If there is anything that everyone undoubtedly wants in their life, it is that often elusive feeling of happiness. Famously, a high-profile engineer called Mo Gawdat has even come up with a kind of algorithm for happiness in his book Solve for Happy.
"Happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the way you view the events in your life minus your expectations about how life should behave. Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you're happy — or at least not unhappy," writes Gawdat.
He spends more than 300 pages aiming to explain the basis for this algorithm and his philosophy of happiness. But there is, of course, no miracle recipe that all of us can follow to feel that glow of joy 24/7.
In this article, we do not tell you how to reach Nirvana. Instead, we look at the small things that most of us can reasonably achieve in the New Year so that we may improve our mental and physical well-being.
Here are some steps that you can take starting right now to boost your quality of life. The rest is up to you, so mind that you keep your New Year's resolutions!
1. Be more active
This year, many studies have focused on the role of physical exercise not only in keeping us fit, but also in improving other aspects of our physical and mental health.
A study conducted earlier this year by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan, Canada, found that women's perception of their own bodies improves after they exercise. The effect appears to be immediate and doesn't depend on mood or actual state of fitness after exercising.
Furthermore, numerous recent studies have shown that exercise can counteract and prevent depression, which affects 40 million adults in the United States every year.
And, if you're struggling to keep up the motivation to go out for a jog or ride your bike, then there's a simple fix: just focus on doing the kind of exercise that makes you happy.
"[A]ny movement is better than nothing," explains Michelle Segar, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so we should stop feeling guilty about not reaching a set target or not exercising at a certain intensity.
What's really important is to find the fitness routine that suits us best, so we can follow it more easily.
And, while we're considering what new sports or activities we could take up in the New Year to boost our happiness levels, why not try something off the trodden path? Bouldering has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression, such as low moods, fatigue, and a lack of concentration.
Why not try yoga and meditation?
Speaking of mindfulness, practices such as yoga and meditation have been found to boost quality of life and increase our sense of well-being.
Various recent studies have suggested that yoga is effective in tackling depression, and that it helps to lower anxiety and stress levels. These effects, the researchers found, can last for up to 4 months after participation in a yoga program.
According to a study from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, both yoga and meditation can improve psychological and physiological resistance to stress factors.
This, the authors note, may mean not only that the mental health of people who practice yoga and meditation is not easily affected by negative events, but also that their immune system is better prepared to handle emergencies.
Another study reports that yoga and meditation may even play a role in how our brain contributes to the process of gene expression.
"These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed," asserts lead researcher Ivana Buric.
2. Get enough sleep
Much research published in 2017 has focused on the prominent role played by a good night's sleep in our mental and physical health. Sleep, we now know, is important in memory consolidation, fear learning, and keeping our brain well-rested so that we can react appropriately to events during the day.
Since people affected by insomnia are twice as likely as their peers to develop depression, it comes as no surprise that a good night's sleep should be a priority in our search for happiness and wellness.
Ensuring that we are well rested can make our level of contentment peak, says a study that was conducted by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. The authors of the paper compare this happiness boost with winning the lottery.
They say, "[The benefits of a good night's sleep] are [...] comparable with the average improvement in well-being (1.4-point reduction) shown by [lottery winners in the U.K.] 2 years after a medium-sized (£1000–£120000 in 1998 money) lottery win."
Medical News Today put together a collection of tips on how to ensure that you get good-quality sleep. Aside from the practical things you can do to minimize the possibility of disrupted sleep — such as avoiding looking at a bright screen before bedtime — researchers report that mindset is important.
A study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL, suggests that people who have a clear life purpose do actually sleep better at night.
So, as you draft your New Year's resolutions, why not take a step back and consider what your main goals in life are, and how you can achieve them?
3. Settle for a happy diet
This may come as no surprise, but what you eat does influence your mood. Research published in PLOS Online earlier this year argued that eating a fruit- and veggie-happy diet may improve mental health within 2 weeks.
The study authors found that adding more servings of fruits and vegetables to our usual intake could make us feel more motivated and boost our energy levels.
A systematic review of multiple studies that investigated the link between diet and mental health concluded that a Mediterranean-style diet consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains could prevent depression.
However, a study published only this month argues that what we should eat to make us happy will largely depend on how old we are.
Thus, young adults (aged 18 to 29) will benefit from eating more white and red meat, while adults aged 30 and over should eat more fruit and veg if they're looking for a mood boost.
Also, there's no need to cut down on hot chocolate after the holiday season; researchers confirmed that cocoa can work miracles for your psychological well-being, mood, and potentially even cognitive abilities, too.
4. Make friends with the great outdoors
Research also suggests that, if we want to get that joie de vivre into our lives in 2018, then we had better spend more time outside. Going to the local shopping mall won't cut it, however. In order to really feel happier, we should spend more time in nature.
One study shows that green spaces make us happy, and, conversely, when we don't have access to nature, we tend to become depressed.
"Higher levels of green space [in a neighborhood] were associated with lower symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress [in the members of the local community]."
Dr. Kristen Malecki, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Moreover, a recent experiment conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia showed that people who took a minute to observe small details in nature and register the emotional impact caused by these felt happier and more connected to their peers.
So, one easy step that you can take to improve your life in 2018 is simply a step outside — and then keep on walking. After all, a leisurely walk on its own has been found to have a positive effect on mood.
Get your creativity on!
Another way of boosting happiness in 2018, then, is to take a walk in your local park and plan a creative activity for that day.
This can be anything from cooking and baking, if you're that way inclined, to painting, writing, or starting a DIY project. The choice is up to you!
If you're stuck at home on your own, use that time to do something creative, too. A recent study has shown that sometimes we may need some "time out," away from our peers, in order to really be able to tap into our creative resources.
You can also put on some happy music if you need that extra boost to your imagination. Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have shown that alert instrumental pieces such as The Four Seasons concerto by Antonio Vivaldi work best for this purpose.
5. Be kind to others and to yourself
Finally, but very importantly, in order to achieve a stronger sense of fulfilment and well-being, you should learn to treat yourself with kindness — and then extend that generosity to others.
Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. found that, although self-acceptance is a habit that can lead to greater happiness, it is one that very few people have formed.
A study conducted earlier this year also confirmed that, if we embrace our negative emotions, we are less at risk of perpetuating them and more likely to achieve self-healing. One of our goals in the New Year should definitely be practicing more self-love and self-care.
At the same time, the care that we show to others, as well as our degree of gratefulness toward our peers, can influence our levels of happiness.
Profs. Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, showed that generosity is strongly associated with happiness, and we feel more joy when we give.
This supports previous research that indicated that volunteer work brings psychological benefits.
Lastly, remember to just be thankful. Gratitude for what we have, and for the people in our lives, is another important factor when it comes to mental well-being, leading to more optimism and improved relationships.