Five ways to reduce stress and be happier—backed by science

By Greg Guevara

No matter the time of year, stress can feel like an inescapable part of life. Never fear — here are scientifically-backed methods of improving your mental wellbeing. These aren’t quick tips, but rather broad goals we can all work towards to be happier, as studied by Carleton’s positive psychology professor John Zelenski.

Cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you have.

Simple appreciation for what you have can take your focus away from what you don’t.

“If I take it on as an exercise, I’m going to write three good things that happened to me every day,” Zelenski suggests. “As I approach tomorrow I’m going be looking out for those good things and I might notice ones that I might not have otherwise. “

What’s important, though, is that you make gratitude a part of your everyday life.

“Writing one gratitude letter will probably give you a mood boost, but it’s not going to make you happier a year from now,” Zelenski says. “There has to be some kind of interest and effort that’s ongoing.”

Practice pro-social behaviours.

A pro-social behaviour is an act that involves others, promoting social interaction. Social people tend to be happier, and a lot of what happiness exercises are is the emulation of the patterns of happy people.

This can be as simple as meeting new people or spending more time with people you value.

“A lot of the happiness exercises that seem to work seem to be about these pro-social behaviours,” Zelenski says. “You can express gratitude to a person, you can do random acts of kindness  . . .  often times these are social, but they don’t have to be.”

Search for spirituality.

Zelenski also mentions spirituality and “seeking out sacred moments” as an important aspect of happiness.

It’s easy to overlook the aspect of spirituality in a secular culture, but it’s not just about religion. Nature can also trigger that feeling of spirituality.

“One of the things I’ve studied is getting out and trying to connect with nature, finding the positive elements of nature that resonate with you,” says Zelenski. “To put them to practice and repeat them over time is helpful.

Live a varied life.

If variety is the spice of life, then chances are most of our lives taste pretty bland. Happiness often comes in the form of variety — and this is true just as much in relationships as it is in our work.

“You need variety,” Zelenski says. “Doing the same thing over and over again gets monotonous. We get habituated to it; you need a bit of variety as well.”

If you feel too engrained in your routine, it might be time to pick up a new hobby, ditch an old routine, or just take a different route to work.

Find meaning in what you do.

Finding ways that your life is meaningful is crucial for happiness. “If you collect trash for a living, you can still see that as vitally important to the functioning of a city, and for happiness that’s a better way to think of that,” Zelenski says.

After all, there is meaning in everything if we know how to find it. Happiness is not a destination but a means of travel.