Our same old routines and out-of-control smartphone addictions aren't doing much for our quality of life. So we experimented with simple lifestyle changes that max out fitness and health, and are guaranteed to leave you with a permagrin.
The Problem: You're Easily Distracted
The Fix: Learn how to be bored.
“Boredom is an interesting emotion that’s much more complicated than previously assessed,” says Thomas Goetz, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject. Scientists have found that the bored brain is highly active, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, a region thought to play a role in memory consolidation and retrieval, decision making, and emotional processing. Boredom may allow two traditionally opposed brain networks to work together—the default network, or what your brain does when you’re not engaged in a task, and the executive, task-focused network. The result: “Boredom can foster creativity,” Goetz says, making us seek new social, cognitive, and emotional experiences that we otherwise would’ve missed. In other words, boredom is a beneficial mental state that you should indulge in—if you do it right.
Do: Learn which types of boredom are good for you. Researchers have identified five of them, three of which can have positive effects: “Indifferent boredom—like when you’re tired at night or in a lecture that’s tedious and your thoughts wander—can lead to creative ideas,” says Goetz. Calibrated boredom, which occurs when we want to do something but aren’t sure what, can make us open to new things. And searching boredom, when we’re restless and actively looking for something to do, leads to new discoveries.
Don’t: Indulge in the two types of toxic boredom. So-called reactant boredom can occur when you’re forced to stay in a situation—like watching a terrible movie—and you get irritable and want to do something else. And apathetic boredom is a feeling of learned helplessness similar to depression, when you have no motivation to do anything.
The Problem: Hedonic Adaptation (You’re in a Rut)
The Fix: Override your brain.
Just like unvaried workout routines lead to fitness plateaus, happiness has its own mood plateaus. Psychologists call it hedonic adaptation. “It’s the term for, ‘It was great at first, but now I’m used to it,’” says Kennon Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri whose research centers on what it takes to boost happiness and keep it elevated. Luckily, Sheldon has found a simple way to override the brain’s tendency to adapt: variety. Novelty activates the reward area of the brain, which in turn stimulates the amygdala (the brain’s emotional processor) and the hippocampus (the memory center). The result: greater happiness and enhanced learning. “Fresh experiences are what we need to stay up at the top end of our happiness range,” Sheldon says.
Do: Make small tweaks to your everyday routine. You can stimulate neural circuits by driving home by a different route or running your favorite loop in the other direction. “Get engaged in it so it’s different every time in some little way,” Sheldon says. For a double whammy of happy, try picking up a new sport: you’ll get the benefits of novelty and the exercise-induced endorphin release associated with feelings of euphoria.
Don’t: Feel like you must constantly try new things. Simply thinking about your routine in a different way can boost happiness level. “If you’re paying attention to details—like, Ah, that flower opened up an inch since yesterday,” Sheldon says, “that can give you the stimulus you need."
The Problem: Work Is Your Life
The Fix: Road Trip!
Americans suck at vacations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly a quarter of private-sector workers don’t get paid time off. And those who do use only 51 percent of it, a recent survey for the careers website Glassdoor found. The net result is the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve by staying punched in: a fat drop in productivity. “Vacations give us new perspective on life, on circumstances, on relationship issues”—even on work projects, says Francine Lederer, a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist.
Do: Head out of town. Research suggests that exposure to new places, especially foreign cultures, makes us more creative. Seeing life through other peoples’ eyes can improve our ability to problem solve and help us overcome what psychologists call functional fixedness, or our tendency to see things only how we’re used to seeing them.
Don’t: Worry if you can’t get away. Staycations are also beneficial—if you’re relaxed. Part of a vacation’s revitalizing magic is its ability to counteract stress, which researchers believe may shrink dendrites—branch-like projections that transmit information between brain cells, including those in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with decision making and long-term memory. Alpha waves, the brain’s most relaxed state of mind, are most likely to kick in when you’re stress-free. “The higher the productivity of alpha waves, the more likely you’ll feel creative and have a better mindset,” Lederer says.
The Problem: You're a Low-Level Hoarder
The Fix: Purge.
Visual noise—like the gear piles in your garage—can overload the brain’s limited processing capacity, making it difficult for the brain to choose goals (I need to do my taxes!) over stimuli (Look at all those crampons!). Princeton University neuroscientists recently linked clutter to frustration, distraction, low productivity, and a hampered ability to process information—and that’s just for the junk you can see. Luckily, the cure is straightforward: get rid of the extra stuff. Bonus: researchers at the University of Maryland also found that purging possessions can lead to weight loss.
Do: Focus on the feeling you want from your gear closet. “It sounds counterintuitive, but if you target the stuff itself, you’ll never get organized,” says Peter Walsh, an expert in organizational design. Do you want to feel like what you have supports the activities you do? Then get rid of that climbing gear you haven’t used in 20 years. “If you open the closet and feel overwhelmed,” Walsh says, “that stuff shouldn’t be there.” Once you’ve made your parting pile, give the rejects to a friend or charity for an extra happiness boost.
Don’t: Ditch everything. Researchers at Yale found that we activate the same part of our brain that feels pain when getting rid of things we’re emotionally attached to. “The way to avoid the pain of letting go,” Walsh says, “is to find one or two treasures and treat them with honor and respect by displaying them in your home.” Try mounting the handlebars from your first mountain bike like moose antlers, for example. “You’ll find the fear disappears,” Walsh says, “and it won’t be as hard to let go.”
The Problem: Vitamin Z Deficiency
The Fix: Sleep smarter.
Everything from muscle growth to tissue repair to memory consolidation happens when we’re snoozing. And anyone who’s pulled an all-nighter knows that lack of sleep can tank your mood, making you irritable and even hostile. Yet nearly a third of Americans—105 million people—aren’t getting the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation is such a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it a public-health epidemic. Here’s how to up your Z’s.
Do: Nap. Find a dark space with temps in the low seventies and conk out, preferably between 1 and 4 p.m. That’s when your circadian rhythm dips but it’s still early enough to avoid interfering with nighttime sleep.
Don’t: Constantly change the hour you go to bed. It’s well documented that hitting the sack at a consistent time is essential to healthy sleep. What’s harder is actually doing so. That’s why author Gretchen Rubin suggests creating a reminder, like setting an alarm on your phone. “It lets you know you’re up past your bedtime.”
The Problem: You're Sick of Happiness Advice
The Fix: Get in a fight! (Plus: four other surprising solutions.)
Some of the everyday stuff we do without thinking—or think is bad—jacks up our happiness, too. Here are a few surprising paths to enlightenment.
Ride the subway. Researchers from Sweden’s Karlstad University found that using public transportation can increase satisfaction because we don’t have to worry about traffic.
Watch sad movies. Ohio State University researchers found that tear-jerkers make us happier because they prompt us to think about our good relationships.
Fight back. Researchers at Vanderbilt University believe that aggression makes our brains release dopamine. For the sanctity of your police record, we recommend a boxing class or pickup football.
Don’t: Be afraid to throw out the rules and do whatever you want.