Can You Really Boost Your Happiness?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 01, 2013
From the WebMD Archives

Happiness is a serious subject for many researchers these days. Some studies show that you have some control over how happy you feel.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor and happiness researcher, writes that your genes decide about 50% of your happiness. Issues in your life that may be hard to change -- like your looks, your health, and your income -- only explain about 10%. That leaves about 40% up to you. It’s something you can control.

"Happiness is much better thought of as a skill or a set of skills that we need to learn and practice," says Christine Carter, PhD, author of Raising Happiness. These skills are like speaking a foreign language: They come easier to some people, but working on them helps you get better at them. "Everybody needs to practice those skills before they can become fluent."

Connect with others.

"A person's happiness is best predicted by their connections to other people," Carter says. Give some thought to how connected you feel to other people, like your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. If you don't feel close to many people, make an effort to:

  • Spend more time with your friends and loved ones.
  • Get out of your house and meet new people:
    -- Join a club.
    -- Take a class.
    -- Check out a church or other religious gathering that interests you.

Spending time on social media web sites isn't the same as connecting with people in real life, she says. A study of 82 Facebook users found that the more time they spent on the site, the worse they felt. Social media should add to your person-to-person time, not replace it, she says. If you feel jealous that other people appear to be having a happier life than you are, consider cutting back on these sites.

Practice healthy habits.

The practices that are good for your body can also set the stage for happiness. Namely, Carter suggests getting enough sleep and exercise. Studies support this advice.

An August 2013 study found that people who slept more on some nights than others had less sense of well-being than those who got good sleep on a regular basis.

Research has also found that exercise can:

  • Boost your happiness right away
  • Help you feel happier in general if you exercise on a regular basis

Consider going for a walk or bike ride with a friend – or group of friends -- so you can connect with others while you get active.

Work on feeling grateful.

"Practicing gratitude is one of my favorite instant happiness-boosters," Carter says. Research supports the idea that regularly feeling grateful can raise your happiness level. Ways to practice gratitude include:

  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write down the people, events, and things you're grateful to have in your life, and add to the list and review it on a regular basis.
  • Take a moment of silence at dinner. Reflect on the food you're about to eat and the other ways that your needs are being met.
  • Make an effort to feel grateful. Think of a variety of things, rather than just the same one over and over.

Help others.

Studies have shown that people around the world say they feel happy when they spend money on other people or give to charity. Research has found that even toddlers act happier when they help others.

Helping others doesn't require giving lots of your time or money. Even small gifts can make you feel happier, Carter says. For instance:

  • Pay a bridge or highway toll for yourself and the person behind you.
  • Smile at people and ask how they're doing.

These gestures can give others a sense that people are kind and the world is a better place, she says. And you come away happy that you're a force of good in the world.

Show Sources


Christine Carter, PhD, sociologist with UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, author, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, Ballantine Books, 2010.

Lyubomirsky, S. The How of Happiness, Penguin Press, 2008.

Kross, E. PLoS One, Aug. 14, 2013.

Lemola, S. PLoS One, Aug. 14, 2013.

Wang, F. American Journal of Epidemiology, Dec. 15, 2012.

Emmons, R.A. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Aknin, L.B. PLoS One, June 14, 2012.

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