10 Ways to be Happier in 2023, According to Science in 2022
Resolutions that can actually make your life better
Welcome back to Age Wise, exploring the science of improving physical health and mental wellness at every stage of life. I’m taking a newsletter semi-break again this week, then back in January. Meantime, here’s my latest article on Medium, reproduced wholly for you here:
After another year dominated by stress, strife and uncertainty, vague New Year’s resolutions like lose weight or exercise more just don’t seem adequate. So I sifted through the 100+ articles I wrote during 2022 and selected nine that promise to help improve your physical, mental and emotional well-being — all of which can add up to greater happiness. First, let’s get real about this whole pursuit:
1. Don’t try to be happier
Happiness results not from the direct pursuit of it, but indirectly through the ways we approach life, what we expect from it, and how we take care of ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally. Instead of pursuing happiness, resolve not to, and you’ll lift a big burden of thought energy that you can apply to any of the nine other things on this list. As I wrote:
The pursuit of happiness is ingrained in our minds, and even though it fuels materialism and overconsumption, leading more often than not to disappointment and even depression, we humans keep wanting more, scientists write in the Captain Obvious summary of a new study.
2. Do nothing for a change
Society tells us we must always be accomplishing something, or at least striving to do so. Whose insane idea was this? What’s wrong with a little boredom? Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that doing nothing can be really something.
For starters, plenty of research (by very busy scientists) shows that working too much is bad for health and shortens lives. Other studies find overall well-being improves when we stop trying to be so damn productive. And boredom, as boring as it may seem, can lead to greater creativity.
3. Embrace solitude
The best time to do nothing is when you’re by yourself. If being alone makes you feel lonely, recognize that as an emotion, whereas solitude is a situation, an opportunity for marvelous me-time. Time alone is time to get in touch with your body and mind, explore new experiences, and gain confidence in your ability to fly solo. Here’s how I think of it:
I crave solitude. Especially when I’m around a lot of people. In fact, my loneliest moments often come when I’m around others but feel on the outskirts of their social circle. While I can be comfortable in a small group or even a mass gathering for a stretch, ultimately I just love being alone, sometimes to simply sit and do nothing.
4. Find the bright side
Optimism can add years to your life, multiple studies show. It can be hard to tease out cause and effect, but focusing on the negative aspects of life is stressful, while focusing on positive things promotes better sleep, better heart health and a greater ability to deal with all that stress. Mindfulness meditation is one great way to better understand the crazy stuff going on inside your head, get a handle on your emotions, and deal better with negative thoughts.
If you’re a pessimist you might consider hitching a ride with someone who embraces positive thinking. Choosing a happy, optimistic partner can be one key to a healthy romantic relationship.
5. Be a better person
“You ought to be a better person in the second half of your life than the first half,” Warren Buffett, the 91-year-old investing guru, said during his annual shareholder meeting. Great. But how? There are many strategies and tactics for improving your person. They all start with honest self-evaluation (the hardest step) then include obvious but challenging things like being a better listener, reaching out more to others, and letting go of anger and hatred. In my mind, one big step is simply being nicer to people.
If we don’t do anything else on this planet worth a hoot, we can at least be nice to others, even if we vehemently disagree with them on whatever whatever. (And yes, I’ve got some work to do on this one, so don’t think I’m being preachy.)
6. Spend more time outside
The trappings of modern life have robbed us of one of the most crucial daily behaviors which, for millions of years, kept our circadian rhythms in sync so that the mind and body knew when to be most awake and alert and when to let go of it all and nod off into a deep, restorative sleep that fuels a positive cycle of overall well-being. Seek natural daylight, outdoors, as soon as possible after you wake up and as much as possible each day.
It’s hard to imagine a simpler or more effective prescription for improving brain power, emotional stability, productivity, and overall health and happiness than this one: Spend more time outside. Soaking up plenty of natural daylight, even on a cloudy day, is vital to falling asleep at a reasonable time each night.
7. Get 22 minutes of daily physical activity
You might be sick of hearing it, but one of the best things you can do for your body and mind is to move more. Almost any movement will do. A brisk daily walk is a perfect approach. Yoga, biking, weightlifting, sports, even climbing stairs at work — it all counts. And you don’t have to do it all in one session. The point is to simply get off your butt and do what you can, a little more than yesterday, and work up to a minimum of 22 minutes a day, or 150 minutes per week.
Getting 22 minutes of daily moderate activity has been linked directly to sharper minds, less stress and anxiety, greater happiness, and longer life.
8. Carve out time for yourself
Sure, sure, you don’t have time to do any of the things on this list. Seriously? You can’t find 22 minutes, or maybe an hour? Science argues otherwise. The average person spends 20% of their life on their phones these days, and much of that time promotes little more than stress, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Experiments with university students revealed 10 little nudges that can help a typical phone-user free up an hour of time each day. In order of effectiveness:
Enable screen-time tracking
Keep your phone away while sleeping
Set your phone screen to grayscale
Hide social media apps
Make your phone less accessible
Make your phone harder to unlock
Change your display settings
Move phone tasks to computers
Leave your phone at home when you can
9. Don’t overthink things
Okay, I’m throwing a lot at you. Whatever you do, don’t try to do all these things at once. Don’t even try to think about them all today. After all, overtaxing the brain leads to fatigue and can suppress the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical.
Several hours of intense thinking generates a buildup of a toxic chemical messenger in the prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for, among other vital functions, making decisions and solving problems, scientists explain today in the journal Current Biology. The buildup can alter how effectively we think, and it apparently pushes us to stop thinking so much, to protect the mind from overwork.
10. Wisen up
Wise people are healthier and happier. But wisdom does not come automatically with age. No amount of smarts guarantees it, either. We know these truths because 82% of people surveyed think they’re usually right and other people are usually wrong (muster all your wisdom and contemplate that math). But you can take steps to become wiser, starting with a heaping helping of humility. You just might be wrong now and then. Here are key traits to strive for if you’d like to be happier by gaining a little wisdom:
Self-reflection: Understand your own thoughts, motivations, and actions.
Prosocial behaviors: Maintain positive social connections and act with compassion, empathy, altruism, and a sense of fairness.
Emotional regulation: Manage negative emotions and stress that can get in the way of decision-making, and lean into positive emotions.
Acceptance of diverse perspectives: Learn about and accept perspectives and value systems outside your own.
Decisiveness: Make decisions in a timely manner with comfort.
Social advising: Give good advice to others.
Spirituality: Connect with yourself, with nature, or with a transcendent entity such as the soul or God.
Bonus suggestion: Succeeding at any of the above resolutions requires some daily intention and focus, tactics and strategies to relax the mind and deal productively with all the challenges that come your way while also zeroing in on some much-needed self-improvement. I’ve got you covered in this 3-minute read on… how to feel better in 3 minutes. Happy New Year!
Your support makes this free newsletter possible. If you find it useful, please consider forwarding it. You can find more of my health and wellness writing on Medium. Also find me on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin. And if you ever feel tired, unfocused, stressed or cranky in the afternoon, check out my book, Make Sleep Your Superpower. —Rob
Note: The above article was first published on Medium.