You can find plenty of articles in magazines or on the Internet with tips for living a happier, more fulfilling life. Things like “exercise” and “be an understanding spouse” are all time-honored ways to beat a path to happiness, and won’t be included here. But there are also some seemingly random activities that are more like cheat codes to happiness — things you never would have expected can actually make you feel better about yourself and your life in general. For instance …
- Thinking About Death :Death is a difficult thing to wrap your mind around. Some people never come to terms with it. You are dead much longer than you are alive, your existence temporary and your nonexistence permanent. It’s a tough concept to reconcile, and there’s no possible way it can be anything but depressing, right?Nope. As it turns out, when people think about death, they generally become more pleasant and less crotchety, making better company for everyone around them.
To test the effects of mortality-pondering, researchers examined how people behaved when death had been introduced to their minds, even in the subtlest way possible. In one experiment, they had a group walking right beside a cemetery and another walking a block away next to nothing in particular. An actor would pass both groups and “accidentally” drop a notebook right in front of them. The group closer to the cemetery was 40 percent more likely to help the actor pick up the notebook. The researchers believe that this is because the graveyard made them think about death and, subsequently, how they might live with a little more charity and fellowship while they still could.
The connection may seem like a bit of a leap, but there are several other studies that support this theory. One saw that people with a higher awareness of death were more likely to engage in conservational behavior (like recycling), and another found that when reminded of death, people are more likely to use sunscreen and quit smoking, and generally be more patient with each other. So why does the looming presence of death make us behave more decently? For pretty much the same reason the researchers in the notebook test came up with — when we’re reminded of our own mortality, we want to be better people and make our short time on this world more positive and valuable.
So, as strange as it might feel, give your own mortality a think every once in a while when you’re feeling blah. Or you can just wait for one of the many scientists around the world who apparently go around reminding people about death before making them perform seemingly unrelated and nonsensical tasks.
- Doing Chores :Traditionally, no one likes to do chores. They’re what our parents punished us with when we were growing up, and they’re what we’re stuck doing now every time somebody dies in our apartment. For our lives to be truly blissful, we’d have to have a butler, or be allowed to just hose everything down once a week and order all our meals from Panda Express (ideally, we would have a butler and he would do both of those things for us). However, researchers have found that this is actually completely wrong.
In a study of more than 30,000 people from 34 countries, it was shown that the more housework that men did, the happier they became. It’s suggested that men are generally more supportive of gender equality than was previously thought, and so when they see their wives doing housework by themselves, they feel guilty about not helping out. So, they heave themselves off of the couch/floor/toilet and grab a dust mop, and subsequently feel more content with their role in the household.
On a more specific note, researchers have also found that mowing the lawn is great for you. When green grass is cut, it releases a certain chemical that blocks stress receptors in your brain, so the act of trimming your front yard can actually calm you down. In addition, you get a decent cardio workout from pushing the lawnmower back and forth, which releases endorphins that also make you feel pretty awesome. People with riding mowers presumably replace the cardio bonus with the psychological benefits inherent to tearing around on a toy truck with giant, roaring murder weapons underneath.
- Riding the Subway :Nobody likes the subway. Even the thought of boarding an underground train is a nightmare — awkwardly sitting next to muttering, pit-stained strangers as you struggle to keep your eyes from lighting on anyone else’s for even a moment. It’s a cramped metal coffin in a shallow grave where even the air smells crazy.
Pissing gallantly in the face of all logic and reason, researchers in Sweden discovered that riding the subway can actually make you happy. They recruited participants who usually drove to work and made them change their routine to a daily subway ride instead for an entire month. Before the month began, the researchers asked each person questions about their lives, their well-being and generally how happy they were with their station in the world, presumably weeding out those who might be a little too fragile for the purposes of their study.
They also asked the participants how they were feeling about riding the subway for a month. Without exception, all of them felt like it was going to be a nightmare. But that’s not what happened. Over the course of the month, their moods and attitudes toward the subway slowly but steadily improved, like a tortoise nursing an erection for sustainable behavior. So much so that by the time they reached the end of the month, the participants were feeling better about their general well-being than before the experiment began. Riding the subway made them more content with their lives.
That’s right: The cramped tube and bizarre mutant lunatics actually made them happier. The subjects’ responses suggested that this was because of something called the focusing illusion. Basically, the idea is that we tend to overemphasize the negative aspects of things without giving the positives their fair share. The participants were so focused on being stuck next to stinky maniacs that they didn’t realize how low-stress public transportation can be — you’re free to read, take a nap or just sit quietly with your own thoughts. When you’re driving yourself through rush-hour traffic to work every morning, you pretty much stay tense and agitated for an hour or more, with no chance to relax. Taking the bus or the tube every once in a while could actually improve your general well-being, provided you aren’t Bill Paxton in Predator 2.
- Getting into Fights :Most people who are dicks are dicks on purpose. Human beings have the raw urge to be aggressive and start fights, even if they know that they’re likely to absorb as many or more punches than they actually inflict. It’s why we love wrestling and MMA so much as kids. But is there an extremely unsettling explanation for this obvious fact?
Funny you should ask, because the answer is that, as far as your brain is concerned, fighting is exactly as awesome as sex. Scientists hypothesized that aggressive behavior triggers the release of dopamine, which, as we’ve covered, is the body’s way of dangling a carrot in front of our faces.
This theory was tested in an aggression study on mice, using a “home” male mouse in one cage, and a few “intruder” male mice in another cage. The home mouse began the experiment with a little girlfriend mouse, but the researchers removed the female and replaced her with one of the intruder mice. The home mouse responded by beating the ever-loving crap out of the intruder. They took the intruder out and put him in his own cage, which the home mouse could open at any time by pressing a button. And press the button he did, continuously, to keep rodent-punching the sonofabitch that stole his girl (there is no indication whether the home mouse was wearing an Ed Hardy shirt and/or Axe Body Spray).
After several more rounds of this (read: when it finally stopped being funny to watch a mouse relentlessly stomp another mouse out like a campfire), the researchers injected the home mouse with a drug that blocked the release of dopamine. Immediately, he stopped pressing the button. The home mouse’s aggression was producing the hormone, and he was persistently attacking the intruder mouse to keep the dopamine flowing, much like a drug addict pursuing his next fix. Without the reward of this hormone, he no longer had any incentive to fight and just had to accept the fact that his girl was gone. So, he stopped pressing the asskick button and retired to a corner of his cage to listen to Death Cab for Cutie and flame negative comments on his deviantART poetry.
Anyone who has ever been in a toxic relationship or grew up with parents in a terrible marriage can identify with this behavior. Despite the fact that picking a fight or continuing one can’t possibly benefit either party, arguments can rage through the night, both people driving themselves further and further up shit creek without a doghouse to sleep in. The only thing that ends the argument is separating the two and letting them cool down. Cooling down, of course, really means ending the dopamine bender they’re actually on. So the next time you’re fighting with your spouse, try disabling the button that slides back the glass partition you keep them behind when they’ve pissed you off.
- Keeping Your Mind Busy :Unless your job is Batman, when you think about being happy, nine times out of 10 it has nothing to do with working. There’s nothing more relaxing than the thought of lazing around on the beach or even just on the couch, sipping your favorite drink and letting time pass slowly by with no obligations.
You probably know that keeping physically active is good for your internal happiness meter, but several studies have shown that keeping busy mentally makes you happier than just lying around on the beach, letting your brain take a breather like it’s playing freeze tag with Gilbert Grape’s mom.
In one study, scientists found that participants who multitasked (combined various activities like reading, watching television, studying, etc.) experienced more emotional fulfillment than those who focused on only one activity (or nothing at all). While their cognitive function and brainpower did suffer because of their attention being divided, their overall enjoyment was substantially increased.
In another study, researchers made participants say a bunch of phrases really quickly, with both positive and negative connotations. Regardless of what they were actually saying, the participants still felt a positive emotional boost just from thinking at a quick and continuous pace.
Why is this? One of the primary ways your brain keeps itself motivated is with a chemical called dopamine. It’s the feel-good hormone that makes drugs so popular, but it’s also an important part of the self-regulating system that makes you productive — think of it as a doggy treat that your brain gives itself for doing something right. The more tasks you give your brain to accomplish, the more dopamine gets released into your system.
Of course, this is technically cheating. You’re essentially taking advantage of the fact that your brain grades itself on a super easy curve when there’s some mood candy on the line. This is where workaholics come from. Like any mind-altering chemical, the dopamine that floods your brain when you get stuff done can be used responsibly, or it can keep you away from the people who love you and swallow entire chunks of your life. Chunks of your life when you will almost certainly be photographed wearing some truly embarrassing pants and hair styles.
- Eating Red Meat :We’ve reached the point in the war on fast food where studies are now claiming that red meat will try to murder you like Ian Holm in Alien. But even if that’s true, you will apparently die happy — another study has found that eating red meat is actually very important to your mental health. It makes enough of a difference that consuming less than the recommended amount (or none at all) actually doubles your risk of depression.
The study followed 1,000 Australian women, tracking their eating habits and their emotional health. They then made sure to take into account all other factors, including socioeconomic status, physical health, weight, age and the fact that they live in Australia. They even kept track of much of the other types of foods they ate, such as chicken, fish and vegetables. Even with all of these taken into consideration, the researchers still found that the women who ate the recommended amount of red meat (between 2 and 4 ounces four times a week) were much less likely to be depressed.
But before you rush out to eat your weight in cheeseburgers, it’s worth noting that the researchers believe that the happiness was due to the high levels of nutrients and omega-3 present in specifically Australian red meat. Australian cattle and sheep are mostly fed fresh grass. American red meat is mostly reared on barnyard grain, which evidently is sown from the tears of orphans.
- Watching Sad Movies :Look at a list of the Best Picture winners from the past 25 years, and you start to notice a trend. Schindler’s List, Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic, Million Dollar Baby, The King’s Speech. These movies don’t just have a few sad moments. They are tear porn — building to climaxes that are specifically designed to make you weep in public. On the surface, this makes about as much sense as giving out awards to the year’s saddest funerals, or most embarrassing schoolyard beatings.
Scientists were curious about this, too, so they conducted a study involving a few hundred participants and the 2007 film Atonement, which if you haven’t seen it is best described as “every sad movie ever made, for two hours.”
Before starting the movie, the researchers asked the participants how happy they were with their lives in general, including their goals, their relationships and the ever-looming possibility of being stricken with sudden and inexplicable cancer (probably). As Atonement squeezed all the tears from their faces over the next 120 minutes, they were asked the same question three more times. After the movie was over, the researchers asked the participants to rate their emotions.They found that the participants had become happier after getting taken in by the wailing opera of despair, because they had subconsciously compared their own close relationships with the horrible tragedies onscreen. Watching others fail on such hopelessly spectacular levels actually made them feel better about their own lives, sort of like watching Titanic and saying to yourself, “Gee, I guess getting passed over for that promotion isn’t so bad. I could’ve frozen to death in the Atlantic while staring into the eyes of my latest one-night stand.
So, the next time you and your significant other have a terrible heartbreaking fight that leaves you red-eyed and considering a hunger strike, have a mini-marathon of Braveheart and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (or play them both simultaneously on two different televisions, if possible). You will instantly feel better about every poor decision you’ve ever made.