club sports (baseball, basketball, soccer) had better mental health and were more satisfied with their lives than those who didn’t. Don’t know where to start? Try Team in Training (teamintraining.org), the world’s biggest club of endurance athletes. 

Train in tandem.

11. Get High on Chocolate

A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people who are depressed eat more chocolate. Why? Other research found that chocolate contains valeric acid, a relaxant and tranquilizer. The smell of chocolate slows down brain waves, helping us feel calmer. And certain compounds in it spur our brains to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that have a similar effect on well-being as opiates. 

12. Eat Happy Meals

What you ingest can have a huge impact on the level of neurotransmitters in your brain. Here are the top feel-good foods and active compounds that lift your spirits.

  • Elk. Elk meat is rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the body synthesize the happy neurotransmitter serotonin. Also packing high levels are spirulina, spinach, turkey, egg whites, black beans, split peas, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, cashews, and almonds.
  • Greens. They’re rich in folate, a benevolent B vitamin that also aids in synthesizing serotonin and helps ward off cancer and the degenerative diseases associated with aging. Follow Popeye’s lead: amp up your intake of dark leafy vegetables like spinach and collard and turnip greens.
  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid. Nothing we eat actually contains GABA, a neurotransmitter known as nature’s Valium for its calming effects, but certain foods contain its building block, the amino acid glutamine. Among them: pork, beef, sesame and sunflower seeds, oats, cabbage, spinach, and parsley.
  • Indian food. Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, boosts production of serotonin. In a 2013 study at the Baylor Research Institute in Dallas, 500 milligrams of curcumin twice a day proved to be as effective an antidepressant as Prozac.
  • Healthy fats. In particular, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the most abundant fatty acid in the brain and an important moderator of mood and mental health. A 2011 study of military personnel found that suicide risk was highest among those with the lowest DHA levels. Where to get it? Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna, plus shrimp and other shellfish.

13. Raise a Glass

Turns out that moderate drinkers—people who imbibe no more than 14 alcoholic drinks a week—are healthier and happier than abstainers. A 2012 Boston University School of Medicine study tracked a panel of middle-aged men and women for 14 years and determined that moderate drinkers had fewer chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancers, and higher levels of HDL, the good cholesterol. More surprising still: the study showed that quality of life actually went down among those who curbed their intake. And other research demonstrated that beer and liquor are just as good for you as wine. We’ll drink to that.

14. Keep Animal Friends Close

Dog, cat, lizard, pig—doesn't matter. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found no consistent differences between owners of different types of pets, only that having one makes us healthier and happier. The study also concluded that pet owners have greater self-esteem and tend to be less fearful. 

Reported by Erin Beresini, Frederick Reimers, Jen Schwartz, and Mike Steere.

Find a furry friend.   Photo: Lilly Dong

More Happiness Strategies:

  • Live by Bike: Never mind the health and environmental benefits—it's good for the soul
  • Break a Sweat: Exercising consistently is the best thing you can do for your brain
  • Tell Better Jokes: Proven strategies for getting laughs, plus some always winning punch lines

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