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Natural Awakenings

Well-Being Basics

Jul 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Ronica O’Hara
Person smiling looking happy in the middle of tree holding leaves on branches

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Besides using mental strategies, choosing happiness involves taking daily actions that enhance our well-being, as studies demonstrate.

Eat a happy-making diet

A gut-wisdom axis may exist. People with a greater diversity of the gut microbiome—the mark of a healthy diet—had higher levels of wisdom, compassion and social support, and lower levels of loneliness than people with less diverse microbiomes, University of California San Diego scientists reported in Frontiers in Psychiatry. A study of 12,000 Australians found that the more they increased their fruit and vegetable intake over a seven-year period, the happier and more satisfied with life they became. Eating eight servings a day was as happiness-producing as going from being unemployed to employed.  

Exercise even a little

Whether it’s lunges or sun salutations, movement lifts us up. In a review of 23 published studies involving half a million people published in The Journal of Happiness Studies, University of Michigan researchers found strong evidence that any kind of exercise increases happiness; even as little as 10 minutes a day raises spirits. People that exercise at least 30 minutes on most days are about 30 percent happier than those that don’t exercise.

Go for the doze

Surveys show that getting enough sleep is the most influential factor in how people rate their daily mood, with good sleepers more likely to rate their life as happier overall. A University of California, Berkeley, study found that inadequate sleep makes our brains 60 percent more reactive to negative stimuli; in other words, being tired makes us grouchy.

Love a lot

A landmark study that began in 1938 and followed 724 Harvard students and working-class Boston youth for 80 years found that fame and achievements didn’t make them truly happy—warm, loving relationships with their family, friends and community did. In a 2020 study, Pennsylvania State University researchers found that simply becoming aware of daily experiences of “felt love”, defined as “micro-moments when you experience resonance with someone,” increases those heartwarming episodes and improves well-being.

Do good deeds

Performing five acts of kindness one day a week, such as helping a friend with a task, writing a thank-you email or donating blood, had a more powerful and long-lasting effect on college students’ happiness than spreading five good deeds over a week, reports University of California, Riverside, researchers. A four-year study of 13,000 retirees found that those volunteering more than two hours per week were happier, more optimistic and less lonely and depressed than people that never volunteered.

Be nurtured by nature

After walking in a natural setting, people ruminated less and showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that lowers depression and anxiety, Stanford researchers found. In one study, people watching five minutes of Planet Earth felt 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than people watching the news or a comedy show. Biological diversity also matters: European scientists found that an additional 10 percent of bird species in an area increases residents’ life enjoyment as much as a 10 percent increase in their income. 


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