Proven methods to improve your happiness

Have you seen the movie Happy? It's a documentary by Roko Belic and I highly recommend it.  One of the most interesting things I learned watching the movie is that there are three categories of factors that influence how happy we are.


Yes, supposedly our genetic makeup determines our natural range of endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin levels. These and a host of other chemicals are responsible for our alertness, sense of well being, and happiness.  The levels of these chemicals and hormones establish a set-point around which our level of happiness fluctuates.

Our circumstances

Where we live, our social or economic status, our health. Our life's circumstances can trigger and affect the levels of the above chemicals within our natural range.

Intentional behavior

The things we do with our lives, the choices that we make, and the thoughts that we choose to give life.  Your chosen actions, routines, and behaviours affect your body (brain) chemistry as well.

Now genetics are supposedly about 50% of your happiness and there's not much you can (naturally) do about this one.  This is one area in which it's okay to blame your parents.  (Joking)

Now here's where the real surprise comes in.  For most of us, our circumstances - our wealth, our health, our social setting- all of the things that we normally focus on, account for only 10 % of our happiness level.  Unless you are living in extreme duress and your immediate safety is threatened, e.g. you are starving, homeless,or dying of disease - then your circumstances have less than a 10% effect on your level of happiness.

That leaves 40% under the area of intentional behavior.  That means that your daily choices and routines can have a HUGE impact on your level of happiness.  Listed below are some activities that have been scientifically shown to improve feelings of well being and happiness.

1.  Count your blessings.  Numerous studies show that spending just a few minutes a day taking the time to acknowledge 4-5 things that you are grateful for relieves anxiety and improves happiness.

2Move around.  A few hours a week of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, running, biking, swimming, or yoga will produce a more optimum level of hormones for a healthy brain chemistry.  Doing this in a fun manner improves the results.

3.  Nurture meaningful relationships.  A Japanese study published in 2008 found that often our most contented moments involve connecting with other people. 

4.  Get plenty of rest.  Seven to eight hours  of sleep is needed for most people to be at their best.  Don't have time to sleep this much?  Your health and happiness will suffer.  You might find that you will be much more productive when you get enough rest.  Your mind will be sharper and studies show that happy people are generally more productive.

5.  Go outdoors. Vitamin D is essential for your mental health.  Low levels of vitamin D can result in increased anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.  Exposure to morning sun also helps to keep your circadian rhythm in tact so that you sleep well at night.

6.  Perform acts of kindness.  If you are short on money then help with your time.  If you have more money than time, then be financially generous.  Studies show that although small daily acts of kindness will make us feel more helpful, significant acts of generosity generally lead to improving our happiness.

If you are interested in more details on the science of happiness check out "The How of Happiness" by Sonja Lyubomirsky or "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert.

Zen Presence - Ideas for meaningful living


  1. Good reminders. I need to work on 2 and 5. There is no sunlight in the winter in Michigan, and taking vitamin D definitely helps my mood. But we're on the other side of December, so the days are definitely getting brighter! (Literally and figuratively, of course)

  2. I've read a lot of the same research, and I find myself agreeing with what you've written above. It seems to me like once you've done the basics (like the stuff you've recommended) then there's not a whole lot more that is worth doing to increase your happiness. I can't help but think that once you've reached a base level of happiness, it's not worth fighting for incremental increases. What do you think, can you have enough happiness?

    1. Hi John,

      Interesting question. My personal feelings are that happiness is important because it means enjoying and appreciating this wonderful opportunity that we have. Happy people are generally more productive- I'm aware that there are exceptions. Beyond a base level of happiness it might be a little shallow just to run around seeking blind happiness and I believe that pursuing happiness in this manner alone is fruitless. Sometimes we need a short term boost to our level of happiness just to be more functional and need to seek out happiness for it's own sake.

      Now to fully answer your question - No I do not think that you can have enough deep happiness - the kind of happiness that comes from doing meaningful work, from helping others, from stretching the very definition of what it means to be a human. I strive to fill the four Bodhisattva vows.

      Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
      Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
      Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
      Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

    2. Zen teacher Taitaku Pat Phelan said,

      When we take these vows, an intention is created, the seed of an effort to follow through. Because these vows are so vast, they are, in a sense, undefinable. We continually define and redefine them as we renew our intention to fulfill them. If you have a well-defined task with a beginning, middle, and end, you can estimate or measure the effort needed. But the Bodhisattva Vows are immeasurable. The intention we arouse, the effort we cultivate when we call forth these vows, extends us beyond the limits of our personal identities.

  3. I did see the movie Happy and like you walked away with a new awareness of the types of happiness we can have. On my reading list is definitely the How of Happiness as I keep coming across this title. On the same subject I read Gretchen Rubin's book on Happiness and found it to be lacking in every way. It felt forced, and more torture to her than happiness.

  4. Thanks for sharing :) I need to work on doing all of those activities more, in particular exercising and making meaningful connections. I will also check out the move Happy, it sounds interesting.

  5. Add to the sleep advice that one should fit his/her sleeping hours so that there's an equal amount of daylight or darkness at each end of the sleep cycle. In the winter most of us go to bed way too late.

    1. Hi Oliver. Thanks for reading.

      I agree on the sleeping hours. I go to bed very early and get up very early in the winter. It is the summer that is a problem for me, I can't make myself wind down when it's still daylight and I end up getting to bed late.


  6. I really like the above post about practicing everyday. Keeping that in the back of my mind makes it easier to stop thinking about what I did or didn't do the day before. Understanding and focusing on today and today's practice is what I need to to right now.